Transparency and Ethics in the Wake of WikiLeaks

June 27, 2011

Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, met WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at a gathering of investigative journalists in April 2010, shortly after WikiLeaks had released a video of the U.S. military firing on Reuters journalists.

Blanton told the audience at “When It Leaks It Pours: WikiLeaks, National Declassification System, and Access to Government Information” that while Assange expected a warm reception, “the journalists almost unanimously turned on him” regarding the release.

The reason was one of approach. Blanton said that while journalists consider openness an informed struggle over time, Assange took the anarchists’ approach of posting everything to let it collapse the system.

“Contrary to the Anarchist Manifesto, there are some secrets that should be maintained” because they can kill people—such as Afghans who are working with the U.S. to identify members of the Taliban.

“I think it’s not an accident that within four weeks [WikiLeaks was] in discussions with The Guardian about how to release” future materials. Now, they are “coming out slowly, and even, I would argue, responsibly.”

When the New York Times published cables from WikiLeaks, they got pushback from the government in three categories, Blanton said. First were instances where individuals cited might be put at risk, and the paper cut almost all of those. Second were passages about intelligence-gathering programs that weren’t yet public. The Times cut many but not all of those, arguing that some were obvious and others had already been exposed.

Blanton said that the government pushed hardest when it felt that the leak might damage a relationship with another country, but “the New York Times didn’t cut any of them.” He argued that it was right not to, because national security interests should not include suppressing information simply because an ally’s official may find secrets embarrassing.

The situation is not entirely rosy, of course. A negative consequence of WikiLeaks is the backlash from the government establishment, which has manifested itself in slower responses to FOIA requests and more lawsuits based on them.

It also caused what Blanton called “the best whistleblower protection to ever pass Congress” to fail when a few house Republicans pulled their support, and, even more seriously, the undermining of reforms created after 9/11 to encourage information sharing among the government’s classified entities.

And ultimately, Blanton said, the current national security system has misplaced priorities, with “low fences around vast prairies, when what we need are high, electrified fences around tiny graveyards of information” that are truly critical to national security.