WikiLeaks and Information Strategy

While WikiLeaks' release of the Afghanistan "War Logs" may be controversial, its significance in information strategy isn't difficult to understand. WikiLeaks' accomplishments are evolutionary rather than revolutionary in nature.
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While WikiLeaks' release of the Afghanistan "War Logs" may be controversial, its significance in information strategy isn't difficult to understand. Advocacy groups like WikiLeaks and intelligence organizations need secret information to pursue their goals. Any piece of information is accessible if the seeker has resources, talent, luck, and risk tolerance. In the past, only states could handle the time, energy, and risk required to acquire hidden information of real value. Technology, decentralization, and extreme risk tolerance has merely allowed WikiLeaks to lower the bar to entry.

WikiLeaks' accomplishments are evolutionary rather than revolutionary in nature. Competent sub-state groups have been capable of developing an expansive open-source intelligence picture of an opponent or forming an operational Order of Battle from unclassified sources for some time. Non-governmental organizations, for example, routinely create detailed research profiles with combination of personal interviews, archival research, and statistical comparisons. On the more sinister side, terrorists and insurgent groups widely utilize commonly available public domain research, geographic information systems, and global positioning systems for intelligence and operational planning.

WikiLeaks' innovation lies in the way it draws, processes, and packages classified or proprietary information. Its decentralized structure, use of crowdsourcing, and efficient use of technology allow it to cull information at a substantially lower cost than its predecessors and competitors. Although its decentralization and its founder's paranoia insulates it somewhat from coercion, it should be noted that the organization also accepts far more risk than its competitors are willing to shoulder. As countless management books have stated, massive success requires an equally massive risk of failure.

Sensationalism and editorializing also gives WikiLeaks attention. Numerous analysts have noted the giant package of tactical data on Afghanistan that WikiLeaks released is misleadingly packaged, but their criticisms are unlikely to hit the news cycle. Thus, it's likely that WikiLeaks' notoriety will also motivate copycats and competitors. Such publicity will also allow WikiLeaks to expand its operations, with donations and fresh leaks pouring in from global well-wishers.

It's unlikely that any Western democratic state would significantly exert itself to forcibly shut down WikiLeaks' operations or target its members. Such a task would be difficult and grossly counterproductive, especially given that the actual political effect of WikiLeaks' releases has been quite marginal. WikiLeaks' helicopter gun camera video made a splash but vanished into obscurity as quickly as it hit the scene. WikiLeaks, in essence, is able to operate because it enjoys the protections--or at least the relative indifference--of liberal democratic societies. Authoritarian nations and criminal organizations, however, are more likely to react more rashly.

The debate over the morality of WikiLeaks' actions is important but ultimately irrelevant. As social media and a database society expands to encompass every factor of life into tagged, searchable, and Google Mapped code, the barriers to operating non-state intelligence agencies will continue to fall. The state's ability to mine reams of data will massively increase, but technology will also super empower crowd-sourced activists and "global guerrillas." This is "radical transparency" -- once science fiction, now reality. Strategists must adapt to this new reality or lose the information wars of the future.