This weekend's release of 92,000 secret documents on the Afghanistan war by WikiLeaks -- the same group that posted a classified video of a lethal U.S. helicopter strike in Iraq -- is raising the question of whether government, or anybody, can keep things under wraps in the digital age.
The new Afghan diaries provide "a whole map, through time, of what has happened during this war," WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said in a video posted on YouTube. It's a map that detours from the picture presented by U.S. policymakers, and as such, it is has been widely compared to the Pentagon Papers, which helped turn the American public against the Vietnam War.
But while Daniel Ellsberg laboriously spent nights furtively copying the 7,000-page study of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, leaking these days often involves little more than a few computer keystrokes.
"Maintaining secrecy is harder today than ever before," said former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow. "Technology has enabled a single disgruntled individual to disseminate hundreds of thousands of documents worldwide using nothing more than a thumb drive. Not so long ago, it would have taken a bank of copier machines and several U-Haul trucks to do as much damage."
And there are more potential whistle-blowers than ever. As The Washington Post reported last week, an estimated 854,000 people hold top-secret security clearances, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in the nation's capital.
"It's pretty hard to keep stuff secret when so many have access to it and have an agenda," said Arthur Hulnick, a former government intelligence officer.
Transparency vs. Security
Assange has promised more revelations as his network of volunteers sift through a backlog of classified material. It is unclear who leaked the Afghan diaries, described as the worst leak in U.S. military history. There are reports that the data may have been part of a huge cache given to WikiLeaks by Pfc. Bradley Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst in jail on charges that he passed along the "Collateral Murder" helicopter video to the group.
"He should never have had a drive on his computer that would permit downloading of records. ... That should not have been physically possible," said Steve Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Secrecy. "That was an operational failure on part of military."
"Clerks are always the best possible sources of information," said Patrick Lang, who once headed military intelligence in South Asia and the Middle East. He downplayed the significance of the leaked diaries -- "merely a record of daily goings-on" -- but said even routine information should be kept under wraps. "You can't conduct operations with everyone looking over your shoulder all the time," he said.
Assange rejects such thinking, arguing that more transparency in government will strengthen it. He hopes his website will usher in an "age of the whistle-blower," in which more people with access to sensitive information will come forward to make it public.
Though enraged by the disclosure, the Obama administration agrees in principle that too much information is stamped "secret." President Barack Obama last year called for more openness in government and tasked the archivist of the United States with coordinating a review of secret government documents with an eye toward declassifying records, many generated by the military in past wars.
But while the White House says it favors fewer secrets, the Justice Department has taken a hard line on classified leaks, and this latest breach is unlikely to change that, said Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer who focuses on national security. He said digital technology has actually made it easier for government investigators to catch leakers, despite their best efforts to cover their tracks.
While the WikiLeaks disclosure may embolden more people to steal classified information, Zaid said it is likely to have a chilling effect in the long run.
"In many ways, WikiLeaks was the little kid taking the tin cup [and] running it along the bars of the lion's cage without realizing they get too close, and the lion reaches out its paw and grabs them," he said. "By sticking WikiLeaks' finger in the government's eye, it's tempting government to come down more harshly on leakers."
Cover-ups Harder Now
The identity of Deep Throat, who spilled clues in the Watergate scandal in a dark parking garage, remained a secret for more than 30 years until his family came forward. Today, e-mails and digital downloads are easy to trace back to their source. Richard Nixon's presidency fell because of a cover-up, but the Internet has made attempts to paper over the truth nearly impossible.
So says Jonathan Zittrain, who teaches law and computer science at Harvard and is a co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
He was struck by how the Obama administration appeared to be "implicitly accepting" that there is "no way to put the genie back in the bottle" once WikiLeaks shared the reports. "They basically, like everyone, agree that there is not a whole lot that can be done about it," he said. If WikiLeaks were shut down, the reasoning goes, some other blogger or group would take on the mantle of cyberleaker.
"It is harder for any administration to pull the wool over the American public's eyes," said Brian Katulis, a national security fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. He noted that President George W. Bush "tried to mount a public relations campaign" in 2005 to convince the public that the war in Iraq was going well, but "didn't succeed because other information was available through the news media and the Internet that said the story was negative when the president was saying we're turning things around."
Zittrain said the lesson for policymakers may be "not to put anything in writing in any kind of form." He noted how it struck him as odd when the Sunlight Foundation posted the e-mails of his former dean, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. "You can stare at her in-box," he marveled. "Wow, that's so empowering. There was no way before to do it, so it's an interesting civic lesson. On the other hand, it might be, 'Wow, I'm in government, and the lesson is don't write anything down.'"
That, he said, may lead public officials to stop offering unvarnished views in memos and e-mails. Instead, more will be crafting correspondence with a third audience -- the public -- in mind.
While the temptation to gussy up internal documents may be tempered by the fact that "it's awfully hard to be in press conference mode all the time," Zittrain said, there is an upside. "The face an organization presents to the outside world may have to become harmonized with the face it presents to itself. You can't have a big difference in what you say for public consumption and what you say inside, because that will be noted. That may not be a bad thing."
The downside? Historians may never learn what really went on behind closed doors if public servants are convinced anything they say in the course of doing their jobs may become public. "All of a sudden," Zittrain said, "you don't have authenticity anymore."
Corporations also are intruding more and more on government's private turf. Whether it's private encryption software, commercial satellites equal in capabilities to government spy satellites, or Google Earth, it's gotten a lot more complicated to keep secret government locations secret.
And personal secrets may be even less safe. As social networks like Facebook have shown, youthful indiscretions in sharing information on the Internet can come back to haunt people in adulthood. The Supreme Court ruled last month that a boss could snoop on an employee's text messages sent while on the job.
The bottom line, whether it's WikiLeaks or last Saturday night: Cyberspace is not Las Vegas.