As the Johnson administration limped through its final months, Robert McNamara ordered his staff to catalog U.S. policy decisions in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The result was some 7,000 pages of military and intelligence documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times, which received the treasure-trove of secrets by way of Pentagon aide and subcontractor Daniel Ellsberg.
Today, thanks to WikiLeaks, the American people are being forced to digest the equivalent of the Pentagon Papers on a sometimes-weekly basis, as thousands of military, intelligence and diplomatic documents move from the realm of classified secrets to stolen property to front-page news with the click of a mouse.
Committed to the notion that "transparency creates a better society for all people," WikiLeaks uses its website to "bring feared and corrupt governments and corporations to justice." This "new model of journalism," as WikiLeaks calls it, has triggered yet another debate over the dividing line between free speech and national security, the proper conduct of a free press, the American public's right to know vs. the government's need to keep some things secret, and even the need for secrecy.
Damage Assessment. The WikiLeaks website proudly proclaims that it has published operations manuals for the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay; classified reports on the prison in Fallujah, Iraq, and on the Battle of Fallujah; detailed information on U.S. military equipment, by unit, in Iraq; gun-camera footage of a U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad; a U.S. Special Forces manual for bolstering unpopular allied governments; CIA strategies to shore up public support among allied populations for the war in Afghanistan; and, most notably, private and often embarrassing diplomatic profiles and exchanges.
In addition, as USA Today reports, WikiLeaks has exposed U.S. efforts to remove nuclear materials from Pakistan, State Department intentions to use diplomatic personnel as spies, quid pro quos offered by the Obama administration to persuade foreign governments to take on Gitmo detainees, cover-ups of missile attacks in Yemen, and support among Arab leaders to strike Iran. WikiLeaks has also published results from Army field tests on devices used to disable IEDs.
After obtaining this information from anonymous sources via its encrypted website, WikiLeaks releases the information to its "newspaper partners around the world," says site founder Julian Assange. Among the newspapers that have published WikiLeaks documents is, not surprisingly, The New York Times, publisher of the Pentagon Papers.
The alleged source that put WikiLeaks on the map was Pfc. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst with a perverse agenda and debatable taste in music. While serving in Iraq, Manning downloaded classified videos, thousands of battlefield reports and 251,287 diplomatic cables.
"I listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga," he bragged in a text, "while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history."
Then, as the Guardian reported, Manning allegedly shared this payload of secrets with the world via WikiLeaks - because he alone determined "it belongs in the public domain."
The damage done is both difficult to measure and open to debate.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called WikiLeaks' publication of secret diplomatic cables "an attack on America's foreign-policy interests," and said Manning's WikiLeaks time bomb "puts people's lives in danger, threatens our national security, and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems."
Similarly, a State Department legal adviser warned Assange before the release of the cables last November that airing the documents would risk "countless innocent individuals," "ongoing military operations" and "cooperation between countries."
Clinton predicts that it will take years to repair the damage and describes a recent visit to the Middle East as "an apology tour" due to the WikiLeaks revelations.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has a more shoulder-shrugging take on the tidal wave of leaks: "Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest."
Of course, it's serious enough to hold Manning in what amounts to solitary confinement, and threaten him with 52 years in prison.
Moreover, if things like the Gitmo operations manual, unit-by-unit equipment in Iraq, anti-IED field tests, CIA efforts to spin the Afghanistan war, attempts to spirit fissile material out of Pakistan, post-engagement reports by battlefield commanders and internal embassy memos are no big deal, why were they classified in the first place?
Ironies. The answer to that question, as Gates knows from his years at DoD and the CIA, is that some things need to be classified. And it is not Bradley Manning's or Julian Assange's responsibility or right to determine what to declassify. That is a job for Congress. Implicit in a representative system like that of the United States is the notion that the people delegate certain aspects of governing to their representatives.
One of the many things we delegate is determining what should be kept secret about our foreign policy and national security, what should not, and how and when to declassify information.
We all know from personal experience that some secrets can and do serve a constructive purpose. The same holds true in international relations. It would be nearly impossible for the United States to conduct foreign policy, and carry out military operations in a manner that serves U.S. interests, if there were no secrets - and, more specifically, if there were no shadows where secrets can be shared. The Assanges of the world will never accept it, but shadows and secrets are necessary to conduct diplomacy and carry out the sort of national-security strategy that deters or limits wars.
