Christmas came early this year for policy wonks when Wikileaks released a treasure trove of American diplomatic cables, some of which shed new light on the current state of international relations. Commentators have endlessly debated the ethics of Julian Assange’s actions and the consequences of this release for the United States’ ability to conduct foreign policy, but the fallout over Wikileaks has largely overlooked how this incident illustrates the government’s need to seriously re-evaluate its policies on controlling information and protecting whistleblowers.
While the scope of damage to American diplomacy will only be revealed in time, there can be no doubt that Wikileaks’ release has undermined faith in America’s ability to protect information. When a low-ranking soldier like Pfc. Bradley Manning can access 250,000 diplomatic cables and other classified materials, burn them onto CDs, and carry them out of a secure facility, there is an inherent flaw in the government’s information controls.
Manning had unrestricted access to two massive networks of all-source secret and top secret information, which is typical for someone in his job. Efforts to avoid repeating pre-9/11 failures of communication within the intelligence community and the increasing importance of broad intelligence sources to modern warfare motivated this broad access for intelligence analysts. Manning may have been able to avoid detection by merely deleting server logs recording his activities, and a system designed to identify suspicious activity on classified servers covers only 60 percent of Department of Defense computers.
The DoD now requires that information can be transferred between classified and unclassified computer systems only in a supervised setting, but the DoD and other government agencies should also expand monitoring systems to all computers handling classified information and ensure that server logs cannot be deleted. While closing the holes Manning exploited should be a first step in improving protection of classified information, anything less than a government-wide review seems unlikely to diagnose different weaknesses in classified computer systems.
In addition to raising concerns about the U.S. government’s ability to protect classified information, the Wikileaks case illustrates another serious problem with current government policy: over-classification. Many of the leaked cables merely confirmed information that was already in the public realm, thus raising an interesting question: why was the information classified in the first place? In effect, by erring on the side of caution and protecting material that posed no threat to American security or interests if publicly known, the government has damaged the credibility of its classification procedures.
Under the current system, information that would be embarrassing or unpleasantly complicating if released is placed in the same category as truly dangerous and damaging knowledge. The government also restricts access to a wide range of “controlled unclassified information,” which is not technically classified but is nonetheless restricted in its distribution because of concern over the potential security risk of its release. Misuse of classified or controlled unclassified labels feeds a public perception that the government is merely trying to restrict access to information without any good reason. This lack of public faith is illustrated by the hacker group Anonymous’ recent invocation of “freedom of information” as a rallying cry for its attacks against “enemies” of Wikileaks. If the government cannot become much more judicious in deciding what information to classify, this problem of public perception will only worsen.
Even if the government is more careful in choosing what information to protect, there will always be room for abuse of classification powers. As the release of the Pentagon Papers clearly illustrated, the government is not above drastically misleading the public on life-and-death issues. Leaks can serve as an essential tool for exposing questionable activities, bringing serious problems to light, sparking policy debate, or ensuring that citizens are capable of making informed judgments about the activities of their government. However, leaks are worrisome because what information is released is ultimately at the sole discretion of the leaker, whose judgment may not be sound.
To find a balance between a government stranglehold on information and a porous classification system prone to extensive information leaks, the federal government must address the woeful state of its systems for categorizing information, managing internal complaints, and protecting whistleblowers. The current weakness of these systems is vividly illustrated by the case of Robert MacLean, a former federal air marshal. In 2003, the TSA decided to remove air marshals from long-distance flights—the type of flights targeted by the 9/11 hijackers—in a cost-cutting measure. MacLean unsuccessfully raised concerns about this approach to TSA managers and a field agent of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General. MacLean finally brought his case to the media, and Congressional outrage promptly led the TSA to reverse its decision. However, MacLean was fired after his release was retroactively categorized as Sensitive Security Information, a type of controlled unclassified information.
As demonstrated by MacLean’s case, the current lack of internal protections and procedures for whistleblowers makes undesirable public disclosures more likely. When higher-ranking officials seem unwilling to solve problems or actually fail to address concerns that have been raised, employees are more likely to air grievances in public. In fact, instant messaging transcripts show that Bradley Manning viewed an officer’s refusal to address abuses by Iraqi police as a major turning point in his decision to leak documents. Furthermore, when wrongdoing goes unchecked, it is likely to worsen to the point that someone will feel morally obligated to blow the whistle. Insufficient avenues and protections for whistleblowers consequently curtail internal reports of moderate wrongdoing while increasing the odds that severe abuses will be leaked to the public. If someone within the Army had listened to Bradley Manning’s concerns, 250,000 diplomatic cables might still be secure.
President Obama already made a move in the right direction on November 4th by signing Executive Order 13566, which imposes government-wide standards for controlled unclassified information. Congress also appeared on course to move towards enhancing protections for government whistleblowers after both the House and Senate passed different versions of The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2010 in December. However, since the Senate version included protections for intelligence community whistleblowers while the House version did not, a version excluding intelligence community protections was returned to the Senate for passage, where it was killed by an anonymous Senator’s hold. Ironically, critics of the bill argued that it would lead to more Wikileaks-type disclosures.
What the Wikileaks incident revealed, more than anything, is a crisis of confidence in the government’s control of information. The release itself has raised doubts among foreign partners about the United States’ ability to guard sensitive information, and the response to Wikileaks has revealed a significant number of people who believe that the American government abuses its classification powers to keep its corruption and crimes away from criticism. To regain foreign confidence, America must improve its safeguards of classified information. To restore the faith of the American public, the government must become more judicious in assigning classified or controlled unclassified information labels while enhancing internal whistleblowing procedures and protections.
If the government merely tightens its control over information, the public will become less likely to believe that the government ever has valid reasons for protecting information. In making sure that people like Bradley Manning and Julian Assange cannot ever again become the overlords of America’s classified information, the government needs to make sure that people like Robert MacLean have a way for their voice to be heard before they feel a need to go public. Failure to act will expose the United States to future disclosures that will complicate its ability to conduct foreign policy. It will take time for foreign partners’ broken confidence in the American government’s protection of information to recover, but whether it recovers quickly or continues deteriorating depends on how the government responds to its current situation.
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