The Value And Consequences Of Leaks WikiLeaks released more than 90,000 classified military documents to the public on Sunday. The reports detail six years of the war in Afghanistan, and paint a bleak picture of the conflict. Leak supporters say the release promotes democracy and open discussion. But critics argue it could threaten national security.
NPR logo

The Value And Consequences Of Leaks

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Value And Consequences Of Leaks

The Value And Consequences Of Leaks

The Value And Consequences Of Leaks

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

WikiLeaks released more than 90,000 classified military documents to the public on Sunday. The reports detail six years of the war in Afghanistan, and paint a bleak picture of the conflict. Leak supporters say the release promotes democracy and open discussion. But critics argue it could threaten national security.


Julie McCarthy, correspondent, NPR
Bill Harlow, former CIA spokesman
Daniel Ellsberg, former military analyst, RAND Corporation

TONY COX, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Last night, the organization WikiLeaks made thousands of secret military reports public by posting them on their website. The documents reveal that U.S. troops in Afghanistan suspect that Pakistan's military spy service is collaborating with the Afghan insurgency: secret meetings, organizing militant networks and working together on assassination attempts.

While the credibility of the documents is under question, the revelation has elicited strong responses from both the White House and Islamabad.

Later in the hour, we remember the life and legacy of Daniel Schorr, a legacy that includes this program. But first, leaks and consequences. We want to hear your opinion when it comes to leaks. Where do you draw the line? What information should be public and what deserves top secret treatment?

Our phone number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Julie McCarthy is NPR's correspondent in Islamabad, and she joins us now on the line from there. Hello, Julie.


COX: I suppose, Julie, one way of looking at this leak and the information that came out as a result of it is that there are there can be truth or consequences, or there could be truth and consequences. As a result of this leak, what do you think the consequences are likely to be, if any?

McCARTHY: Well, first of all, there was denunciation here. There was anger. There was a sense - here-we-go-again frustration. From the point of view of the Pakistanis, the policy that had the ISI, the country's premier spy agency, helping the insurgent groups next door is basically a thing of the past.

And they're also used to deflecting these accusations. But what's different this time is that you got a trove of documents that covers six years and ends just last December.

Now, why it stops in 2010 is anybody's guess. We don't know why. That is unclear. But while, you know, they admit that the backed the Taliban, they helped create the Taliban in the 1990s, and but they say, look, since 2001, we've been arresting them. We've been cracking down on them. We've basically assisted the United States.

You're asking will something come out of this. I think there's a lot of heated exchanges that are going to come out of it. But interestingly, in many ways, the United States and Pakistan are in lock-step on this. Both are extremely unhappy at the revelations these contain.

And from the American point of view, the revelations that reportedly are coming out, we have not yet seen, we have not yet gained access to these the revelations that have reportedly come out are among things like the involvement of the Haqqani network, one of the deadliest forces operating in against American forces, and they're allowed to operate unfettered on Pakistani soil.

This is a wound. This is a festering thing that goes on here, and what you end up getting then, Tony, is the divergence of views about what are the interests of this alliance? The United States sees one path in its favor. What it needs to have done is to shut down all the militant groups. And Pakistan says, no, we can't do that because some of them really are in our interests to keep up.

COX: Would you expect, Julie McCarthy, that there would be a change of any kind in terms of the strategy that is being used by the military, both on the part of the Pakistanis and the U.S. there in Pakistan because of this?

McCARTHY: Well, you know, what's interesting, Tony, is that, you know, the United States has been pushing Pakistan to do more, to do more to shut down these groups like the Haqqani network, as we just, as we talked about. This is a virulently bad group who is attacking NATO forces.

Now, the United States now seems to have a bit more ammunition to pressure Pakistan to do more with the revelation of these. But it all comes against a backdrop that is very interesting and that it seemed to be in everybody's interests lately to paint a much rosier picture about this alliance, that they were in synch, that they were together in the war, quote-unquote, the war on terror, that the United States began to understand what Pakistan was up against, which is a huge complaint in Pakistan, who say wait a minute, whose war is this?

This is your war, yet we're the ones who are reaping all the detriment. You know, our people are dying. Our cities are being blown up as a result of this. There's a militancy and an extremism and a fundamentalism that is being visited upon us.

But what that ignores, and what the Americans have been saying again and again is, look, this is a kind of a mindset that's being allowed to grow in the country.

And the militancy here is not just relegated to this area we're talking, around along the border. It's throughout the country. So I think what you're going to have is a little bit more pressure put on Pakistan but not a whole lot of difference in action.

