We may soon have before our eyes the mother of all leaks. “The State Department and American embassies around the world,” reports the Daily Beast, “are bracing for what officials fear could be the massive, unauthorized release of secret diplomatic cables in which U.S. diplomats harshly evaluate foreign leaders and reveal the inner-workings of American foreign policy.”
For students of diplomacy and warfare this could be delicious, the gift of the century, the Pentagon Papers of the 21st century.
The security breach is the handiwork of a 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst, now under arrest in Kuwait, who claims to have downloaded 260,000 State Department cables with the intent to make them public. Specialist Bradley Manning of Potomac, Maryland has apparently already leaked—to Wikileaks, a secretive online repository of classified information based in Sweden—a video of a 2007 clash in Baghdad that left 12 people dead, including two Reuters cameramen, by fire from a U.S. helicopter. Wikileaks released the full-length video in April, along with an edited, propaganda version—viewed by millions—of the same event.
If the trove of documents makes its way onto the Internet (Wikileaks, it should be noted, is thus far denying that it possesses the files), the information contained therein will no doubt be of great value to analysts of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are likely, after all, to see a huge slice of the vital communications by which a major arm of the U.S. government organizes for conflict. Along with documentation of all the challenges of waging a war, we are also likely to see a catalog of lapses and shortcomings, including some of the chicanery and buffoonery that our State Department have generated in the last year or two of the Bush administration and the first year and a half of Obama’s.
This could all be a bonanza for public understanding—for we all have a natural curiosity about how our government operates behind the scenes. But like any leak, it could also be a bonanza for our adversaries. We tend to forget that the classified documents that Daniel Ellsberg passed along to the New York Times were historical in nature. The Pentagon Papers—a classified history of the Vietnam war—had been produced during the Johnson administration. Not one of the 7,000 papers Ellsberg leaked in 1971 was less than three years old. The case is remembered today not because the secrets at issue were particularly sensitive but only because Richard Nixon took the unprecedented step of going to court to try to stop the presses.
But now, in the Manning case, we are dealing with near real-time secrets—and not a mere 7,000 pages but 260,000 raw cables. Along with much else, intelligence sources and methods are likely to be revealed. For reasons not stated publicly, the U.S. Army is said to be particularly concerned. We can speculate that U.S. forces engaged in covert operations across the Middle East, reported in the New York Times in yet another recent leak, may well be identified and placed in peril. American soldiers and intelligence agents may die.
We thus have before us the essential challenge posed by leaking: the public’s right to know versus the public’s right not to know. That latter right is rarely spoken of let alone defended, but it is easily explained: what the public knows our mortal adversaries will know as well. No doubt there would be intense public interest in the content of the 260,000 cables. But our government sometimes—most often—keeps secrets for good reason. If Specialist Manning has, as he claims, passed along this trove to Wikileaks, the punishment should be commensurate with the crime.
Gabriel Schoenfeld is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.