Paul Pillar

The Information-Sharing Pendulum

 Sharing of information within the executive branch is one of those governmental activities that varies according to the latest public flap or failure and the recriminations that ensue. If a story line that emerges from the flap—as has been the case with some terrorist attacks—is that government agencies were not communicating well enough with each other, then agency managers will respond by loosening controls on information. Now in the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosure of classified documents by the truckload, we are seeing recriminations pushing in the opposite direction. Representative C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-MD), in noting that a half million people have access to the classified Department of Defense system from which the suspected leaker probably obtained his material, said, "How did we get to the point where a private with a questionable background has that kind of access? We members of Congress...don't have that kind of access." At least some members of Congress are acknowledging the larger unfortunate pattern of reaction and counter-reaction. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, observed that the access involved is exactly the kind of more extensive dissemination of information that so many were loudly promoting after the 9/11 terrorist attack.

I agree with some of the current Congressional hand-wringing in that there are good reasons to move the pendulum in the direction of tighter control of classified information. The main reason is that public disclosures of such information as we have just seen are probably more damaging to U.S. interests than the next terrorist attack that will kill Americans, even though the damage is less visible and less calculable. If that comparison doesn't sound right, then think of it this way. The United States probably depends more on foreign cooperation and foreign information for counterterrorism than it does for just about any other objective or mission. The information that a foreign government is deterred from sharing with the United States because of a concern that it will be leaked may well be the information that could ward off that next terrorist attack. The Kuwaiti foreign minister made a similar point yesterday.

The damage is serious enough that I even found myself nodding in agreement for the first time in a long while with a Charles Krauthammer column, or at least parts of it. Jacob Heilbrunn is right that much of what Krauthammer had to say is over-the-top neoconservative Obama-bashing and that some of what he hints at risks making the WikiLeaks guy a martyr. But Krauthammer is right that the book ought to be thrown at everyone involved in this leaking and that if current laws aren't good enough for that, we should write a better book.

The information-sharing pendulum is unlikely to swing as far back toward tighter control as it would after a nice big spy scandal. Espionage is inherently more scandalous to most Americans than leaking. Besides, so many people have gotten so much entertainment out of all that delicious stuff in the leaked cables. But mention of espionage provides another way to think about potential damage to the national interest. For every Private Manning—or whoever it was who gave WikiLeaks this material—there could be someone else with the same access but different motivations who sells secrets by the briefcase to a foreign government. For all we know, someone may be doing that right now.

Wherever the pendulum stops after this newest swing, it will still be a pendulum and will have more swings in the future. After the next terrorist attack, or any other incident that is perceived as a government failure in which information was not sufficiently shared, the current hand-wringing will be forgotten and there will be a new round of recriminations about the need to share more.


(Photo by Hitchster)