COX: Well, before we bring some of our listeners in to join the conversation, we have an in-studio guest I'd like to bring in right now. His name is Bill Harlow. He knows all about the fallout created by leaked information. He is a former spokesman for the CIA, joining us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you, Bill.

Mr. BILL HARLOW (Former Spokesman, Central Intelligence Agency): Thank you.

COX: My first question to you, before we get to the callers, is this -and Julie, I want you to stick around, as well - what do leaks like this do?

Mr. HARLOW: Well, a leak of this size is somewhat unusual. Usually, they are much more focused than this. This is a broad leak of a lot of information. And I'm not sure yet whether anybody knows whether there's some real significant, hugely important nuggets of information among those 90,000 documents.

But what it does do is send a terrible signal to everybody who the United States is trying to get to work with us in these ongoing warfronts. It tells people, if you share information confidentially with the United States government, if you're a human source, if you're helping to facilitate some electronic gathering of information, that we may not be able to protect your identity. We may not be able to protect the information that you have shared with us.

And so, as hard as it already is to get people to share with us, it will be even more difficult because of this kind of leak.

COX: Why don't we take a call right now? We have on the line with us a Mark(ph) from Detroit. Mark, you are on TALK OF THE NATION with Tony Cox and with Bill Harlow and with Julie McCarthy. How are you?

MARK (Caller): I'm doing well. Thanks for the call. Really interesting subject for me as a history and political science teacher, but it seems that these days, when there's leaks, the story becomes more about the leak than the actual information. And especially in this case, it seems like the information is all is not too surprising to anyone. And, you know, the rhetoric coming from the White House and the administration is about the usual that is expected.

So what you know, in this day and age, what is the, what's the real meaning behind these types of leaks? I mean, everybody knows this information, it seems like. Now it's just confirmed. Is that the big deal?

COX: Mark, thank you very much for the call. Let's see if we can get an answer to that, as a matter of fact. What about that, his point that the leak becomes the story, Bill, more so than the information contained in the leak? Is that the case that we're facing at the moment?

Mr. HARLOW: It seems a bit, so far, from what I've heard. Nothing that has been reported has been particularly remarkable. It is fairly consistent with what you've heard in other places.

And you have to keep in mind that even as bulky as this leak is with thousands and thousands of documents, this is raw intelligence, raw data, which may not in fact be accurate. There certainly is much more information. There may be countervailing information out there.

And so what happens is that the information is mildly interesting to some folks. A few stories will pop up about what these handful of reports said. But the damage that can be done from it may not come from the information, the intelligence on the paper but what it will tell potential enemies about how the U.S. government has collected intelligence.

COX: Well, you know, Julie McCarthy, let me come to you because you're in Pakistan, and we know that you have already heard about the leak, although the specifics of it may not have reached you yet. Is there any way to determine whether or not the folks there where you are are in anticipation of what may be leaked that they haven't yet heard about?

McCARTHY: Well, what they say to you is, look, The New York Times and Der Spiegel and The Guardian newspaper were given weeks to pore over these documents, thank you very much. We will do the same, and we'll get back to you on that.

But there is, you know, when we talk about how the leak itself has become the nature of leaking has become the story over the substance of these, I think what you have to see in this relationship is that there's already a huge deficit of trust.

And this furthers that deficit. It gives fodder to the critics of Pakistan that they haven't done enough, that they are consorting with the enemy, that they are not interested in being on the same page with the Americans. And it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the Americans who have been trying to change this public diplomacy, to make it one where we can be liked in a place where we are loathed. That cannot be underestimated here in Pakistan. The anti-American sentiment is enormous here.

So I think that these instances have all kinds of reverberations that are that can have legs. And absolutely true, we don't know how much of this is half-rumor, how much of this is speculation, how much of this is sort of tit for tat, let's, you know, let's try to impugn the reputation of the Pakistanis.

But there seems to be a big-picture revelation here, that you've got an alliance that in some ways is a deeply troubled one. You've got the American interests going one way and the Pakistanis going another.

COX: I would suspect, Bill Harlow, that the government deals with leaks depending upon the severity of the leak. You talked about how big this one was, 92,000 pages plus. Does that put this in a category of being more, much more critical to the interests of the Obama administration than something of a smaller size?

Mr. HARLOW: Well, a single piece of paper could be devastating, depending on the information that's in it. But because there is so much material in here, and it potentially can do some serious damage to our relations not only with the Pakistanis but with others, I'm sure the administration will approach it very seriously.

