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On V's Most Thought Provoking Event of the Year, One Year Later

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

Imagine an Army private first class. He’s down on his luck, and, even worse, might have a history of mental illness. He loves his country, but he hates life in the Army. Unfortunately, the U.S. Army gave him a Top Secret security clearance when he joined. So he decides to steal as much digital information from the government’s classified computer systems as possible, just to see if he can. Surreptitiously, he downloads gigabytes of information and stores them at his home.

I said imagine, because my scenario isn’t real. Here is how it finishes:

As misfortune would have it, he’s stationed in South Korea. A Chinese human intelligence collector--read “spy”--spots this private first class, and develops a friendship. He eventually convinces the private--using bribery, intimidation, blackmail and the other tricks of the trade--to hand over the digital information. Unlike Wikileaks, this disclosure includes thousands of Top Secret documents as well.

More importantly, and again unlike Wikileaks, the vast majority of the U.S. government would never find out about this infiltration. Neither would the American public. Unless counter-intelligence agents discovered the theft, and conducted an investigation thorough enough to lead to prosecution, this massive intelligence leak would remain hidden.

As we wrote in our “Most Thought Provoking Event of 2010”, in some ways, Wikileaks did America a favor, because Wikileaks told everyone pretty much what they knew. If a foreign intelligence service had infiltrated our systems, they wouldn’t publicize it. The violated agency wouldn’t either, for fear of embarrassment.

When we wrote about Wikileaks last year, I told almost the exact story from above, but by asking rhetorical questions. I called it my view as a Military Intelligence Officer and I said I believe the U.S. intelligence community didn’t learn anything from Wikileaks. So, here is an update to my thoughts on Wikileaks, again from several perspectives.

Historian - Useful. Since the initial batch of Wikileaks, a group of newspapers published a series of in-depth studies on the detainees at Guantanamo. Those reports showed how little intelligence was used to hold detainees. We used it as the basis for this post.

Former Military Intelligence Officer - Still terrified. None of the problems that enabled the first Wikileaks to occur have been solved. As an intelligence officer, I was trained to try to think like the enemy. If I am thinking like a Chinese or Israeli or Russian intelligence officer, I would be thinking, “How can we do Wikileaks again?” (60 Minutes had an article a few years back on the Chinese doing this exact thing. )

Libertarian - More disappointment. Legislation to protect whistle blowers has repeatedly failed to pass congress, and the Obama administration ultimately pursued a fruitless investigation against Thomas Drake. President Obama promised more transparency, and less classification, but unfortunately the bureaucracies have slowed that implementation way down.

Military Officer - I did get out. Wikileaks didn’t cause this, but the general system did. The failure to hold senior leaders responsible tells me that the Pentagon and the Army love to preach a system of leadership about values and holding people responsible, then fails to ever do so with its general officers. I cannot think of a single officer relieved because of Wikileaks. If Wikileaks was the unimaginable tragedy the Pentagon described it as, why is a single private first class the only one held responsible? Where is the accountability that is stressed to junior officers that we are “responsible for everything our unit does or fails to do”?

Wikileaks should have been a watershed moment for intelligence professionals. The community should have embraced disclosure over secrecy--the less secrets one holds, the easier to protect them.