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Diagnosing the Wikileaks Disease

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2010", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Wikileaks isn’t a virus that metaphorical American intelligence “T-cells” can attack. It isn’t a bacterial infection we can treat with metaphorical antibiotics. It isn’t a broken bone we can metaphorically set.

If Wikileaks is anything, it is the symptom of a genetic disorder we now have in our government’s DNA, the massive over-classification of government documents combined with an industrial bureaucracy that just cannot keep up with information networks. Trying Julian Assange for treason then, as Charles Krauthammer suggests, won’t provide a cure. The only cure is making the number of secrets the US keeps go down; more people have Top Secret clearances than live in Washington D.C., and almost the entire military has a Secret clearance. Until we shrink our number of secrets, and the people who can access them, future Wikileaks will continue to happen.

The media has so far described the problem of Wikileaks as one between between information sharing--which would have prevented 9/11 but allowed the Wikileaks debacle--and compartmentalization of intelligence--which would have prevented Wikileaks but caused 9/11. This is a false dichotomy; Wikileaks was the confluence of four separate trends that reveal an enduring phenomenon, not a one time event:

Problem 1. The rapid adoption of technology in an industrial military. The recent Atlantic article, “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving” by Tim Kane made much of our military’s (terrible) industrial-era personnel system. Imagine that industrial-era personnel system trying to create a massive IT apparatus, without the best and the brightest our nation has to offer. Our safeguards inside the military will never be foolproof as long as we use digital information. It will always get out. Even if we put all our connectivity in ultra-secure, completely inaccessible concrete fortresses, with no information sharing except within the concrete bunkers, whistle blowers will still be able to steal the information they want.

Problem 2. Globalization and the worldwide spread of the internet. Already copycat Wikileaks have popped up. The same way Napster spawned several copycats, Wikileaks will survive in some form. As Dorn Cobb pointed out, the most resilient parasite in the world is an idea. The government can’t stop the idea of leaking classified information. As long as America has existed, it has housed free speech radicals, loners distrustful of any and all large organizations in the world, from the Catholic Church to Chevron to the US military. And since technology can empower just a handful of individuals to make big changes, this will happen again. (Of course, Starbuck doesn't consider Julian Assange to be super-empowered, but that's another debate altogether.)

Problem 3. The Intelligence Community still can’t distinguish between intelligence and information. When the 9/11 commission determined that “lack of intelligence sharing” allowed 9/11 to happen, the previously mentioned organizations said, “Ok, let’s share all the information we have”. Notice I used two different words--intelligence and information. The massive sharing of data that allowed Pfc. Bradley Manning to downloads reams of information was “information sharing”, not intelligence sharing. Information is data; intelligence is knowledge that allows action. There is a difference, and most intelligence professionals still don’t know it.

Problem 4. But the biggest factor that contributed to Wikileaks was the disease of “over-classification”. Simply put, we have a thousand times more secrets than we have ever had before in our history (and I might be severely underestimating this). Everything produced by a unit deployed in Iraq is classified Secret. That means thousands of documents are now technically “secret” that didn’t have to be before. The same thing happened with the State Department. Did the State Department really have two hundred thousand, at least, “Secret” documents over a two year period? According to Top Secret America, over 3,984 federal, state and local organizations staffed by 854,000 people with Top Secret clearances--and millions more with Secret clearances-- produce at least 50,000 Top Secret reports each year (and, as the Cablegate fiasco shows, who knows how many countless diplomatic cables, emails, PowerPoint slides and other such minutiae).

We have too many secrets.

We can’t stop Wikileaks by locking people up, unless we lock up every computer user in America. No, the solutions are simple, but incredibly difficult to implement. First, we need to turn the Army, Intelligence Community and Government into post-industrial, knowledge organizations. I’m not optimistic we can, but we must.

Then we need to stop over-classification. Secret no longer really means secret, it means something that millions of people can, and do, share.

And the proof is in the pudding, or in this case the leaked documents. At least 95% and maybe 99% of the released documents by Wikileaks didn’t need to be classified in the first place. Even those that did could have been released after five or ten years. The problem isn’t the information. The problem isn’t the leaks. The problem is over-classification. It is easier to protect one secret as opposed to a thousand. When we get that, we will be able to stop future leaks.

The debate over Wikileaks isn’t “intelligence sharing” versus “Wikileaks”, it is about determining what information is actually secret and valuable, and what isn’t.

nine comments

The theme running through the entire post, that I can’t get out of my head, is that “Information wants to be free, but it also wants to be expensive. This tension will not go away.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information..

I’m not sure Assange, Wikileaks, or America fully grasps the power of both sides of this equation. Assange forgetting why information costs so much, and America failing to realize that a lot of information wants to be free.

With regard to Problems 1 and 2, I think the embodiment of the culmination of the two is the hacking of a US predator drone in Dec 2009.

What are “post-industrial, knowledge organizations”?

