Wikileaks: Giving Leaks a Bad Name

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.

No Responses to “Wikileaks: Giving Leaks a Bad Name”

  1. Reader August 16, 2010 at 11:00 AM #

    I love it when Aftergood and others of his ilk do the dogpile thing on Wikileaks, it’s very revealing. Not once have they proven or even made a sound case for anybody being caused any real harm.

    Not once.

    But the allegations are there.

    Here’s my take on this: you guys are pissed it wasn’t YOU who got to unveil the atrocities going on. That’s one possibility. The other is you are really part of the status-quo (still waiting for that financial disclosure Aftergood) and really do not have any true interest in leveling the information playing field on behalf of the little people.

    Shame on you. Schoolyard bullying isn’t something that I can support, I left those games behind a long time ago and didn’t like it then either.

    If you have a case, a REAL case against WikiLeaks and their disclosure, then PROVE IT.

    So far it’s just allegations and the same paranoid fear-mongering we’ve always seen from you (and everyone else playing the dogpile game here).

    I think they’re upset that we got to see a blow-by-blow account of how this war game is being played out. How they’re manipulating the events and the intelligence and how many people are being used (and killed). Nothing like having a little real truth in the hands of the people to stir up the natives to a little upset, is there?

    Here’s what I’m going to do Aftergood. Never read another Wikileaks article from you or anybody else. Nobody has proven that anybody has been hurt or that any harm has been done at all. You’re all just a bunch of whining crying little wimps afraid of the real truth, afraid of what might but didn’t happen (according to you), yelling on and on about what WikiLeaks did without a leg to stand on.

    I applaud WikiLeaks for making a stand against all the secrecy and manipulation that has led this nation into yet another stupid senseless war. People die Aftergood because of this shit. People are dying because of this shit. To have the courage to post-it-like-it-is and let the average Joe in on what is going on takes courage, something you obviously “lack” because you’re playing the middle ground here (at best) and at worst, are a shill for the forces you claim to oppose.

    The world needs more people like Assange who are willing to lay it on the line and reveal what is really going on. Let the truth out into the open and to hell with the stupid games Aftergood and our esteemed politicians are trying to play, which is just more of the same-old shit, manipulation, withholding, deception, us-against-them, we’re too-stupid-to-appreciate-what-they’re-doing for us and on and on. You manipulate us just like the people you claim you oppose. It’s no longer amazing to watch your duplicity, it’s disgusting.

    I am absolutely sick to death of the lies, deceptions, deceit and cover-up going on, only WikiLeaks and a few others are willing to oppose this war-mongering juggernaut that the United States has become.

    This thing has already backfired on you Aftergood, but you don’t even realize it yet. You’ve sided with the intelligence community and the politicians, the very same asswipes that put us into yet another senseless and stupid war. The U.S. is going to lose in Afghanistan and everybody that supported this deception is going to be remembered for their position and stance on how they handled their small part in this atrocity.

    But more importantly then this, you’ve made it patently clear on who you support, whether we win or not, and what you support, which makes you a real enemy to those that truly cherish and love freedom, and an unrestricted, unfettered access to the truth.

    Shame on you Aftergood, shame on you twice. You allege that you are here to help us, but you’re just another shill of the same color, with a stripe running down your back.

    I’d rather hear the unvarnished truth. You idiots act like WikiLeaks made up lies or manufactured these documents they released — which obviously did not happen, and now you’re all afraid that this real truth, these real event accounts are falling into the hands of all the little people.

    I’m absolutely disgusted by this dogpile bullshit pissing contest. You guys are not interested in the truth, your only interested in turfdom and the status-quo. You’re not bright enough to realize that this is / was a watershed moment for reigning in an out-of-control government and secrecy. Shame on you again.

  2. Michael Prentice August 16, 2010 at 12:01 PM #

    Putting aside for the moment the fact that I disagree with everything you have written as part of your rather sad crusade against Wikileaks, how, Mr. Aftergood, will others – presumably noble, responsible, Serious human rights advocates like yourself – go about trying “to repair the damage it has caused”?

  3. xdiesp August 16, 2010 at 12:34 PM #

    All lessons from Vietnam have been forgotten. Here you are again looking the other way while the army is massacring civilians while protracting an unwinnable war just to save face.

  4. Name Required August 16, 2010 at 3:15 PM #

    > Unauthorized disclosures of classified information (“leaks”) often
    > play an important role in the proper functioning of American
    > democracy.


    The fact that unauthorized disclosures play such an important role demonstrates that the American democracy is not functioning any longer. The sovereign (we, the people) no longer is in charge of decisions, but rather lobbyists, corporations and closed interest groups; media corporations just produce the snake oil of this society.

    Ok, I also disagree with most of the other paragraphs of this article.

  5. Justin Passing August 16, 2010 at 5:41 PM #

    For the record, appearances in your post to the contrary, Daniel Ellsberg agrees with the wikileaks leaks on Afghanistan. In fact, he said recently in the Washington Post that even MORE should be leaked on this war, including lots of sensitive military info.

