Ours is an age that prizes transparency. Good governments have responded by putting more and more of what they know online. Moreoever, since the 9/11 attacks, agencies responsible for national and international security have greatly expanded information-sharing activities. At the same time, national security requires a modicum of secrecy to assure that sensitive and fully frank information continues to flow to all appropriate audiences—and only those audiences—for careful assessment.
Global online networking presents a major challenge to these security interests. Today, any information accessible by computer can be forwarded to the entire world by a single individual. Governments will have to learn how to fight back.
WikiLeaks has taken international muckraking to a whole new level.
In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg became an international sensation by leaking the so-called Pentagon Papers. But this landmark event entailed the transfer of “only” forty-three volumes of material to a reporter at the New York Times. Ellsberg, an analyst who had worked on the study of the Vietnam War, was somewhat selective about what he gave the paper. The Grey Lady, in turn, published only excerpts of those documents.
Today’s social-networking infrastructure expands exponentially the potential scale and scope of leaks. Growing in lockstep is the potential damage—up to and including the loss of life—those leaks can cause. WikiLeaks is a case in point. The website is said to possess a quarter-million classified documents allegedly leaked by a low-level military operative who had no hand in developing the material. WikiLeaks posted the data with little to no vetting for accuracy or human risk. The amount of data released, the speed at which it swirled around the world and the sheer recklessness of it all was breathtaking.
The rationale behind the leak is murky, at best. WikiLeaks original raison d’être, according to its website, lay in “exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.” But its recent core dump of documents is a transparent attempt to embarrass and weaken the United States not truly oppressive regimes such as Iran or North Korea.
Jettisoning its “oppressive regimes” rhetoric, the outfit now casts itself as a champion of “freedom of speech and expression.” Here, WikiLeaks tortures the virtue of free speech into a frontal assault on the concept of ordered liberty. By publicly “expressing” a quarter-million confidential documents, WikiLeaks willfully puts at risk the very people actually working to undermine repressive regimes. Lacking the resources and knowledge necessary to vet these documents, WikiLeaks’ anonymous “editors” possibly ensure that their disclosures will keep innocents from harm's way. Even Amnesty International has raised red flags over this cavalier disregard for human life.
Not that WikiLeaks lacks defenders. Some denizens of the Ivory Tower argue that unveiling classified material is a good thing, regardless of the casualty count. Often these arguments cite the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas who warned of the “threat to democracy and the public discourses upon which it depends coming both from the development of an oligopolistic capitalist market and from the development of the modern interventionist welfare state.” In other words, Habermas contended that to save “democracy,” it is legitimate to revitalize the public sphere by breaking the government’s monopoly on information.
Voicing a similar argument in the wake of the WikiLeaks release earned Blogger Aaron Bady a profile in the Atlantic. On zunguzungu.wordpress.com Bady wrote:
Julian Assange and Wikileaks are unimportant compared to the larger issue they’re raising: our “progressive” government’s basic antipathy to democracy, human rights, and international justice. Wikileaks has done a great deal to illuminate what our government actually does. . . . I’m grateful for what Wikileaks has done, and I think the benefits of their leaking vastly outweigh whatever negative side-effects the leaks may eventually prove to have.
In short, Bady and others argue the pain of revelation is worth the gain of transparency.
But these arguments ignore something that the seventeenth and eighteenth century creators of democratic systems understood well: the importance of protecting the public sphere. Habermas himself established this point in one of his early writings, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society.
Modern founders of democracies knew they had to create institutions that protected liberty, in part by necessitating security. The political system of American Republic was constructed to provide ordered liberty, as unfettered liberty is a prescription for chaos.
Liberty itself merits no primacy above all. It is not an absolute value. And it depends upon security—both personal and national—for its exercise. As the journalist and historian Thomas Powers wrote in National Affairs: “In a liberal republic, liberty presupposes security; the point of security is liberty.” WikiLeaks and Bady act as if secrecy is inherently evil. It is not.
We cannot secure liberty by ignoring the necessity of security, nor can we allow security measures to run rampant without oversight. Rather we must take appropriate steps to ensure that the security powers given to the executive branch are exercised thoughtfully and with care, and remain subject to review and oversight by both the judicial and legislative branches. This concept of checks and balances, a fundamental insight of the Framers of the Constitution, is as essential and applicable today as it was at the time of the founding.