This administration has been very aggressive about going after leaks and leakers, perhaps even more so than the previous administration. So I think I'm sure they're going to go after it very aggressively, if for no other reason than to send a signal to other people who are thinking about leaking that there's a price to be paid for dumping out this kind of material.

And clearly, when you dump out 90,000 pages or documents, nobody can go through it carefully and know exactly what's in there. So this damage seems kind of willful and wanton to me.

COX: Well, let me ask you to stick around. Julie McCarthy, let me say thank you to you for participating in this part of our conversation. We will be talking to you again soon.

We are talking about leaks and where you draw the line. What information should be public, and what deserves to be top secret? 800-989-8255, that's our phone number. Give us a call., that's our email. I'm Tony Cox. It is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Tony Cox. Neal Conan in away.

Were going to be joined in a moment by Daniel Ellsberg to talk about the Pentagon Papers and how that relates to this particular leak, but before I bring him in, I have one quick question for you, Bill Harlow, if I might. And it has to do with whether or not, when you deal with leaks of this sort, and you've certainly had some experience in dealing with them, what do you do?

Do you immediately try to find who's responsible? Do you immediately try to plug the leak? Do you immediately try to in some way spin the information that's coming out? What do you do first?

Mr. HARLOW: Well, there's several steps that have to go on simultaneously. One of the most important ones is to determine what's the information in there and do some damage control.

People, I'm sure, are looking at these documents rapidly now to try to find out, is there some vulnerability? Is there information in there which is putting somebody's life at risk? Is there information in there which is in danger of shutting down a source of valuable information for the United States government? And if so, what steps can be taken to protect those people and to keep those lines of communications open?

At the same time, other people are trying to figure out where could this leak have come from to try to prevent future leaks of this kind from happening. There'll be reports made to the Justice Department revealing who wouldve had access to this information, any information that might limit them to help them try to figure out where it came from and to help them decide how best to try to identify the people involved and to bring them to justice.

COX: Well, we're now joined by, as I said, a very well-known leaker. Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a top secret study of U.S. government decision-making about the Vietnam War to the press. He joins us on the line from Mexico. Welcome, Daniel.

Mr. DANIEL ELLSBERG: (Former Military Analyst, RAND Corporation): Glad to be here. Thank you.

COX: Help us put in perspective this leak of documents from your perspective, given your history.

Mr. ELLSBERG: Well, there are similarities and differences from the Pentagon Papers. In terms of the volume here, of course, it's the first unauthorized disclosure, I would say, in 30 years that is comparable in scale to the Pentagon Papers. And of course, actually it's very much greater, partially reflecting the technology of the day.

The slow Xerox machines that I had to work with were not capable of putting out this mass of material. So this does show new possibilities and the cooperation between The Times and the other newspapers and the and WikiLeaks is I think something of a historic change, is something new.

I want to say that and I was just hearing the comments a moment ago of your other guest, and when he says that this administration is more focused on finding and prosecuting leakers, that can be I agree with that than earlier administrations.

As a matter of fact, we can give a real measure to that. Barack Obama has indicted as many people for unauthorized disclosures, for leaks, as all previous presidents put together. It's a small number. Three people have been under indictment for that. I was the first, earlier, under Nixon. And two other presidents each indicted one case, had one case.

Barack Obama has done three, including Bradley Manning now, who is the most prominent suspect here and has been charged with some leaks right now. Three, two of which were for acts done under Bush, which the Bush administration refrained from prosecuting. Barack Obama is prosecuting that, Shamai Leibowitz and Thomas Drake.

So the attitude, the attitude toward leaks is nothing new in this administration, but actually trying to prosecute them is new, and I don't think that is good for our democracy.

COX: Let me let the people know that the person that you are talking about who is being prosecuted so far with regard to these leaks is someone who was in the military.

Before I bring Bill Harlow back in and go to our next caller, your name, Daniel Ellsberg, has been mentioned in connection with this leak. Are we to assume that you were a part of this?

Mr. ELLSBERG: Oh, no, not at all. But I have and of course, I don't know who the source was. And although Bradley Manning has been charged with this, it's up to the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was the source. So I'm not in any position to identify that.

But I will say that what he's been quoted as saying to his informant, that he incautiously confided in, that he was prepared to go to prison for the rest of his life to put out this information in order to tell the American people information he felt they needed to know about material that he thought was, in his quote, virtually criminal and horrific in many cases, like the video that he took credit for revealing at that point.

Well, when I wrote that, I felt, yes, that was I haven't heard anybody else express the state of mind I was in 40 years ago when I felt I was ready to go to prison for life. I did face 115 years at that point...

