Wikileaks: Giving Leaks a Bad Name

08.16.10 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Unauthorized disclosures of classified information (“leaks”) often play an important role in the proper functioning of American democracy.  They can serve as a safety valve against official excess, and an implicit check against government misconduct.  Even the mere possibility of a leak can have a salutary effect, because it imposes conscious or subconscious limits on what officials might try to do if they were certain they would be undetected.  (The FAS Project on Government Secrecy began in 1991 with our unauthorized receipt and disclosure of records on a problematic unacknowledged special access program called Timber Wind (pdf) whose very existence was classified.)

But though many government records are wrongly kept secret, the anti-secrecy website Wikileaks managed to get its hands on some documents on the Afghanistan War that were properly classified, at least in part — since they included the unredacted names of Afghan intelligence sources and collaborators — and then to release them (while temporarily withholding others for closer review).

One initial response to Wikileaks’ clumsy disclosure has been to bolster public support of the classification system, which was presumably not the intended result.  Sixty-seven percent of respondents polled endorsed the view that “When media outlets release secret government documents relating to the War in Afghanistan [they are] hurting national security,” according to a July 30-31 poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), who has been a persistent critic of overclassification — and who voted to oppose supplemental funding for the war in Afghanistan — last week joined the chorus of critics who have spoken out against Wikileaks’ indiscriminate disclosure practices.

“Before rushing to judgment about this very large, unauthorized disclosure of information, I wanted to review some of the documents myself to determine if indeed potential human sources of information had been compromised,” Rep. Holt said in a statement in the August 10 Congressional Record.  “After reviewing some of these documents, I have concluded that their release could indeed cause real harm to real people.”

Daniel Ellsberg, the archetypal modern leaker of classified information who was responsible for the unauthorized disclosure of the Top Secret Pentagon Papers in 1971, nevertheless withheld from public disclosure four volumes of the 47-volume Papers which dealt with diplomatic negotiations because he judged them to be too sensitive for release at that time (as noted by John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter in “Inside the Pentagon Papers,” p. 10).  The four withheld volumes were not released in full until 2002.  Regrettably, Wikileaks has failed to demonstrate similar discernment in handling classified records, and it will be up to others to try to repair the damage it has caused.