The firestorm accompanying the latest release by Wikileaks features more than 250,000 diplomatic communiques, from 1966 through the present day. Many are focusing on absurd or salacious tidbits. Others say “nothing to see here, move along.” Still others are decrying it as a breach of security unparalleled in American history – and the hyperbole makes it sound as if the seventh seal has broken and the apocalypse is nigh. Of course, none of those sexy sound bites are accurate.
What we have here is a profound breach of trust with the American people. The conflagration of domestic political agendas with anti-American sentiment and the most radical civil libertarian arguments seemingly fan the flames.
My assessment is based more on my experience as a former federal employee who was vetted for a high clearance and as a journalist. Also, my inner national security hawk is concerned. I worry for my friends wearing our nation’s uniform and those who work in support of Clandestine operations, geospatial intelligence, intelligence collection and monitoring, among other places. We should all be concerned for their safety.
The rhetoric is ratcheted up so high, it’s starting to vibrate on a frequency only dogs and bats can hear. Thankfully, there are some very thoughtful, very insightful, fair minded people out there making sense of what seems to be a diplomatic catastrophe, or at least a stunningly dangerous game of chicken.
Larry Sanger, Co-Founder of Wikipedia, tweeted his concerns. And then a whole lot of people went nuts. Like a gentleman, he kept it real. While he eschews the label policy wonk, I can say with certainty I wish most policy wonks had half his ability to speak cogently on a topic so critical to America’s security and diplomatic standing in the world:
My argument is quite simple and commonsensical. It goes something like this. (A policy wonk would be able to explain this better than I could, but I’m in the hot seat so I’ll have a go.) Diplomatic communiqués are secret precisely because they contain information that it would be dangerous, or stupid, to make public. They disclose names and quotations that, for reasons either obvious or quite impossible for us to know, might get people killed. They also contain reports of actions that might lead to serious repercussions. They might even pinpoint locations of secret installations that might come under attack. They recount discussions of important plans and personalities—information that, if known to the wrong people, might lead to various military excursions, including war.
Does that sound acceptable to you? Let’s put it this way. Wikileaks’ actions, by releasing so much consequential, incendiary information, could easily lead to the deaths of people all around the world, and not just Americans. It could destabilize foreign relations that it benefits no one to have destabilized. It could—probably will not, but given that these are secret diplomatic communiqués in a very complex world, could—lead to war.
I find it incomprehensible that Wikileaks and its defenders are not given pause by such obvious considerations. I find it sad that so many people are not able to grasp such arguments intuitively. Perhaps they ignore them, or perhaps they only pretend that such considerations do not exist.
The truth is any small detail, no matter how innocuous may be the one missing piece for our enemies. As we have heard so, so many times – the terrorists need to be right only once. That’s it. What Julian Assange and Wikileaks have done is provide more than 250,000 chances — with thousands more on the way — to get it right. To have their chance.
One other consideration, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the investigative services for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force need to be held to much higher standards when they are stamping APPROVED for a security clearance. It is a privilege to serve our nation. Security clearances should be subject to very high standards. Call up the folks are the Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, or The Academy Group in Manassas, Virginia. The vetting of personnel is more important now than ever. Technology advances at light speed, and our system must adapt.
Transparency is not the enemy of the good, it is a necessary tool. Secrecy is not a Holy Grail to safety. More importantly, the men and women who serve our nation at the State Department, in the Intelligence apparatus, and in our Armed Forces are not sacrificial lambs sent to slaughter for the amusement of people like Usama bin Ladin, or Julian Assange.
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