COX: Let me interrupt you, Daniel. Daniel, let me interrupt you to ask this one question, if I might.

Mr. ELLSBERG: ...wantonly decide to go to prison for life.

COX: Daniel, let me interrupt you to ask you this one follow-up question to that. Then we're going to go to our caller. And that is: Although you said that you are not involved with this, it has been written and suggested that you did, at the very least, advise Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, to go into hiding. Did you do that?

Mr. ELLSBERG: Oh, no, just when I was asked about the situation, I simply said publicly that not it was already announced that he was being hunted all over. And I merely made the point, which I think has been exaggerated in the retelling a little bit I didn't say that it was likely he was in physical danger or how likely. What I said and do say is that that likely the possibility of physical harm to him is not zero. It should be zero, but it isn't.

And I say that from the perspective of someone who learned, after the event, that President Nixon, not content with putting me on trial, had brought a dozen CIA operatives or assets up from Miami, Cuban-American emigres who had been in the Bay of Pigs, with orders to incapacitate me totally.

And that was at a time when I was as well-known a figure as Julian Assange, to say the least at that point. I was on trial at that very time, and yet their concern to shut me up from further revelations was such that they brought these people up to incapacitate me totally.

COX: Well, let's use this as an opportunity to take a call. Let's take a call from a listener. We have Brian(ph), who's on from Live Oak, Florida. Brian, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BRIAN (Caller): Thank you, sir. The point I wanted to make is that anyone who legally holds classified information, no matter what the classification, if they leak this or give it to someone who does not have the proper classification or the, you know, the proper authority to hold it, is abusing the position that they have and are subject to the penalties of law because of breaking the oath that they take in order to hold the documents in the first place.

Mr. ELLSBERG: The oath and...

COX: Thank you for that call, Brian. I appreciate it. We also have some emails that we have gotten in. Let's share a couple of those, Bill, then I have a question for you.

The first is: My daughter is an Army sergeant. This comes from Kerry(ph). There is enough danger in her job, no one needs to add more. Anything that is or can be used to cause danger to our troops should be kept high secret. Why does the public need to know anyway? What are they going to do? These soldiers are trying to do their job. Let them.

So the question, Bill Harlow, is: Do you see a difference between someone who leaks information as an act of conscious versus someone who leaks information because they are, let's say, disgruntled?

Mr. HARLOW: Well, yes, I do see a difference. I think each one has its challenges for the government and is dangerous for the government. But whatever the reason behind it and I don't buy that this Army specialist who did the leaks to WikiLeaks the first time around was necessarily doing so for high moral purpose, but even if he were, if you believe that so strongly, then I believe the right thing to do is to announce what you are doing, not try to hide, not try to do it anonymously.

If you think that you're doing this in an act of civil disobedience, then the right way to do it is to announce what you've done and accept the circumstances. He should have approached his commanding officer. He should have approached the inspector general. He should have approached members of Congress.

There are lots of ways to get information out that you believe the public needs to hear, rather than handing it to WikiLeaks and people who have no qualification of deciding whether that information puts in danger, your emailer's daughter or other people or not, and they just put it out blindly, and they potentially put at risk an awful lot of people.

COX: You know, I'm not sure of the complete facts surrounding this. I want to be careful about what I'm about to say, but I believe that the person who is being charged did not give the information to WikiLeaks. He gave it to an intermediary, who ended up giving the information to WikiLeaks. Does it make a difference? I don't know, but I just want to be clear about that.

Mr. HARLOW: No. All the more example, if you're just dumping out lots of material, you have no idea where it goes, no idea whether the people are going to use it for good or bad. This young Army specialist had no way himself of knowing the true sensitivity of all these documents. There are lots of documents that may pass through his hands, and he doesn't know what damage could be done by them and he just dumps them out because he has his own personal views. No one has elected him to be in charge of the U.S. foreign policy and national security, but he has made it his choice to dump out thousands of documents which could put at risk many, many of his fellow soldiers.

COX: Let me bring Daniel Ellsberg back. Daniel, I have one last question for you in the few moments that we have. Do you believe that this incident will rise anywhere near the level that your involvement and the Pentagon papers did with respect to the Vietnam War?

Mr. ELLSBERG: Well, I think Bradley Manning has already been charged and who is subject to the universal code of military justice. He doesn't have the full protection of the First Amendment here, as a civilian employee would. He's probably going to pay a very heavy price for his judgment that it was worth his life and his risk to put this out.

