Friday, December 10, 2010

On Wikileaks

Warning:  This is a long one.  I may ramble on a bit.  You have been warned.

The other night a fellow GBC'er, Attila, asked some very pointed questions about Wikileaks that helped me verbalize my gut feelings on the subject.

For those who've been under a rock for the past year or so, Wikileaks is a website and organization that takes documents that are normally kept under a cover of secrecy and places them out for all the world to see.  They have been criticized for releasing information that puts American soldiers and human intelligence sources (read people who give us information) into danger.

Some have asserted that a lot of data is classified to cover up crimes.  While this does happen, it's illegal and unethical to do so.  Basically, information is classified for two basic reasons:

  1. Operational plans and information - Data that shows what U.S. and Allied forces are going to do, have done, or are doing.  This can also mean data that can be used to find the strong and weak points in our technology, our people, or our procedures.  For example, the plan for a unit in Afghanistan's activities is classified, as are a lot of the capabilities of our radios, weapons, and vehicles.
  2. Intelligence data, sources and methods - Information that we know about our worldwide adversaries, or data that can be used to figure out how our intelligence staffs find out what they know, or the methods they use to find and interpret information. 
Wikileaks has let a few cats out of the bag on operational data, but their information was mostly older military information, which is less damaging and dangerous than publishing the plans for on-going or future operations.  Apparently they have published the worldwide location of high-value targets such as communications and logistics hubs that the U.S. government compiled a few years ago, which to me needs to be kept under covers.  That kind of information is a shopping list for those who want to do us harm.

The more damaging information that I've seen in the news is that which deals with intelligence sources.  This information is kept secret so that these sources continue to produce.  The method an adversary would close to eliminate a source varies with the source.  If it's a signals or imagery intelligence source, then the enemy can just change the way that information is kept hidden from us, such as putting up better aerial camouflage or using encryption.  If it's a human intelligence source, the most likely method is the application of a few grams of lead and brass to the brain stem of the source and his immediate family.  That's right, children.  When Wikileaks gives away the identify of a human source, even if they redact the actual name, they are probably sentencing several people to death.

Some of you may remember the name Aldrich Ames.  Ames was a counter-intelligence agent in the CIA.  He became an agent of the Soviet Union, and betrayed several people who were providing our side with information.  At least 10 of these people were executed. Wikileaks does the same thing when it describes an intelligence source closely enough that that source can be identified and eliminated.

Some have asserted that Wikileaks is nothing more than a journalistic organization that is passing along inside information to shed light on underhanded government dealings.  I can sort of see where that point comes from.  The press is a part of a functioning democracy that points out when the government is doing wrong and is using classification of data to cover it up.  But very little of what Wikileaks has released shows malfeasance, and in my honest opinion, none of  what I see should have been released to the public.

But for the sake of the argument, let's say that the individual who passed along the latest dump of information  to Wikileaks thought that at least some of the information was classified only to cover up crimes and bad behavior.  Such use of classification is prohibited and is an abuse of information control procedures, so our intrepid leaker takes copies of the information to the press, hoping that something will happen to fix the situation.  My response to this is to ask why he did not go through the appropriate channels to report illegal or unethical activity?  Was the Inspector General or the Criminal Investigations Division not interested?  What about his Congressman?  I'm sure that if an intelligence analyst calls his Congressman's office and reports that he has evidence of a crime that has been illegally classified to cover up the crime and does not feel comfortable going through his chain of command that the congress critter would make time to look into what was being asserted.

In this instance, I believe that Manning took as big a bite as he could out of the classified information he could get to on the classified network, regardless of what it contained, and deposited it in Wikileak's lap with no thought that he was doing something noble.  This is the action of a poseur who wants cred, not a conscientious whistle blower who goes to the press in order to stop a cover-up.  The Pentagon Papers may have been damaging to the U.S. war in Vietnam, but they did not lead directly to the death of U.S. troops and Vietnamese allies, and did show unethical activities by the Johnson administration.  Deep Throat gave light to a situation that had no hope of coming out of the dark without his efforts. Manning was looking for a way to count coup on Internet chat boards.

Yes, the government really dropped the ball in allowing a low-level intelligence analyst to get access to as much information as Manning did. Some have questioned the usefulness of classifying information that three million people have access to.  I'm hoping now that the cow is out of the barn that the government is doing what it can to make it harder for the rest of the herd to bolt.  But that's beside the point.  When Manning signed for his clearance, he agreed to only access data that he had a need to know, and he promised to protect classified information of all stripes from exposure to non-cleared personnel.  The data could all have been in one big, wide open directory and he should have still left the data he didn't need to do his job alone and kept the data he used safe.

And if Wikileaks is a news outlet, then maybe they should be vetting their information before putting it out for the world to see.  Is it newsworthy to out the 'secret' that diplomats make reports on what they observe when they meet with representatives of other countries.  The location and identification of critical infrastructure facilities, along with the impact of their loss or degradation, is not something that should be shouted from the Internet roof tops.  I'm not a journalist, but I would think that some journalistic ethics should kick in when you're giving definitively identifying information about human intelligence sources to the New York Times.

So to summarize, Wikileaks and organizations like it do have a place in our society.  If we look at them as part of the press, then their job is to give whistle blowers a place of last resort to report bad governmental behavior.  But if all they do is produce volumes of documents meant solely to embarrass governments, then they lose that role and become a conduit for damaging information to be given to enemies.

As to what should happen to Julian Assange and the rest of Wikileaks, I leave that to the courts.  They may be able to argue that they were acting as journalists and beat the rap, assuming that they will be indicted.  But for those who feed them from inside the government without trying to follow other paths to justice first, I feel no remorse in saying that I hope they are punished severely and publicly.  If the information that they leak is used to track down and murder people who are helping our war effort, then the leakers should be executed.  At the least, they should be made to spend a large percentage of their lives looking at the sky through bars.

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