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Weighing the damage of the WikiLeaks disclosure

“i want people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public”

— Bradley Manning

The sentiment is strikingly similar to what Thomas Jefferson, one of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, once said: "If a nation expects to be ignorant — and free — in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

More than 200 years after the Bill of Rights was signed, the tensions between the public’s right to know and the government’s duty to protect the nation’s security are as strong as ever.

With the release of State Department cables, Guantanamo Bay files, and field reports from the Iraq and Afghan wars — all of which the Army has charged Manning with illegally downloading — questions have arisen as to whether the information should be public.

The documents were classified at secret level or below. More than half of the cables were unclassified. Have the releases harmed national security or chilled diplomacy? Have they contributed to to public understanding of the roles played by the United States and foreign governments in current events? Does the gain in public understanding outweigh the potential harm to national security? How significant is the damage to national security from these disclosures compared with previous cases?

Some views:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former presidential candidate, referring to WikiLeaks’ release of diplomatic cables, speaking on March 9, after meeting with Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard: “It is the greatest, damaging security breach in the history of this country.”

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists: “This whole episode ought to prompt a reconsideration of secrecy policies, because clearly some of this material did belong in the public domain.” He pointed to information on human rights issues in Egypt, cables on economic and trade issues in Asia, material on civilian casualties in the Afghan war, cables revealing internal Israeli government debates over West Bank settlements.

“How is it that issues making front-page news around the world could only be made public through a massive violation of secrecy policy? Security through secrecy is a precarious strategy.”

He said that secrecy — through classification and other forms of markings that keep records out of the public realm — undermines security “when it conceals problems and vulnerabilities without fixing them.” He pointed to the 9/11 Commission report’s statement that if the U.S. government had publicized the threat from al-Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the public would have been more prepared to meet the threat of terrorism.

P.J. Crowley, State Department spokesman until March, when he was forced out after he criticized Manning’s treatment at the Marine Corps jail in Quantico: The WikiLeaks case is not about freedom of expression or whistleblowing.

“A whistleblower is a person with specific technical expertise who believes there is an impropriety of some kind and chooses to expose it in order to correct it. No one can suggest that in releasing 251,000 [diplomatic] documents this was about whistle-blowing.”

To say it is “suggests that the U.S. is doing something fundamentally wrong in virtually every country of the world. There’s nothing in these cables to substantiate that suggestion. ... If somebody pulled one or two cables out of this database and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on here in Yemen is of great concern,’ fine. We can have that debate and agree or disagree. That’s not what happened here. This was a decision to just summarily distribute the entire contents of a database.

“Has this changed the foreign policy of the United States? It hasn’t. Has it affected our conduct of foreign policy? Absolutely.” He pointed to Carlos Pascual, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who resigned in March after controversy over a leaked cable in which he questioned Mexico’s ability to fight drug cartels. Crowley also said the State Department in December recalled Gene Cretz, U.S. ambassador to Libya, “because we were literally afraid for his security” after several cables were disclosed that, among other things, described Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s “eccentricities,” including his reliance on a “voluptuous” Ukrainian nurse.

“The greatest damage has been, in my view, the risk to civil society activists in authoritarian countries who now have another reason to potentially round these people up and harass them or jail them. Even if news organizations have redacted names in cables, the real damage here is the security services in competent authoritarian countries with online capabilities have these cables. ...

“Honestly we don’t yet know what the full impact is” of the release of the cables. “But governments have told us that they’re going to share less information with us.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a former CIA director, at a news briefing last November:

“Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time. ... Now, I’ve heard the impact of these [WikiLeaks] releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.

“Many governments — some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation. So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another. Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

Michael J. Navarre, a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, expert in military law:

“Though the series of document leaks made to WikiLeaks cumulatively appears to be one of the largest in history, their significance in terms of damage is less than, say, the leaks to Russia by convicted spy Robert Hanssen or during former U.S. Navy Chief Warrant Officer John Anthony Walker Jr.’s nearly 20 years of spying for the Soviet Union that enabled the Russians to alter crucial technology to defeat U.S. monitoring during the Cold War.”

Geoffrey Stone, University of Chicago constitutional law professor: “There are all sorts of speech that endanger national security that are fully constitutionally protected because they are not a clear and present danger…The publication of classified information in and of itself is certainly not punishable. The government’s classification system is wildly overbroad. We tend to think of the word classified as if it means something profound, but in fact it doesn’t. The government readily classifies information, the publication of which would not be dangerous.”

Ellen Nakashima is a national security reporter for The Washington Post. She focuses on issues relating to intelligence, technology and civil liberties.



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