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

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The more government officials are empowered to classify documents, of course, the more people doing government work need clearances to look at it. In its deep investigation of American secrecy earlier this year, the Washington Post found that some 854,000 people inside and out of government had top-secret clearance, the highest classification. Ensuring all those people can be trusted isn't easy, especially since the issuance of clearances has been flawed and lacked rigor. The GAO sampled 3,500 of the investigative reports that officials use to determine whether to give clearances for Pentagon personnel and found that 87% "were missing at least one type of documentation required by the federal investigative standards." The missing documents included information on previous employment and complete security forms. Some 12% of the reports didn't include a subject interview. Since 2005, the GAO has put the flawed clearance process on its list of the government problems that pose the highest risk to U.S. security — where it remains.

More damaging, perhaps, is that a fundamental mistrust of government is a natural outgrowth of secrecy inflation. As the number of secrets expanded in the 1990s, Moynihan observed in his 1997 report, the imperative to keep them secret diminished. Because "almost everything was declared secret, not everything remained secret and there were no sanctions for disclosure," Moynihan wrote. And the more secrets leak, the worse it is for government credibility: either they are important and the sanctions are too minimal, or they are unimportant and the public believes there's no point in keeping secrets at all. "When trusted insiders no longer have faith in the judgment of government regarding secrets, then they start to substitute their own judgment," says William J. Bosanko, head of the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives, which oversees what gets classified. "And that's a big problem."

The Wizard from Oz
Not to Julian Assange it's not. Like him or not, the WikiLeaks founder has now become so well known that he has the power to impose his judgment of what should or shouldn't be secret.

Assange is a story in himself. He was born in Townsville, Queensland, in 1971 to parents who ran a theater company and moved more than 30 times before he turned 14. At one point, reportedly, he, his baby half brother and his divorced mother fled her boyfriend for years across Australia. In 1991, Assange was arrested with a few other Australian teenagers and charged with more than 30 counts of hacking and other related computer crimes. He studied mathematics at the University of Melbourne but never graduated and has said he dropped out because his fellow students were doing research for the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the group that is widely credited with having invented the Internet but that also helped produce advanced weaponry. Assange became a talented programmer, developing in 1997 what he has said was a cryptographic system for use by human-rights workers.

By early 2006, Assange realized what an opportunity had been created by the confluence of technology and expanded secrecy. Reportedly spurred by the leak of the Pentagon papers, Assange unveiled WikiLeaks in December 2006. The idea was to serve as a drop box for anyone, anywhere, who disagreed with any organization's activities or secrets, wherever they might be. Originally, a handful of activists recruited by Assange ran the website; it now has a full-time staff of five and about 40 volunteers, as well as 800 occasional helpers, Assange has said. Assange remains nomadic, moving from country to country and frequently asserting that he is being followed. An arrest warrant has been issued by Swedish authorities who want to question Assange about allegations stemming from accusations reportedly made by two women regarding rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion. Assange denies the charges, but Interpol issued a "red notice" on him.

In its first year, WikiLeaks' database grew to 1.2 million documents, and according to its website, it now receives 10,000 new ones every day. Among its list of millions of publications are some impressive scoops: documents alleging corruption by the family of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, secret Church of Scientology manuals and an operations manual from the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay revealing a determination to hide prisoners from the International Committee for the Red Cross.

Initially, Assange was treated with benign neglect by the U.S. government, which seemed more amused than concerned about his activities. Then came Bradley Manning. A 22-year-old who had trained as an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Army in Arizona, Manning shipped out to Contingency Operating Station Hammer in Baghdad last year. In May, Manning told a hacker based in Carmichael, Calif., that he allegedly had access to both SIPRNet and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, JWICS, which is used by government officials and contractors for the transmission of top-secret information. Previously, SIPRNet users had been prevented from downloading data to removable media, as they are on JWICS, but at some point Central Command removed that restriction, Administration officials tell TIME.

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