National media is abuzz today with the release by WikiLeaks.org of 91,000 classified State Department cables about the war in Afghanistan. WikiLeaks.org also disclosed that it had previously released the cables to The New York Times, the Guardian of London, and Der Spiegel to help it review the documents for newsworthy information and to screen out information that could cause harm if disclosed. According to a Washington Post story, WikiLeaks.org founder Julian Assange called the release, "the nearest analogue to the Pentagon Papers." Indeed, the cables detail the extent of assistance the Taliban have received from Pakistani intelligence officers. They show the debilitating demands faced by soldiers on the field, and the extent of civilian casualties and waste in this protracted war. It does sound more and more like Vietnam. Truth is the first casualty of war, and whistleblower leaks are the best medicine.
U.S. officials are bemoaning how no one from WikiLeaks.org called them before releasing the documents. However, the government is detaining a suspect in another leak to WikiLeaks.org, Bradley Manning. You can read my post from last month about his situation here. With the prosecution of Thomas Drake, and other actions against whistleblowers including a search for Assange himself, it seems pretty obvious to me why WikiLeaks.org leaders would prefer to stay out of reach from U.S. authorities. When the administration starts jailing whistleblowers, seeing other whistleblowers leak to the media is a natural consequence.
The leaks today put the administration in a difficult position on what to say about the significance of the documents. If they confirm that the documents contain major U.S. national security secrets, then it looks bad for the administration that they let these secrets get loose. If they dismiss the leaks as meaningless or insignificant, then they pull the rug out from the prosecutors who might press charges against the leaker. National Security Advisor James Jones criticized the release of these documents at the same time that unnamed administration officials said that the documents contain little new information. This position reveals what should be another national outrage: the federal government has abused its power to classify documents to frustrate the democratic process here at home.
Our Constitution contains several provisions intended to restrain the abuse of war powers. Appropriations for war must be limited to two year. Also, the government is required to make periodic accounts for the money it spends. Although the Supreme Court has taken itself out of the business of assuring compliance with these provisions, the American people remain entitled to a better accounting of what our government does in pursuit of war. When the government wages war for too long, without adequate public accounts, leaks to the media are again a natural consequence.
WikiLeaks.org reports that it has withheld 15,000 documents out of concern that release might cause a present danger. By this one measure, by outside independent reviews of the classified information, the U.S. government overclassified 91,000 of 106,000 documents. That is an overclassification error rate of 86%.
If the U.S. government was serious about trying to reduce incidents in which public servants feel compelled to leak classified information to the media, I suggest that the government should create more effective means by which employees could raise concerns to someone who can effectively correct abuses. If federal employees, especially those in national security agencies, had stronger whistleblower protections, then they could be more confident in raising concerns to other government officials who might be able to correct abuses and protect the whistleblower.