For problem 1. I don´t think there is a solution. Information Technology has created such a wealth of information, and not just a wealth of information, but the ability to usefully filter it to find the most practical and useful information for your given situation. Imagine telling officers in WWII that less than 70 years from now soldiers would have the capability of carrying phones in their pocket that could access more information than what was ever stored in the library of Alexandria, and could carry a library´s worth of information in a microSD card the size of your pinky nail. Even reversing that problem and going back to completely analog forms of information storage and distribution won´t stop a determined leak (it may inhibit the scale of the leak but at the expense of the scale and efficency in the spread of that information to the people who are supposed to receive it). Ellsberg used a xerox machine, and one of the classic spy tools is a high resolution camera disguised as an everyday item like glasses, a wristwatch, or a pack of cigarettes. True its easier to hide a thumb drive with 300k documents on it than it is a truckload of 300k documents, but its really not technology thats the problem.

For problem 2., Wikileaks has been around for a few years now, and they have opened leaks up on the internet for years, some of it with some very controversial and/or sensitive information. What made the difference this time is that press covered it and gave these leaks more attention than usual. With many of the leaks beforehand it wasn´t information that mainstream press was necessarily interested in. When the DoD´s version of events of in Iraq or Afghanistan popped up thats when the press took notice, and when the press took notice than so did the rest of the world. The internet is a good way for releasing and providing information, but without the publicity that surrounded the leaks and the organization it never would have had such a large impact and not as many people would have even known the site existed, let alone mirrored it a thousand times.

For issues 3 and 4, you definitely have my full agreement. I don´t see much in the Wikileaks documents that doesn´t belong in the public domain, perhaps partially redacted to protect a couple of people´s privacy (which wikileaks has done itself with some of their later leaks). Little to none of it is information that directly effects ongoing military operations, the only rational reason I can think of classifying it is that it is embarrassing to both some foreign and domestic leaders, or it doesn´t fit in with the US military´s official PR. Its for exactly those reasons I think there is such a large scale systematic classification of information beyond what would classically be interpreted as intelligence. What´s interesting is that all this information came from SIPR (which has about half a million accounts), but very similar data could be found on NIPR (dry factual analysis, nothing to controversial, unclassified but for official use only, probably millions of accounts). Sometimes it seems like the distinguishing characteristics between what gets classified and what doesn´t is simply the the potential it has to embarrass the USG rather than the operational value of the information.

A lot of this information could have possibly been obtained through FOIA requests, however it would have only revealed a few pieces in a larger mosaic.

@ Chris C – I definitely agree that a lot of this information could/should have been out there. why? “it doesn´t fit in with the US military´s official PR”

That said, Wikileaks could have done better. They should have redacted the names of sources, they should have only put out there reports on deception, waste, fraud or abuse. News worthy information. I think bringing to light the 15,000 extra civilian casualties in Iraq—known civilian casualties—is very important. Doing shotgun style was not wise.

They did redact names after there was criticism about that using an algorithm, so sometimes you even get some odd redactions or redactions where there shouldn´t be.

Given the scale of the leaks ( mean we´re talking about tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of documents) I don´t think they could have possibly gone through all of them in anything resembling a timely manner and decided which category every leak falls under, or which leaks are even relevant, letting the press and general public do that kind of analytical work is much easier and more efficient for them.

With this slow release of diplomatic cables they are able to target specific issues or countries everyday (like Japanese whaling yesterday) and link cables that address specific issues etc., however at the current rate they are releasing them I will be old and grey before they´re all released (and wikileaks has recently said they´re going to start accelerating the release of those cables).

I want to thank you Eric and Michael and the various commentators on one of the first really well written and sensible discussions-debates on the whole wiki-leaks business. My only comment right now relates to the state of the current administration in regards to the issue of transparency rather than the content of wiki-leaks, some of which did not need to be classified as you point out above. We were promised more transparency in government. Yet our president has colluded in keeping much of what was done in the Bush administration under wraps. Guantanamo still remains an open sore that challenges the notion of freedom and democracy and the right to a fair trial that we claim to be fighting for (labeling people enemy combatants in order to avoid processing them in the criminal justice system is not acceptable to me). Operations that occurred years ago, including those that had to be top secret at the time they were executed, remain classified today for no reason at all. I don’t agree with what private Manning did and am not sure I understand his motivations but the result has pointed to many contradictions in our government, its system of classification and, most important, the peoples’ right to know – not all – but what does not have remain secret to protect innocent lives and avoid international embarrassment in regards to the backroom deals that are such a profound part of politics.

@ Jaylo – Totally agree. I don’t know which is worse, expanding the power and secrecy of the federal government, or promising to reverse that secrecy, yet keeping it going.

On this point—expansion of Federal power—I’m very disappointed in Obama.

@Harrison- The organizations that consider themselves “flat”. Before the internet, they were organizations without strong leadership, and weren’t that effective. Following the great technology boom of the last two decades, covered in Friedmans Lexus and the Olive Tree and the World is Flat, organizations are designed around using information and knowledge effectively. Companies are great examples.

Yeah this is imprecise, but it gets at what I mean. Industrial means top down following orders. Like our government bureaucracies.