Why massive national security leaks are good for us

Until our dystopian classification system is overhauled, leaks remain an essential public service.

Bradley Manning
Bradley Manning was charged with aiding the enemy for allegedly giving hundreds of thousands of classified US documents to whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks [AP]

Today, Saturday, February 23, US Army Private First Class Bradley Manning is spending his 1,000th day in pretrial detention for allegedly leaking classified material about our Iraq and Afghan Wars. Former CIA official John Kiriakou just started serving a three-year sentence for a leak about his former employer’s use of torture. Thomas Drake, a former National Security Agency analyst, has had his career (and finances) destroyed after being prosecuted for leaking to the Baltimore Sun about waste and illegality in the NSA’s domestic surveillance programme. All this prosecutorial energy is sorely misdirected, for the simple reason that leaks are good for us.

We depend on leaks – they’re often the only way to get essential information about what our government is doing. Without government officials leaking to the media, we might never have heard of the Watergate break-in, or our increasingly frequent (but still “secret”) drone strikes in a growing list of countries.

President Obama may insist that his is the most transparent administration ever, but the facts say otherwise. According to the Information Security Oversight Office, a federal agency, the government classified 92 million documents in 2011, up from 77 million the year before, up from 14 million in 2003 (hiding so much from the public costs $11 billion a year, according to the ISOO).

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That’s some pretty extreme secrecy. At the same time, Washington is wonderfully indulgent of elite officials leaking top-secret material to media (good thing too – how else would we have learned in 2007 that Iran isn’t building an atomic weapon but from a leaked National Intelligence Estimate?). Obama’s former Chief of Staff William Daley has bragged about how much he leaked to the media – though not as much as his predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, whom Daley affectionately referred to as “the leaker in chief”.

But officials in Washington find it less adorable when those of lowlier status leak items less flattering to the government. Defence analyst Daniel Ellsberg found this out when the Nixon administration filed criminal charges against him for leaking the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret study of the Vietnam War. Today, Obama’s Department of Justice has launched twice as many Espionage Act prosecutions against domestic leakers and whistleblowers as all previous administrations combined.

The most controversial leaks since the Pentagon Papers are the WikiLeaks disclosures, which have provided fodder for thousands of new stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and US statecraft in general. This is the biggest leak in our history – yet it amounts to less than one percent of the material Washington classified last year. Three years after the release of the WikiLeaks material, no one has been able to show any resulting harm to a single soldier or civilian, despite much lurid speculation about the terrible damage to US interests. 

By contrast, Washington has been rather reticent about the horrific costs, in blood and money, of extreme government secrecy. After all, it was official secrecy, distortion and even a few lies that led us headlong into disaster and carnage in Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and 4,500 US soldiers, all at a cost measured in trillions – the wages of Washington’s addiction to secrecy.

In the case of Bradley Manning, his alleged leaking is a clear act of civil disobedience. Neck-deep in the worst foreign policy disaster since Vietnam, Manning surmised that if American citizens had some clue of what was actually happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, it might help avoid such disasters in the future. In Manning’s own words, he wanted “people to see the truth… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public”.

What’s so objectionable about well-informed decisions? After all, the notion that government ought to be as open as practicable was not dreamed up at the annual Defcon hacker convention – it’s a central part of American political thought. It was James Madison who wrote that “a popular government, without popular information, is but a prelude to a tragedy or a farce, or perhaps both”. And yet it was only in the summer of 2010 that the National Security Agency finally saw fit to declassify material from Madison’s presidency – two centuries earlier.

The past calamitous decade has shown that our foreign policy elites require greater public supervision, which only leaks can provide. The real threat to American security isn’t leaks and whistleblowers, it’s our current regimen of extreme official secrecy. Until our dystopian classification system is overhauled, leaks remain an essential public service, and those who provide them deserve both gratitude and clemency.

Chase Madar is a civil rights attorney in New York and the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower.

Follow him on Twitter: @ChMadar

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