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.
The Australian-born hacker turned fugitive political activist has launched a crusade predicated on the idea that nearly all information should be free and that confidentiality in government affairs is an affront to the governed. In the process, he has published everything from a video of U.S. troops killing civilians in Iraq to the documents behind the so-called Climategate scandal to Wesley Snipes’ tax returns. Assange is nothing if not an equal-opportunity sieve; the possibility that he might possess a 5-gigabyte hard drive belonging to a senior Bank of America official sent the bank’s stock price down 3% on Nov. 30. “This organization practices civil obedience,” Assange declared in an interview with TIME via Skype from an undisclosed location where he is hiding from authorities seeking to question him about rape allegations he denies. WikiLeaks “tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction,” he said.
The Way Things Once Were
The view that Assange is doing the world a favor is not, unsurprisingly, how others view him. While every President in the past 20 years has fought secrecy inflation — or said they have — all have seen the need for a degree of confidentiality and secrecy in government affairs. “In almost every profession,” Hillary Clinton said on Nov. 29, “people rely on confidential communications to do their jobs.” But as more things get called secret and more people have access to what is said to be secret and more of them know that WikiLeaks is standing there (well, somewhere) ready to receive those secrets like a slobbery Labrador catching any stick thrown its way, then the question becomes, Can the U.S. government — or any government — rely on confidential communications to do its business in the way that Clinton would like?
Not long ago, the answer to that question would have been easy: yes. WikiLeaks could not have existed during the Cold War. Back then, sensitive U.S. information was handled with a diligence born of persistent Soviet attempts at espionage, just as Soviet business was conducted with one eye open for those devious American snoops. In Washington, paper copies of secrets were numbered, accounted for at the end of the workday and stored in government-issue safes. Some documents were even watermarked to indicate their origin and author and prevent reproduction (and make their provenance easy to trace if someone was daft enough to try to copy them). Wire transmissions — quaint! — were limited and, in the case of very sensitive material, traveled only over proprietary networks using encryption technology provided by the mathematicians at the National Security Agency.
Then came the IT revolution. At first, the U.S. government resisted its charms. In the corporate world, the evolution of the Internet and rapid data storage and retrieval made it possible by the late 1980s to find and share information on an unimaginable scale. But in government, agencies distrusted one another and often refused to share. There was a long history of that: President Harry Truman and the CIA never knew, for example, that the FBI and the Army had cracked the Soviet codebooks after World War II. That interagency mutual suspicion continued until the Berlin Wall fell — and beyond.
It had real costs too. In 2005, the commission investigating the terrorist attacks of 9/11 found that “poor information sharing was the single greatest failure of our government in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks,” as commission co-chair Lee Hamilton put it in public testimony. The FBI, for example, had known that al-Qaeda supporter Zacarias Moussaoui was attempting to learn to fly commercial jets but failed to tell the CIA, even as the agency was desperately trying to figure out the details of an airline plot it knew was coming. In the aftermath of 9/11, intelligence sharing became an imperative.
In its response to the new environment, the State Department created something that went by the unlovely name of Net-Centric Diplomacy database, or NCD. The department stored classified information on the database right up to the top-secret level. Agencies across the government had access to State’s information through their own secure networks. The Pentagon’s network, created in 1995, was called the Secure Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRNet, and was available to everyone from top officers in the Pentagon to troops in the field helping to track intelligence for their units.
It was one thing — and a commendable one, within limits — to make it easier to share information. But that development coincided with another one: the generation of more secrets than ever. In 1995, Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12958, which gave just 20 officials, including the President, the power to classify documents as top secret, meaning their disclosure would likely “cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security” of the U.S. But sneakily, the order also allowed those 20 selected officials to delegate their authority to 1,336 others. Nor was that all: according to a 1997 bipartisan congressional report of a committee chaired by the scourge of government secrecy, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, such “derivative” classification authority was eventually handed to some 2 million government officials and a million industry contractors.
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.
In May, Manning told his hacker friend that he had downloaded data to a Lady Gaga–labeled CD and that he had given to WikiLeaks a video from Afghanistan, a classified Army document on the security threat of WikiLeaks and 260,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. The hacker turned him in, and Administration officials say Manning is the only suspect in the cables case. His lawyer did not return calls requesting comment. In late May, the U.S. military arrested Manning. But that was much too late. By then, WikiLeaks had the cables.
