Tag: wikileaks

WikiLeaks, the Law, and Common Sense

With the third WikiLeaks dump now before us, and more promised down the road, two questions that arise are whether prosecutions of those responsible are possible and what can be done to better protect classified material. Neither question admits of easy answers. One can start, however, by noting that overclassification is a perennial problem in government, and correcting that problem would go far toward more open government better able to protect classified material.

That said, whether in families or foreign affairs, confidences are necessary, and the need to keep those confidences is inescapable.

Accordingly, one can say with certainty that any  government official who knowingly downloaded and then released classified documents to a person unauthorized to see or possess them, as Private First Class Bradley Manning is alleged to have done, can be prosecuted  under any number of federal statutes. With respect to someone like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, however, the issues are more complex. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the Justice and Defense Departments are conducting a criminal investigation, presumably under the Espionage Act of 1917. That is a vague statute that may be broad enough to enable the president, under his foreign affairs powers, to go after someone who disseminates such documents.  But it has rarely been used, and never against a publisher.

The larger question, however, is how all of this was allowed to happen. Speaking from personal experience, during two brief stints at the State and Justice Departments during the Reagan administration I held a Top Secret clearance, which gave me access to highly classified materials. At that time, however, just to see those materials we had to go to the inner sanctums at State and Justice—areas that were shielded from any kind of eavesdropping—and then the materials were brought to us by agents who stayed with us while we read them.  In light of that experience, I find it incredible that a young Army PFC could download this material and go undetected for long enough to disseminate it and boast about it afterward. More than anything else, this is one more government failure. Heads should roll, but mostly the heads of those who enabled so lax a system to exist.

Wikileaks Sheds Light on Government Ineptitude

For years I have told anybody who would listen how U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan contribute to Pakistan’s slow-motion collapse. Well it appears that my take on the situation was not so over-the-top. Amid some 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables released by online whistleblower Wikileaks, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson warned in cable traffic that U.S. policy in South Asia “risks destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and the military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis without finally achieving the goal.”

On one level, this cable underscores what a disaster American foreign policy has become. But on another level, the leak of this and other cables strikes me as completely odd and slightly scary. How did Pfc. Bradley Manning, who stands accused of stealing the classified files from Siprnet and handing them to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, obtain access to these files in the first place? How does a young, low-level Army intelligence analyst gain access to a computer with hundreds of thousands of classified documents from all over the world?

After 9/11, the government made an effort to link up separate archives of government information. In theory, anyone in the State Department or the U.S. military can access these archives if he has: (1) a computer connected to Siprnet, and (2) a “secret” security clearance. As Manning told a fellow hacker: “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labeled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing… [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” Manning said he “had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months.”

I’m all for less government secrecy, particularly when U.S. officials are doing bizarre things like tabulating the biometric data of various UN officials, the heads of other international institutions, and African heads of state. That these supposedly “confidential” communications were so easily leaked highlights the appalling ineptitude of our unwieldy national security bureaucracy. Indeed, the phenomenon of Wikileaks says as much about government policy as it does about government incompetence.

Random Thoughts on WikiLeaks

I’ve fielded some questions today about the WikiLeaks story, and I’m feeling pretty conflicted.

I’m aware of the fact that the leak of classified information could pose a short-term risk to national security, but it is my sense that most of the claims of dire harm are overwrought. There is considerable evidence that much – perhaps most – classified material is improperly classified; governments oftentimes invoke claims of secrecy to shield themselves from embarrassment, not to protect national security. In that sense, some diplomats and government officials might be red in the face today, but I doubt that most Americans are feeling less secure than before the latest revelations from WikiLeaks.

If I thought that the attention on minute and often mundane details that shouldn’t be classified precipitated a closer look at overclassification, WikiLeaks might have a beneficial side effect. As it is, however, it is likely to increase the government’s obsession with secrecy, with policymakers scrambling to close down supposedly dangerous loopholes, some of which were opened up after 9/11 to facilitate information-sharing between agencies. This process of clamping down on interagency collaboration has already begun.

