As if the Obama Administration didn’t have enough domestic political problems to worry about prior to the November congressional elections, the unauthorized release of thousands of pages of classified documents, mostly military field reports from the Afghan war, is another huge and largely uncontrollable event. The web based organization WikiLeaks posted the documents and released them to the New York Times, the British newspaper The Guardian and the German newspaper Der Spiegel.
WikiLeaks founder, an Australian citizen named Julian Assange claims that his organization is doing a public service by promoting “transparency” in government. It does this by encouraging individuals with access to confidential or classified documents to, in effect, steal these documents and send them to WikiLeaks under a promise of anonymity.
While it is almost “conventional wisdom” that the U.S. government and the military, “over classify” information, data and analysis, the huge volume of information collected by the military and intelligence organizations provides an incentive to “err on the side of caution”, thus classifying more than is necessary to protect the national interests.
Individuals like Assange choose to ignore the broader implications of their acts while they pursue what in his case is an apparent left wing ideological orientation that involves a basic disdain for the military and civilian political authorities engaged in military operations. Assange claims that his goal is to “reveal unethical behavior by governments and corporations.” The problem that ensues with that individualistic approach is that he, his small group of employees and the individuals in government service that he convinces to violate their oaths to “uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States“, are arbitrarily imposing their own interpretation of “ethical behavior” which also may simply be a cover for personal notoriety or financial gain.
Facts disclosed so far from the thousands of pages of reports offer little in terms of new or important information. It has been widely believed that the Pakistan intelligence service, the ISI, has been colluding with the Pakistani Taliban at the same time the Pakistani army has been conducting operations against them. However that recent assertion appearing in the world’s prominent newspapers has caused diplomatic difficulties between Pakistan and the U.S. which WikiLeak did not consider. Also, the fact that civilian casualties occur during combat operations in Afghanistan is widely known. This regrettable but inevitable result of the nature of insurgency warfare where the enemy is often indistinguishable from non-combatants is a sensitive topic for the weak Afghan government. U.S. and NATO forces are taking extraordinary measures to limit such casualties and making an unofficial public issue of it is irresponsible.
The problem of independent sources using their own judgment and personal motives for releasing classified military data has no better example than the case of Army PFC Bradley Manning who sent WikiLeak a video of a helicopter attack in which a number of civilians were mistakenly targeted. The video did not make it clear that the helicopter was engaged in support of a ground operation or that one of those killed was seen to be carrying a rocket propelled grenade launcher. Here is a case of a twenty-two year old private making a personal judgment without regard to larger political issues that he could not possibly understand and ignoring or not knowing the complete facts of the episode. Clearly this is not how military information should be released to the public. Private Manning is now under arrest by military authorities.
While those sympathetic to WikiLeak might argue that the information released so far has not seriously compromised national security and should have been made public by the military or administration, the danger is that if this informal process is allowed to continue, more individuals motivated by personal issues will release important information or intelligence that is genuinely harmful. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has expressed concern in this case, that military tactics, and intelligence sources and methods as well as the names of Afghan citizens working with NATO forces have been compromised.
While the New York Times is protected by Constitutional First Amendment rights, it is not clear whether WikiLeak and Julian Assange are culpable under laws against receiving stolen property or conspiracy laws. The possibility of criminal charges against him is also complicated by the fact that he is a foreign citizen residing outside the U.S. However, the individual in the Pentagon who released the classified material is in clear violation of U.S. law, in particular the Espionage Act of 1917 which specifically prohibits such an act. He or she should be tracked down and prosecuted. To not do so just opens the door to continued and more serious violations.