Government’s many secrets surfacing

Freedom New Mexico

A good deal of overwrought commentary on all sides has accompanied the latest release by the WikiLeaks website of classified State Department cables, from those who lament the possible harm to national security to those who praise the release as contributing to the knowledge of what government does in our names that is essential to being an informed and active citizen.

There is something to both arguments.

If the release contributes to rethinking the federal government’s system of declaring some information too sensitive for ordinary taxpayers to know, it might do some good.

The several hundred cables released so far (of 250,000 or so promised over time) contain some titillating and potentially embarrassing tidbits.

Saudi king Abdullah no doubt is embarrassed for the world to know he urged a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear sites, but it’s hardly news that he felt that way. That Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have a curiously close relationship, which one U.S. diplomat described as a “bromance,” is interesting but previously noted. And so on.

Now, it is possible that some foreign government and intelligence services will be more circumspect about private conversations with State Department personnel — at least for a while. But few Americans are likely to feel less safe as a result of these revelations, nor should they. Diplomats from all countries understand that the candid assessments home governments like to get are often hardly diplomatic.

That said, assuming that whoever leaked this material was a government employee with access to official secrets — suspicion has centered on a 21-year-old Army private in intelligence — agreed not to release the material and did so. He or she should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The WikiLeaks document drops highlight ways in which the government classification system is colliding with the Internet era in ways that suggest rethinking the system from the bottom up.

It may be oversimplifying to suggest that an Internet sensibility wants all information to be free and readily available while government prefers much information to be held tightly, available only to those officially designated as reliable. Insofar as those general statements hold any truth, however, clashes were inevitable as people raised with an Internet sensibility come of age. Further clashes are likely.

The federal government’s classification system is a messy pastiche arising from Word War II, from the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks, and the “war on terror.” The result is a “system” in which a great deal of trivial material is classified more to spare embarrassment, to inflate some peoples’ sense of self-importance, or out of habit than from a solid relationship to core U.S. interests. The 9/11 commission recommended more sharing of information among agencies to facilitate better “connecting the dots,” and some of those recommendations were implemented.

Thus we have 500,000 to 2 million government employees with access to official secrets. In a population that size some leaks are bound to occur. As vast as the universe of classified material is, it is virtually impossible to monitor all unauthorized (and authorized) releases of classified material.

Clearly, classified material should be kept to a manageable minimum of material with an undeniable relationship to national security. Alas, the opposite is likely to happen as government agencies “tighten up” to prevent more disclosures.