I'm not one to get nostalgic for the Cold War, but some things were just better back then. Secrets were important secrets and they were manacled to the wrists of men in trench coats and fedoras. If you wanted those secrets, judo or poison darts was involved (that's how it looked on television, anyway). Whatever the reality was back then, I'm sure it was more romantic than the copy, paste, send world of WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks is a website started by freedom-of-information activist and former hacker Julian Assange. On November 28, WikiLeaks sent a massive cache of government documents to five news organizations. You can't see the leaks on its own site at the moment, as it's currently suffering from a massive denial of service attack that has the site closed for business at the moment, although there is a mirror site in Switzerland where you can see the "Cablegate" documents. These documents are diplomatic cables that Private First Class Bradley Manning downloaded at an army base in Iraq between November 2009 and April 2010. Manning then passed them on to Assange.
Some of the information in the cables is as routine and un-thrilling as the manner in which they were appropriated. There is criticism of foreign politicians and personal gossip. People put their feet in their mouths. According to the National Post, in one 2008 memo "the unnamed officials also chastise the CBC comedy The Little Mosque on the Prairie for its stereotypical and negative view of U.S. border officers." (To be fair, there's not a character on that show that isn't a stereotype.) We learn that Libya's Muammar Gaddafi travels with a posse of blond Ukrainian nurses. There is an account of Nicolas Sarkozy chasing after his son's pet bunny.
But not all of it is light fare.
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.
Naturally, governments will try to get a tighter hold on this type of information. But it remains to be seen whether classified documents are just the latest demon to escape from the Pandora's Box that is the Internet, scurrying out on the heels of printed works, music files and video, never to return to their former secured state. There is so much material out there; so many secrets, and so many people with access to them. Keeping all of it under wraps is a huge task.
The same Time article reports:
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.
WikiLeaks has taken advantage of that huge amount of access to that huge amount of secret information. It only takes one of the hundreds of thousands of people to take a discretion break for something to get out. The site is publishing reams of sensitive information, such as a collection of internal U.S. military logs on the war in Afghanistan, and video from a 2007 incident where American soldiers killed Iraqi civilians. The site has received accolades, and even won the Economist's New Media Award in 2008 and Amnesty International's UK Media Award for new media in 2009.
But many worry the recent batch of leaks could cause a chill in diplomatic circles.
"I think unless the State Department can assure its diplomats that this kind of information will be protected, I think it has a dampening effect on the free flow of information. You're hesitant to put information in a cable that may end up in the newspaper," former U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins said Thursday.
It could also make things more difficult for other people working in the field of transparent government. Much good has been done with government data, and there are lots of tools to help make more data understandable and useful to the general public. Efforts are underway to make government more transparent, and hopefully concern over how much information gets out won't throw a wrench into this work.
But the communications landscape is changing so rapidly, various governments are struggling to keep pace. WikiLeaks has exposed some of their weak points.
As Alexander Howard wrote in the Huffington Post, "Governments appear to be playing catchup given the changed media environment, supercharged by the power of the Internet, broadband and smartphones. This year, we've seen a tipping point in the relationship of government, media and techology."
Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network says WikiLeaks will kill some of the momentum of the open government movement. "In the last few years," she writes, "there has been some progress toward classifying fewer documents and using the more rarefied classifications less frequently. This series of leaks will almost surely reverse that progress."
Naturally, any government is going to have to weigh the benefits of an open government with national security, and other important policy concerns for that matter. Hopefully this leak won't make them overly cautious, or push governments into missed opportunities or even bad policies with regard to openness. Government employees now also have additional worry about potentially embarrassing themselves. Or maybe the folks in charge just decide not everything they're stamping TOP SECRET needs to be secret and focus on keeping the important stuff under wraps. Either way, it's all a pretty big hassle that has to be dealt with sooner than later.
So, as much as WikiLeaks has started new conversations about wars and foreign policy, it has also started conversations about how this kind of "asymmetric reporting" will change how we approach open government, think about reporting and understand the new requirements of media literacy.