WikiLeaks' War on Secrecy: Truth's Consequences

Rogue activist Julian Assange wants to curb government secrecy, but his massive leak of classified U.S. diplomatic cables is undermining the Obama Administration's efforts to do just that

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Illustration by Josue Evilla for TIME

The Army says it was a crime. When Private First Class Bradley Manning downloaded tens of thousands of diplomatic cables to a CD-RW disc at an Army outpost in Iraq from November 2009 to April 2010, he broke 18 U.S. Code Section 1030(a)(1) — which criminalizes unauthorized computer downloads. But this was no ordinary crime. When Manning allegedly passed those electronic records on to self-described freedom-of-information activist Julian Assange and his revolutionary website, WikiLeaks, he did something much more far-reaching: he caused governments to ask what is really a secret and to assess how their behavior should change in an age when supposedly private communications can be whizzed around the world at the stroke of a key.

WikiLeaks' publication starting Nov. 28 of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables was the largest unauthorized release of contemporary classified information in history. It contained 11,000 documents marked secret; the release of any one of them, by the U.S. government's definition, would cause "serious damage to national security." In the U.S., the leak forced a clampdown on intelligence sharing between agencies and new measures to control electronically stored secrets. And diplomats from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the lowest political officers worked to diminish the disclosures' impact on foreign counterparts.

The repercussions of the WikiDump are only beginning to play out. In Korea, the nuclear-armed regime of Kim Jong Il learned that its longtime protector, China, may be turning on it and is willing to contemplate unification of the peninsula under the leadership of the South Korean government in Seoul. In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discovered through the leak that while his Arab neighbors were publicly making nice, privately they were pleading with the U.S. to launch an attack against Tehran's nuclear program. Whether that revelation weakens Iran's bargaining position or whether it will encourage Iran's leaders to hunker down and be even less cooperative in negotiations remains to be seen. What is plain is that in Iran and elsewhere, the WikiLeaks revelations could change history.

But not all the secrets now laid bare are as consequential. It is interesting — amusing, even — to know that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi keeps a cadre of four blond Ukrainian nurses, that a U.S. diplomat considers Kim Jong Il "flabby" and that junior members of the British royal family have maintained their unerring ability to stick a foot in their mouth. But none of this can seriously be considered a threat to national security. As it turns out, spuriously classified items like those are part of what has made WikiLeaks possible. Treat them the way they deserve to be treated, and it might be easier to keep the real stuff under wraps.

As the shades of leaders long dead would surely say. For governments have been trying to keep their intentions secret since the Greeks left a horse stuffed with soldiers outside the gates of Troy, and they have been plagued by leaks of information for about as long. Some information really should be secret, and some leaks really do have consequences: the Civil War battle of Antietam might not have gone the way it did had Confederate General Robert E. Lee's orders not been found wrapped around cigars by Union troops a few days before. But in the past few years, governments have designated so much information secret that you wonder whether they intend the time of day to be classified. The number of new secrets designated as such by the U.S. government has risen 75%, from 105,163 in 1996 to 183,224 in 2009, according to the U.S. Information Security Oversight Office. At the same time, the number of documents and other communications created using those secrets has skyrocketed nearly 10 times, from 5,685,462 in 1996 to 54,651,765 in 2009. Not surprisingly, the number of people with access to that Everest of information has grown too. In 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found, the Pentagon alone gave clearances to some 630,000 people.

As more individuals handle more secrets in more places around the world, it naturally becomes harder to keep track of them. But more than that, it diminishes the credibility of the government's judgment about what should be secret. "When everything is classified, then nothing is classified," said Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his judgment in the Pentagon papers case in 1971, when documents detailing the U.S.'s involvement in Vietnam were leaked to the Washington Post and New York Times. Then, said Potter, "the system becomes one to be disregarded by the cynical or the careless, and to be manipulated by those intent on self-protection or self-promotion."

Nor is it just that governments are calling more things secret when they are really not. That development has happened at the same time as the information-technology revolution, which has made the dissemination of data, views, memos and gossip easier than it has ever been in human history. Put that together, and you have the potential for the sort of shattering event that has just happened — especially when a figure like Assange is around, determined to turn potential into reality.

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