What the WikiLeaks approach lacks is any sense of proportionality. The United States and other democracies have checks and balances—from congressional and parliamentary committees to inspectors general and independent prosecutors. These systems may be imperfect, but what ordered society has ever achieved perfection? In contrast, countries like China, Iran, North Korea, and other totalitarian regimes use government not to establish ordered liberty, but to suppress freedom. When global transparency zealots lump the United States in with the likes of North Korea as a legitimate target, they fail the common-sense test.
Furthermore, using Habermas to justify WikiLeaks just does not cut it. Much of what Habermas wrote in the 1980s was penned under the shadow of a massive corporate-government structure that seemed about to overwhelm the public space in modern Germany and crowd out private, individual voices. That was before the world of Web 2.0 has greatly empowered private voices in public spaces. In a world of social networking, citizen-journalists can write stories like the "Death of Neda" and actually drive the discussion among governments and the mainstream media. Cybercitizenry has never been more empowered. Do we really need impersonal, non-value-adding “services” like WikiLeaks to dump mounds of raw data on top of all these voices? And, if so, are free societies the highest value targets out there?
WikiLeaks has crossed the bounds of what is reasonable in societies that understand the concept of ordered liberty. The issue is not if WikiLeaks should be punished, but how. For starters, nations have laws. They should be applied to the maximum appropriate extent—up to and including the crimes of treason and espionage. And where perpetrators are convicted, prosecutors should press for the maximum penalties allowed.
Nations ought to also shame the most serious violators, explaining the difference between “ordered freedom” and cyberlibertinism. The cyberworld relies on the wisdom of crowds to distinguish the good stuff from the bad online. Governments must convince the crowd to turn its back on brainless actions like the WikiLeaks dump.
There are also things we should not do in response to WikiLeaks-like incidents. Yes, considering who is aided and abetted, it’s tempting to call such acts terrorism. But it would be a mistake to list WikiLeaks as a terrorist or terrorist-supporting organization. WikiLeaks did not use or threaten of violence for political purposes—a defining hallmark of true terrorists. Rather than cheapen the term “terrorist” by applying it to preening, self-important “editors,” let’s reserve that designation for deserving groups like al-Qaeda.
Likewise, it makes no sense to launch retaliatory cyberattacks to shut down WikiLeaks. Once the stuff has gone global, it’s too late to close the cyber-barn-door.
The WikiLeaks debacle demonstrates that governments aren’t yet ready to deal with the security challenges of a Web 2.0 world. At the outset of the disclosures, Washington was unable to come up with the right package of measures to stanch the flow. The government stuttered and stumbled for months as wave after wave of leaked document hit the Internet. It must be viewed as a cautionary tale showing why good governments must not be passive in dealing with online threats.
Unfortunately, WikiLeaks is not the worst of the problem. When secrets are dumped online, governments at least know where they are. Potentially more damaging are secrets that are stolen without the government learning of the theft until after the resultant carnage has occurred.
For twenty-two years, Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent in charge of ferreting holes in U.S. intelligence security, turned over classified information to the Soviet Union and later Russia. Unmasked in 2001, he pleaded guilty to thirteen counts of espionage. Social networking only increases the opportunities for communication between those who want to give away government information and those who want to get it.
Even before WikiLeaks, there were plenty of signs of bad days coming. In 2004, for example, Shannen Rossmiller, an independent researcher, stumbled across Ryan Anderson online. A Robert Hanssen-wannabe, Anderson was trolling the Internet for an al-Qaeda operative interested in information about his National Guard unit’s upcoming deployment to Iraq.
Posing as an al-Qaeda operative, Rossmiller tracked Anderson ’s IP address to Seattle, Washington. Deducing from their online exchanges that he was a member of the U.S. military, Rossmiller contacted the newly established Department of Homeland Security, which put her in touch with the FBI. The FBI began monitoring the correspondence with Anderson. In February 2004, they decided to act. Undercover agents met with Anderson in a Seattle parking lot, just days before he was to leave for Iraq with his unit. Anderson was arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of five counts of attempting to aid and provide intelligence to the enemy.
Web 2.0 ups the demands for governments to conduct this new type of “counterintelligence” and information security to ensure classified information is not being compromised or exploited. And, because no prevention system is foolproof, they also must be able to do after-the-fact damage control. They too must figure out how to sustain the virtues of social networking, the capacity of individuals to freely share and collaborate. Protecting critical information without stifling communication is the prime challenge for cybercompetitors.
James Jay Carafano is director of the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.
First appeared in National Interest