In Information Age, Leaks Are Here To Stay

Given the problems hanging over WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — his fundraising difficulties, the threat of prosecutions in the U.S. for espionage and in Sweden for rape, and the resignation of key staff — the survival of his whistle-blower organization cannot be assured.

Leaks, however, are here to stay.

The disclosure of secret intelligence files is in many ways a phenomenon of the information age, and national security officials in the U.S. and other countries need to prepare for the consequences, WikiLeaks or no WikiLeaks.

"Almost all sensitive information is in electronic form," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Government Secrecy Project at the Federation of American Scientists. "So it is possible to transfer it and transport it anywhere. In the old days, it was necessary to lug around large volumes of hard-copy materials."

Now they can be e-mailed. Plus, officials now believe in the value of sharing intelligence, both sideways between government agencies, and top to down —from military commanders to frontline soldiers.

"We want those soldiers in a forward operating base to have all the information they possibly can have that impacts on their own security," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates this summer, while discussing the first WikiLeaks disclosures.

These changes in the way intelligence is collected, used and shared means the risk of it being leaked is inevitably greater.

Leaks these days also have a wider and more immediate impact. Thanks to the Internet, secrets spread almost instantaneously around the globe. When word of the Iran-Contra scandal broke more than 20 years ago in Lebanon, it took weeks for the news to spread to the U.S. That would not be the case today.

Why Disclose Secrets?

The key question is what this all means for relations between the government and the public, and whose interests are served.

"This disclosure is about the truth," Assange said last week, quoting Phillip Knightley's observation that truth is the first casualty of war.

"In our release of these documents about the Iraq war," Assange said, "we hope to correct some of that attack on the truth."

The argument for divulging government secrets is that it keeps governments accountable for their actions. But indiscriminate leaks can violate privacy, jeopardize national security and produce little of value, even to government whistle-blowers.

"The fascination with classified documents tends to wear off rather quickly," Aftergood says. "They are not intrinsically interesting, and — contrary to what WikiLeaks proclaims — they are not always the truth.

"There's no more truth to be found in classified records than there is to be found in unclassified records."

'An Adult Conversation'

Indeed, many of the files released by WikiLeaks were raw, uncorroborated intelligence reports, describing events before all the facts were known.

"The problem is not whether the public should have more access. They will," says Philip Zelikow, who served as executive director of the 9/11 Commission and at the National Security Council under George W. Bush. "The problem is that the public gets some of the information but it only gets fragments of the information."

What does it all add up to? Government leaders must now assume that some of the intelligence reports on which they base their decisions will eventually become public. Knowing that, they will need to make the case for their policies more carefully.

Retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, says he agrees with those who argue that the government keeps more secrets than it needs to. But declassification, he says, should proceed carefully.

"There are some things that are simply legitimately secret," he says. "We need an adult conversation, kind of a social contract, between American society and America's espionage agencies as to how much should you know."

One thing is clear: Given the amount of intelligence now being collected, the extent and ways it is shared, and the public's demand to know, the WikiLeaks story is likely to be repeated many times over. CIA directors, military commanders and government officials need to prepare themselves.

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