I’m sure your mother probably told you, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” But does that counsel apply to governments having secret conversations about their national interests, including how to deal with terrorists and other nations that may be double-dealing? Assange and Wikileaks would say yes. So, seemingly would the Bible:
Mark 4: 22 For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested; neither was any thing kept secret, but that it should come abroad.
Luke 8:17 For nothing is asecret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad.
Then again, maybe not:
Proverbs 11:13 A atalebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter.
So, which is it? Is Wikileaks right to promote more openness or wrong to share secrets that potentially put lives at risk? As the Wikileaks documents were published, I was reminded of the issues during the Iraq War with journalists being embedded with the troops. Where is the line between journalism (unfettered free speech, the right of the American people to know everything all the time) and national security (the ability to protect ourselves from foreign threats)? Likewise, I thought about the news articles that openly described increased TSA practices in the wake of 9/11. At the time, I remember feeling concerned about the fact that terrorists also read whatever is published by our free press.
However, despite our openness about our security procedures, time has demonstrated our ability to prevent an additional terrorist attack in the subsequent near-decade. Perhaps this openness has been one of the secrets to our success.
You can keep anything a secret if only 2 people know, and one of them is dead. How many people have to have access to something before it’s no longer secret? Documents that were leaked, in some cases, were accessible to over 630,000 government employees. That’s a lot of people to trust with a secret, and as I’ve often said, you can do anything you want on your last day of work. (usually I say that to steer an employee clear of an inadvisable action). 😉
Is it treason? A recent Time article discussed some of the fallout.
Harvard professor of diplomacy R. Nicholas Burns (former ambassador to NATO and Greece): “I think the leaking of these cables has been a travesty. He has done great harm to our diplomacy, because it strikes at the heart of what diplomacy is: The building of trust between people and between governments. The leaks violate that trust and are going to make some people, not everyone or every government, but some people, much more reluctant to discuss their affairs with American diplomats.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee): “This is very sensitive stuff … I certainly believe that WikiLeaks has violated the Espionage Act. But then what about news organizations that accepted it and distributed it? I know they say they deleted some of it and I am not here to make a final judgment on that, but to me The New York Times has committed at least an act of bad citizenship.”
Of course, what is “treason” varies greatly from country to country. From the Time article: “In the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Ireland and many other nations, publication of classified information is a crime simply because the material was secret.” This is not the case in the US, though. The Espionage Act of 1917 is the government’s only legal recourse, and it requires that a jury agree that the defendant harmed America or aided a foreign power. But such a broad statute would “make illegal many things that American newspapers publish every day.”
Journalism, in its insatiable quest for fresh content, doesn’t always act responsibly; journalism never met a secret it didn’t want to reveal before its competitors. Of course, governments have a nasty habit of classifying not only what is truly secret, but also that which covers their own backside. It’s a convoluted argument to say that something should be top secret because it would erode the public trust if people knew their leaders blundered (or worse).
What should be kept secret? I’d keep this pretty narrow: classified military tactics with current or future implications, and diplomatic communications of our allies (this just seems like good manners). If you had asked me directly after 9/11, I would have included any information that reveals our weaknesses to our enemies, but my view on this has shifted in the ensuing years. It seems to me that doing so has actually increased how secure we are by informing citizens who have been more vigilant as a result and helped to prevent additional attacks. In revealing our weaknesses through the press, we are also forced to face those weaknesses and deal with them, becoming stronger in the process.
So, who is responsible? As with most blunders, there’s plenty of blame to go around. The thoughtless overclassification of state secrets is a culprit, as the main reason “secrets” are so widely known that they can be easily leaked. Julian Assange, while obviously a jackass for personal reasons (the “two women, one night, zero condoms” scandal), is not beholden to keep secrets that are thrust into his lap by disgruntled ex-civil servants. The disgruntled ex-civil servant, IMO, should be held accountable under applicable law. There’s also some blame for individual leaders (e.g. the President or Hillary Clinton) whose secret actions are now open to scrutiny; the actions of those leaders simply have to stand or fall on their own merits.
The New York Times has been criticized for its unsavory slavering over the juicy details without regard to national interest, but it’s not like the information isn’t out there; it seems unrealistic to require the NYT to ignore the leaks or to leave this information all to the bloggers, at least not without claiming their piece of the pie. And of course, we the American people need to own up to our share of the blame. I admit to prurient interest in peeking at the secret communications as well as secret delight at reading that Kim Il Jong was considered “flabby” by one diplomat, and that many Middle Eastern regimes are aligned with us in thinking that Iran is one messed up government. I expected things to be worse, honestly. This revelation greatly deflated my wildest conspiracy theories (an unsung upside to openness). For the most part, from my view anyway, we Americans are who we say we are.
What are the lessons learned from this? They are largely the same as real life lessons we all have to learn in the process of growing up. First of all, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Or at least, don’t put it in writing. Be careful who you share your “hair-down” opinions with. Know who the confidantes of your confidantes are. Be willing to own up to whatever you have done because your secret deeds and words can be made public at any time.
One lesson I hope we haven’t taught the world: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t tell the U.S.”
The best possible outcome, IMO, is that with less secrecy, we become stronger by being more informed and aligned. The worst possible outcome would be that our allies go underground and quit telling us what we need to know or that cooperation and information sharing is a casualty of this scrutiny. I’m certain that if our intelligence suffers as a result of this leak, no one is going to blame the media because to do so, they have to get past, well, the media.
You’ll notice that I didn’t mention the Wikileaks that have been church-related in the past. IMO, that’s one area where transparency only has an upside, but if and when leaks occur, the accountability falls as described above: 1) leaders whose private actions are laid bare are subject to scrutiny and stand or fall on their own merits, 2) individuals who leak “secrets” they have committed not to leak are subject to church discipline – a byproduct of how many know the secrets, the nature of the secrets, and the amount of loyalty the organization instills in those individuals, and 3) openness generally creates more trust and alignment, not less. Do you feel there are some church-related secrets that have too much downside if leaked?
What do you think of the Wikileaks scandal? Discuss.