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The WikiLeaks website has so far released nearly half a million secret files from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And today, the Pentagon said it believes the group has even more. But the government's leak problem did not begin and will not end with WikiLeaks.
As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, the information age is likely to lead to more secrets being spilled and more challenges for national security officials.
TOM GJELTEN: Here's the first fact: The classified intelligence released by WikiLeaks consists entirely of computer files.
Steven Aftergood is a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists.
Mr. STEVEN AFTERGOOD (Senior Research Analyst, Federation of American Scientists): So it is possible to transfer it and transport it anywhere or everywhere in an easy way. You know, in the old days, it was necessary to lug around large volumes of hard copy material.
GJELTEN: Now they can be emailed. Plus, officials now believe in the value of sharing intelligence; sideways, between government agencies, but also from top to bottom, something Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointed out this past summer.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): We want those soldiers in a forward operating base to have all the information they possibly can have that impacts on their own security.
GJELTEN: The bottom line: These changes in the way intelligence is collected, used, and shared means the risk of it being leaked is much greater. Second fact: Thanks to the Internet, secrets, once disclosed, 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. Leaks have a wider and more immediate impact.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange says the files he disclosed last week represent a victory for truth. In wartime, he said, truth is the first victim.
Mr. JULIAN ASSANGE (Founder, WikiLeaks): In our release of these documents about the Iraq war, we hope to correct some of that attack on the truth.
GJELTEN: The argument for divulging government secrets is that it keeps governments accountable to the public for its actions. But Steven Aftergood says leaks can also be harmful. Privacy can be violated, he says, and national security can be put in jeopardy. Nor, he argues, are classified documents always useful.
Mr. AFTERGOOD: They are not intrinsically interesting. They are not, contrary to what WikiLeaks has proclaimed, the truth. There's no more truth to be found in classified records than there is in unclassified records.
GJELTEN: Some of the reports released by WikiLeaks were uncorroborated. Philip Zelikow was executive director of the 9/11 Commission.
Mr. PHILIP ZELIKOW (Former Executive Director, 9/11 Commission): The problem I think is that the public gets some of the information but it only gets fragments of the information. And indeed, this is the same problem the government officials themselves have. Therefore, it's more of a problem of the ability to put a lot of different facts together rather than having access to some of the sexier fragments.
GJELTEN: 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 need to make their case for their policies more carefully.
Retired Air Force General Michael Hayden, the former CIA director, thinks there's probably too much secret information. But declassification, he says, should proceed carefully.
General MICHAEL HAYDEN (Former Director, Central Intelligence Agency): There are some things that are simply legitimately secret. And 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.
GJELTEN: One thing is for sure: 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.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.