    “[C]ongressional investigation is called for. The chance of this would be greatly strengthened by leaks from insiders. Subsequent hearings could elicit testimony from the insiders who provided the information (whose identities could be made known to congressional investigators) and others who, while not willing to take on the personal risks of leaking, would be ready to testify honestly under oath if requested or subpoenaed by Congress. Leaks are essential to this process.”

  6. John Mclaren August 16, 2010 at 7:17 PM #

    Wikileaks claims to have contacted the white house before releasing the data to help with editing out names, and claims to have asked every subsequent critic of the leaks to assist in editing out names, and they all refused. Even Amnesty International. So this is looking more political all the time. Meanwhile the incidents described by the leaks which might be war crimes are never discussed or dismissed as expected consequences. Added to that is the interesting possibility that Gen. McCrystal or his staff might have had something to do with the leaks, and indications of a growing power struggle within Washington and the Pentagon over the course of the war.

  7. Keith Silverstein August 16, 2010 at 8:55 PM #

    Just stick to the CRS reports.

  8. Afterbad August 16, 2010 at 11:49 PM #

    Wow, a mention of Ellsberg withholding 4 volumes and no mention of Wikileaks’ withholding of 10000+ pages of the afghan war logs over safety concerns. Also no mention of the pentagon’s refusal to help react names. It is like this whole post was politically crafted like something out of Darkness at Noon.

  9. 66 August 17, 2010 at 9:29 AM #

    The Pentagon Papers was before a jet was crashed into the Pentagon. You have people who would do it again. You are helping or hurting. Wikileaks isn’t helping the Pentagon. I’m in trouble myself. Wikileaks is the enemy.

    If there must be trouble let it be in my time, so that my children should have peace.

  10. sigh August 18, 2010 at 8:45 AM #

    So, wikileaks is giving truthful revelation a bad name!

    Please wikileaks don’t lets us view our homelands secret machinations of deception written with the blood of afghans, iraqis and our sons and daughters. Not unless you first clean it up so that no one gets hurt!
    Who’s kidding whom?

  11. P Jerome August 21, 2010 at 5:21 PM #

    I was shocked to hear of Mr. Aftergood’s comments in a news story, then checked them out to verify he actually made them. As other commenters have noted, the documents detail shocking war crimes about which we had already heard only tidbits. For example, we learned details about roving bands of Special Forces operatives who have murdered thousands of Afghans in night raids, allegedly “Taliban” and “Al Queda” leadership. Yet according to all government sources, there are no more than a handful in the Taliban leadership circles (none of whom seem to have been killed) and fewer than 50 Al Queda in the entire country, according to Leon Panetta. These night marauders are murdering civilians and terrorizing the population in the name of “nation building.”

    Then there is the “Collateral Damage” video, also “appropriately classified.” Did that also give leakers a bad name, Mr. Aftergood? What security reason is available for hiding video footage of GIs murdering civilians and even laughing about it? We know why it was classified, and the reasons have nothing to do with saving lives.

    The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia et al are wars of aggression and conquest. They are indefensible international war crimes resulting in mass slaughter of innocents. There are no “legitimate secrets” in these operations. Rather than condemning leakers, Aftergood should be encouraging and supporting all efforts to end this horror, including releasing the secret files of the militarist state.

  12. Steven Aftergood August 21, 2010 at 8:40 PM #

    Thanks for the comment, but I don’t agree that there are no legitimate secrets in the Afghanistan war. The identities of individual Afghans who may have cooperated with U.S. intelligence, or whose names appear for whatever reason in U.S. government records, are legitimate secrets whose disclosure could place lives at risk. The only reason to expose such persons is to assist the Taliban in dismantling opposition intelligence networks. Since I do not support the Taliban, I also do not support assisting them in this way.

    Of course I do favor the public exposure of criminal activity or official misconduct, including (or especially) classified misconduct. I also consider the Wikileaks release of the Apache helicopter video to have been on the whole a public service (though I thought its political impact was diminished by the edited propagandistic version).

    But by indiscriminately releasing large quantities of sensitive material without review, I think Wikileaks probably did more harm than good in this case. That also helps explain why people like Rep. Rush Holt, who actually voted against continued funding for the Afghanistan War, condemned the Afghan War Diary release.

  13. Terence Kearns August 23, 2010 at 4:45 AM #

    “Wikileaks claims to have contacted the white house before releasing the data to help with editing out names, and claims to have asked every subsequent critic of the leaks to assist in editing out names, and they all refused. Even Amnesty International. So this is looking more political all the time.”

    I have to agree with John.

    Listen, FAS is going to start looking like it is bought and sold if it keeps peddling out this sort of ill-conceived drivel.

    Please tell me what the purpose of this article was. Really. I want to know how this article was supposed to contribute and inform people. To what ends?