Paul Pillar

The Many Costs of Leaks

The leaking mill known as WikiLeaks, evidently trying to outdo itself after releasing in July some 92,000 classified documents from the war in Afghanistan, has made a dump of nearly 400,000 similarly classified documents from the Iraq War. Forgive me for not wading through this material myself; I will rely on the summaries from those news organizations who were given the material in advance so they could do the wading for us. What has been summarized so far is hardly the stuff either of big-headline news stories or of public enlightenment. One is left to wonder about the motivations of the original leaker or leakers. One can also wonder about the motivation of WikiLeaks, although it is clear that the organization at least gets publicity. Maybe it will also make it into the Guinness book as the current holder of the record for the largest compromise of U.S. national security information ever.

The very lack of newsworthiness in the material makes it easy to think that such leaking is at worst an innocuous exercise. It is not. The sheer volume of the material being compromised makes it highly likely that the compromise entails at least some increased danger to military operations and to the personnel still conducting those operations in the war zones in question, just as Pentagon officials have said it does. But that sort of direct harm is not the only type of damage. There also are several indirect costs, which come not only from the WikiLeaks style of leaking-by-the-truckload but also from smaller disclosures of classified information, each one of which contributes to a climate in which still more leaks are expected.

One such cost is to impair the operations of government because of the fear of information leaking out. With regard to military operations in the field, this may mean restricting the flow of information between units that could really use the information. The effect is even more apparent in policy-making circles in Washington. Some papers that should get written never do because of a concern about the flap that would ensue if the contents were to leak. Some officials and components who ought to be included in deliberations are not because of a desire to keep matters as closely held as possible to minimize the risk of leaks. For similar reasons, some deliberations that should be held never get held at all.

A further indirect cost is lessened willingness of foreign partners to share information. This cost is most immediate and likely when partner's own information is involved in the leak. But even if it isn't, each leak contributes to an image of the United States Government as being unable to keep a secret.

Yet another cost is contributing to overall indiscipline about safeguarding information important to national security, including information whose disclosure would entail far more serious direct harm than the material in the WikiLeaks dumps. It is easy to look at the latter material and say, well, it's not as if some really, really, sensitive stuff were being released. But remember that the determination of what would be highly damaging to disclose and what would not is left to the whim of future would-be leakers.

Leaks do not, on balance, advance public understanding, about ongoing wars or anything else. This is true not only of the Wikileaks-style high volume dump but also of more selective leaks. The person doing the selecting is, almost by definition, a disgruntled rule-breaker with an ax to grind. That alone makes for a distorted picture. Even if there are counter-leaks (a game played too often in Washington) to try to offset the distortion, this involves someone else with a different ax to grind, and the overall result is still a partial and warped picture.

An unfortunate underlying sympathy toward leaking persists, based largely on two things. One is a general belief that government would be less able to pull wool over the public's eyes—and sometimes get the nation in trouble while doing so—if it were not able to keep so many things secret. But most wool-pulling has more to do with public inattention, mood, and gullibility than it does with classified information staying classified. The Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War, for example, involved outright deception, but it was deception based on rhetoric and salesmanship, not the withholding of some secret.

The other basis for the sympathy toward leaks is the interest of the press. The mainstream press has shown that it can behave responsibly with regard to specific classified items that become the subject of appeals by government officials not to publish. But the press needs a diet of information to survive, and a disclosure of secret information is some of the tastiest food it can hope to find. This imparts an overall pro-leak sentiment among journalists, some of whom express that sentiment quite openly.

Such sympathies are unfortunately here to stay, but they need to be resisted. Leaks and leakers—all of them, not just some of them—should receive the condemnation they deserve.