As House Hears Testimony on National Security Leaks, Time is Ripe to Examine Impact of Wikileaks

Instead of trying to clamp down on massive amounts of information by keeping it secret, we need to focus resources on keeping only legitimate secrets. As a country founded on openness and innovation, we should learn from Wiki Leaks.
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Wiki Leaks is back in the headlines. This time, its target is Syria's repressive Ba'athist regime and potentially anyone who has e-mailed with that government over the past six years. If you care to read them, Wiki Leaks will be releasing about 2.5 million e-mails -- 100 times the volume of data released in the "Cablegate" dump. As news organizations anxiously pore over the new Syrian deluge and a House subcommittee heard testimony earlier this week on national security leaks and the law, the time is ripe to examine what Wiki Leaks didnot do to the security of the United States when revelations centered on our own government.

In the years since it became a household name, Wiki Leaks has helped catalyze revolution and end a diplomatic career or two, but the truth is, its revelations have not sparked the Apocalypse. It is likely that the Syrian episode will be more dramatic than our own, but as far as Cablegate panned out for America, diplomacy did not founder. Nevertheless, we are still not out of the water. The Wiki Leaks imbroglios in the United States over the past few years have dramatically shown that the more information our government tries to grip, the more it watches slip away. Instead of trying to clamp down on massive amounts of information by keeping it secret, we need to focus resources on keeping only legitimate secrets.

Wiki Leaks continues to show us that in the Internet age, keeping too many secrets is costly, time consuming and largely ineffective. As a country founded on openness and proud of its innovative ideas, we should learn from the Wiki Leaks incidents and develop proactive responses, not reactive ones.

In the past year alone, the government classified all or part of nearly 100 million documents. As Cablegate showed, many of these hundred million "secrets" are not sensitive at all. Much of what the State Department tried to keep from the public was information already in the news and little more than gossip -- information that had no business being secret in the first place or kept secret for so long. And while some of the information in the leaks might have been sensitive, internal government reviews concluded the damage was "only limited."

Needless secrets are eroding our national security. As The Washington Post revealed in its "Top Secret America" series, losing useful intelligence in the flurry of secret information cost us the possibility of intervening before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded the plane he tried to blow up with an underwear bomb in 2009.

And keeping these mountains of needless secrets costs us real dollars -- more than $11 billion last year, according to a report by the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) at the National Archives. This does not include the cost of keeping CIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies' secrets, though. Even that information is classified.

Amid the impassioned reactions to the Wiki Leaks revelations of American secrets -- including proposals to classify Wiki Leaks as a terrorist organization and statements equating people at Wiki Leaks with murderers who have "blood on their hands," among others -- our government lost sight of the underlying problem: we are not using our resources wisely. The ISOO report shows as much. In the past two years the government has continued to stamp secret excessive amounts of information, and the cost of keeping these unnecessary secrets has continued to grow.

We must strike a better balance between secrecy and transparency. To do so can reduce burdens on the treasury and strengthen national security. Of course, there is a reasonable "need to know" rule that protects legitimately sensitive information, but there is also a need for adequate knowledge, especially among officials who actually deal with terrorism threats. Finding a balance between the two is tricky -- but essential.

Although the flawed technology that allegedly gave Bradley Manning access to secret files can surely be fixed, Wiki Leaks has uncovered a deeper problem with America's secrecy regime. When everything is secret, nothing is secret. If so much information is classified that 2.4 million people need security clearances, then secrecy has already failed -- all it takes is one rogue employee like Manning to bring the whole house of cards crashing down.

As its Syria release shows, Wiki Leaks remains capable of accessing (or receiving) millions of private files, mining the massive amounts of data, and disseminating information worldwide. So, rather than continue citing the threat of Wiki Leaks to justify hiding more information and keeping Americans in the dark, the U.S. government should better focus resources on keeping our legitimate secrets secret.

R. Kyle Alagood is a Research Associate for the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice

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