Assange can talk big — he gave TIME a lecture on the Founding Fathers — and may have something of a martyr complex. But he has shown himself an exceptionally talented showman. Frustrated that prior postings received little attention, he has arranged embargoed access to his more spectacular recent releases for the New York Times, the Guardian in Britain, Der Spiegel in Germany, El País in Spain and Le Monde in France. His release in April of a 2007 video from Iraq shocked Americans. Of his latest effort, which he says is producing a new, original story every two minutes, he tells TIME: “The media scrutiny and the reaction from government are so tremendous that it actually eclipses our ability to understand it.”
The WikiLeaks founder mixes radicalism with a heavy dose of autodidactic erudition. When asked about Britain’s hard-line Official Secrets Act, which once punished the disclosure of virtually anything that one ever saw inside a British government office, including the state of the cheese sandwiches, Assange wrote, “The dead hand of feudalism still rests on every British shoulder; we plan to remove it.” When asked by TIME how he justified his actions, he launched into a discourse on the “revolutionary movement” that produced the U.S. Constitution and opined that the “Espionage Act is widely viewed to be overbroad, and that is perhaps one of the reasons it has never been properly tested in the Supreme Court.”
Some day he may test the assertion in person, as the U.S. government’s benign neglect has given way to real hostility. Congressman Pete King has called for WikiLeaks’ designation as a terrorist organization. On Nov. 29, Attorney General Eric Holder said Justice is investigating the matter. But even if he could be caught, prosecuting Assange would be hard, and Administration officials say that for now the probe is primarily focused on Manning. “There’s not a lot of precedent there,” says one. “And then there’s the First Amendment question of whether [WikiLeaks] is a media outlet.”
Fixing the System
In one way, President Obama agrees with Assange: he too thinks there should be fewer secrets. On his first full day in office, Jan. 21, 2009, Obama issued a memo to agencies instructing them to embrace openness and transparency. He then launched an interagency review of classification that produced a Dec. 29, 2009, Executive Order requiring the millions of “derivative” classifiers to receive regular training in what actually needs classification or lose their clearance. The order also required agencies to bring in outside experts to review classification guidance. Perhaps most important, Obama’s order forced those who classify information to identify themselves on the documents they create. The main obstacle to classification reform has been the Defense Department, which one senior Administration official describes as “hostile” to the effort, because of a reflexive belief that secrecy protects the troops. To push back, Obama in July ordered all agencies to issue regulations implementing his December 2009 order by the end of this year. The Pentagon has produced a draft.
None of that makes Obama and Assange allies. Quite the opposite. Obama is finding that rebuilding the credibility of government generally is difficult; shoring up the credibility behind government secrecy is even harder. Assange isn’t making his job easier. The massive cable leak, says Clinton, “puts people’s lives in danger, threatens national security and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems.” The leak has also led the U.S. to tighten, not loosen, its security protocols. After consulting with the White House in the run-up to the WikiLeaks dump, State temporarily cut the link between its NCD database and SIPRNet. CentCom has reimposed its restrictions on using removable media, is newly requiring that a second person approve the download of classified information to an unsecure device and is installing software designed to detect suspicious handling of secrets.
Whether all that will work is an open question. “The world is moving irreversibly in the direction of openness, and those who learn to operate with fewer secrets will ultimately have the advantage over those who futilely cling to a past in which millions of secrets can be protected,” says a former intelligence-community official. From the perspective of the U.S. government, which has just seen the unauthorized release of 11,000 secret documents, it may be hard to imagine what that world would look like. But at least one senior government official seems comfortable with where things are headed. Defense Secretary Robert Gates — no stranger to real secrets, since he served as CIA chief and Deputy National Security Adviser under President George H. W. Bush — shrugged off the seriousness of the cable dump Nov. 30. Said Gates: “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”
Not everybody is that nonchalant, which is why the President’s real goal is to find a balance between keeping secret what should be secret, making transparent what should be transparent and doing it all in such a way as to augment the effective conduct of government. Potter Stewart had a go at defining such a balance in his Pentagon papers opinion in 1971. “The hallmark of a truly effective internal security system,” the Justice said, “would be the maximum possible disclosure, recognizing that secrecy can best be preserved only when credibility is truly maintained.” Wise words, from the heart of the American establishment. Words that Assange admiringly cites on the WikiLeaks website.
More Must-Reads From TIME
- Inside the White House Program to Share America's Secrets
- Meet the 2024 Women of the Year
- East Palestine, One Year After Train Derailment
- The Closers: 18 People Working to End the Racial Wealth Gap
- Long COVID Doesn’t Always Look Like You Think It Does
- Column: The New Antisemitism
- The 13 Best New Books to Read in March
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org