That is one of the sad ironies of Assange's WikiLeaks. By exposing secret decisions and actions that relate to foreign policy and national security, he thinks he is ending wars, preventing future wars, and thus serving mankind. But in truth, the effect of his handiwork - and of the treachery of those Americans who have handed over classified materials to him - could be the very opposite: it could close off the sorts of exchanges that avert war, or at least limit its effects. And it could increase isolation - and hence decrease understanding - between governments.
History shows us the benefit of shadows.
Could Theodore Roosevelt have prevented a war over Venezuela, or ended a war between Russia and Japan, without diplomatic ambiguities and shadows?
Could the Allies have orchestrated their Calais deception before D-Day, or unleashed the ferocious Dresden bombing, in a WikiLeaks era with every conversation and casualty exposed to the world?
Could Franklin D. Roosevelt have launched the Manhattan Project, or Truman used its fruits to end World War II, without the shadow of secrecy?
Could Kennedy and Khrushchev have negotiated a way around World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis if there were no shadows for back-channel diplomacy?
To be sure, we know about these episodes today, and can learn from them, because secret records, cables and diaries have been declassified. But if they had been revealed in real time - or if the principals thought that what they were saying, doing and promising would be exposed in short order - history could be very different. The deal that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis - the removal of Soviet nukes from Cuba in exchange for the removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey several months later - was contingent upon the deal remaining secret.
Anarchy. Another irony of Assange's whistle-blowing website is that while it airs the state secrets, military strategy, diplomatic planning and dirty laundry of the United States and its allies, it doesn't expose our enemies' dark secrets and darker plans. There is no Iranian, North Korean, Taliban or al-Qaida equivalent to WikiLeaks. And whereas much of the Western world tolerates, and some even applaud, Assange, the Russian and Chinese governments would simply erase anyone who dared expose their secrets - and indeed both governments have done this on several occasions.
In other words, WikiLeaks puts the United States and its allies at a disadvantage. Some will say that this has always been true of democratic governments vis-à-vis their dictatorial foes. But timing is everything. And WikiLeaks is shrinking the amount of time between policy formation, policy execution and public airing, and thus shrinking the shadows where U.S. foreign and defense policy can work.
Of course, that's Assange's goal. He openly admits that he wants to lead a movement to "bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality - including the U.S. administration."
That sounds more like modern-day anarchism than modern-day journalism. Indeed, Manning once boasted about "worldwide anarchy in CSV format," a reference to the kind of files he allegedly surrendered to Assange.
Collateral Damage. A final irony about WikiLeaks and its founder is that for all their sermonizing about the need for transparency and justice, neither of these, apparently, apply to them.
Unlike any really legitimate journalistic enterprise or advocacy group, there is no contact information on the WikiLeaks site. There is no list of staff, no avenue of accountability, no way to challenge or check what's posted. As The New Yorker observed in its rather damning portrait of Assange, "The thing that he seems to detest most - power without accountability - is encoded in the site's DNA."
As to justice, when two women filed sexual-assault charges against Assange, his defenders turned on them. In the words of the victims' lawyer, "They were attacked by Mr. Assange, and then they are treated like perpetrators themselves." It's unlikely the charges were politically motivated, given that both women had been employees of WikiLeaks.
Equally telling, WikiLeaks' stateless, nameless and faceless band of followers launched "Operation Payback" against anyone who dared to side with the women or cooperate with the criminal-justice systems tasked with handling the charges, which include rape. Among those targeted by the cyber-assault were MasterCard, Visa, PayPal, a Swiss bank and the Swedish prosecutor's website.
Of course, Assange and WikiLeaks can claim plausible deniability when it comes to Operation Payback, owing to the anonymous nature of the Internet. What they can't disavow is what they post. When The New Yorker confronted Assange with evidence that he had released the Social Security numbers of U.S. military personnel, he dismissed the devastating breach of personal privacy as "collateral damage."
This is the kind of person who is shaping today's "new model of journalism" - and handling America's secrets.
Alan W. Dowd is a contributing editor for The American Legion Magazine.