But in turn - and again, there isn't the drama of the injunctions that were brought against me in the contest between the newspapers and the executive branch, which the Supreme Court decided in favor of the newspapers at that time. So that gave it much more attention, and we'll see where this goes.

But on - I do want to follow up on one thing that was just said, as the previous speaker knows very well - and I can agree with him, by the way, that putting this volume out does - stuff that can't all have been vetted or read or whatnot is more than questionable. It's a - it does have some risks depending on the kind of material you're putting out.

But material that is from six years old to six months old and the secret level, as Mr. Harlow, I'm sure, knows very well, the chance that that is actually endangering current operations or current lives is in fact very small.

I think the big message of putting out that volume of material will be if people have come to grasp, as I expect they will, that nowhere in that vast amount of material will they find a good reason for us to be in Afghanistan or for escalating or for spending another $30 billion come this Wednesday or for more. And that's what the Pentagon Papers showed with thousands of pages.

COX: Well, Daniel, unfortunately - Daniel, my time has run short, unfortunately. I appreciate your coming on. I want to thank you. Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers and was recently the subject of a documentary, "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers." He joined us on the line from Mexico.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take another caller. We have Randy(ph) from Marcos(ph) Im sorry, Marcos, actually, is from Rochester, Minnesota. Are you still there, Marcos?

MARCOS (Caller): Yes, I'm here. Thank you for taking my call.

COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Tony Cox and Bill Harlow, welcome. What's your question?

MARCOS: My question - actually, it's not a question, more like a comment. I have heard about this leak, and it just sounds like there is so much information at a small time that it would be released. And the timing that it is released for the information - to have a leak is a common thing, but the timing should really put on - secure the military.

But the fear that I have for our military is there would be a strategy problem that needs to be changed. The morale of the soldiers would be really low. And there, you know, more soldiers would be in harm's way. You know, theyre sacrifice their lives. This individual, who we don't know whose intent to leak this information, has leaked it in a way that is on Internet, and everybody gets the access, which specifically the -we're not fighting a specific country. We are fighting an organization, like al-Qaida and Taliban.

COX: Well, let me see if I can get an answer to what you are talking about, Marcos. Thank you very much for the call. What about that? The impact of the leak on the individual, on the organization, on the country? What is the aftermath of something like this happening, Bill Harlow?

Mr. HARLOW: It's bound to have a negative impact on the soldiers in the field who know that somebody among them has been passing out classified information, at great volume, without consideration to what impact it may have on their own safety.

I disagree with what Mr. Ellsberg said, saying that, well, it's only secret information and it's at least six months old, so therefore it's no big deal. Well, he's not qualified to say that. And actually, none of us are at this point to know, but to assume that it's okay and what the heck, maybe it's - there's nothing really that secret in it, is pretty reckless, I think.

And rather than do that, if somebody has some serious concerns about the U.S. policy, there are far better ways to express their concern than to just dump out large amounts of information and trust that nobody else will be hurt.

COX: Let's see if we can squeeze one more call in. This is Walter(ph) from Fairway, Kansas. Welcome to the show, Walter. What's your question?

WALTER (Caller): Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call. You know, we can dissect this 10 ways to Sunday, but the further away from the truth we get, the more trouble we're asking for. With all due respect, for the ends justify the means, and the security of these sensitive operations, I mean, I really don't - I mean, perhaps this guy dumped a bunch of stuff that was unnecessary. But I don't think people reveal these things unless there is a need to know, like they see something being wrong that would otherwise not be corrected. And the - you know, the further we get from the truth, the worse off we are.

COX: Thank you for the call. I guess there's some truth in there, would you say, Bill Harlow?

Mr. HARLOW: A little bit, but you have to go searching for it. You know, there are hundreds of thousands of people who have security clearances, hundreds of thousands of people in war zones. We didn't appoint every one of them to be their own decider of what classified information should be passed out to WikiLeaks or The New York Times or Der Spiegel. There are procedures, mechanisms, people with the authority to make those decisions, and whoever released this information, I'm sure, was not among them. So we just can't say, well, anybody who feels troubled by a policy can put out whatever classified information they want. If they do, they put all of us at risk.

COX: I appreciate your coming in and taking these phone calls. Bill Harlow is a former spokesman for the CIA. He joined us here in Studio 3A in Washington. Bill, again, thank you very much.

Mr. HARLOW: Thank you.

COX: Coming up, NPR lost a good friend and colleague last week. We'll remember the remarkable life of newsman Daniel Schorr. Stay with us. I'm Tony Cox. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.