As to the particulars, with respect to diplomatic correspondence, there is a tension between individuals sharing their genuine opinions about another country, or that country’s leaders, and concern that their candid assessments in private conversations be revealed. People do keep secrets from one another, including their friends, spouses and family members. It is basic human nature. And it is basic human nature to clam up the next time you’re talking to a friend who recently blabbed your secrets to a third party. As such, the WikiLeaks episode might have a chilling effect on candor, but I believe that this effect will dissipate over time.

Concern that this will undermine U.S. diplomatic standing, or otherwise lead people to question the U.S. government’s capacity for conducting foreign policy, is misplaced. We don’t (or shouldn’t) question the U.S. Army’s ability to conduct military operations because of the occasional friendly fire incident. Given the volume of documents released in now several Wikileaks’ rounds, some might ask whether this is the equivalent of many thousands of unfortunate incidents, and therefore a sign of a systemic failure. I doubt it. The vast majority of individuals in possession of classified material treat this information with great care. More to the point, I am confident that this will be a minor episode in U.S. diplomatic history when compared to huge blunders such as the war in Iraq and the deepening – and open-ended – war in Afghanistan.

The WikiLeaks case also touches on the law, and of an individual’s responsibility to obey such laws, two of my least favorite subjects. Not all laws are sacrosanct, and I’ve just noted that much classified material shouldn’t be. As such, some might claim that releasing such information is a legitimate form of civil disobedience, because the laws governing release of documents are unjust.

But I don’t think that overclassification and other resorts to secrecy to shield the government from public scrutiny are on par with far more egregious violations of the basic rights and liberties of all citizens. If I could be convinced otherwise, I might change my mind.

For now, because I don’t trust individual leakers to be able to discern which material is legitimately classified, and which is not, I believe that individuals who possess classified material and knowingly release it to people not cleared for such information should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Finally, as a practical matter, I am particularly leery of individuals passing judgment on when to follow the rules, and when to ignore them, in cases involving national security. We rightly condemn military officers who defy civilian authority over the conduct of war. We should be equally critical of people who choose to go their own way in the conduct of information warfare. People with access to classified material have chosen to work in the government. They therefore choose to abide by the government’s rules, and should expect to pay a penalty if they violate them.

The Politics of WikiLeaks

In publishing a massive trove of government documents on the war in Afghanistan, WikiLeaks has done a useful thing. And because it often publishes information that is embarrassing to government, rather than dangerous to it, WikiLeaks is a good thing for democracy.

I say that to prevent the criticism below from getting me labeled as part of an effort to silence WikiLeaks or distract from the news it generates.

For starters – and this is more about the media than WikiLeaks – there’s the fact that thus far there is little new here. As we saw last week with the Washington Post’s Top Secret America blockbuster, the media fetishizes secret information, even when it merely elaborates on stories we’ve already heard.

My problem with WikiLeaks is its practice of stamping its politics on its leaked documents. For example, in April, when it released that gruesome video of U.S. Apache helicopter pilots in Iraq enthusiastically killing civilians that they mistook for insurgents, WikiLeaks titled the video “Collateral Murder,” despite the obvious efforts of the pilots to comply with the rules of engagement.

Now rather than simply put its documents on the web and let people draw their own conclusions, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds a self-congratulatory press conference where he declares “it is our experience that courage is contagious” and compares the document release not just to the leak of Pentagon Papers but to the opening of the Stasi archive in East Germany. Certainly U.S. forces in Afghanistan have committed war crimes (it would be hard to run a war of this scale and avoid them completely) and spun the war’s progress. If these documents reveal more of those doings, that’s a good thing. But even the harshest critic of the war’s conduct ought to be able distinguish it from the activities of a Stalinist secret police force. I bet that the Stasi, faced with a similar leak problem, would have found a way to plug it by now.

Grandiosity is also evident in Assange’s recent response to transparency advocate Steve Aftergood’s critique of WikiLeaks seeming lack of privacy standards. In one paragraph, Assange irrelevantly brags that he spoke before European parliamentarians, asserts that “WikiLeaks not only follows the rule of law, WikiLeaks is involved in creating the law,” announces its opposition to “plutocrats and cashed-up special interests” (not secrecy?), and then claims to have inspired Senate legislation to make Congressional Research Service reports public, even though bills to that effect predate his organization’s existence by nearly a decade.

In the future maybe we can get Wikileaks’ product without its commentary.