Has WikiLeaks threatened national security?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher issue "Government Secrecy" by Alex Kingsbury on February 11, 2011.


To be sure, the WikiLeaks documents embarrassed the U.S. government. They document the deaths of civilians in war zones, the close relations that the United States has with some despotic regimes and countless other details, both explosive and mundane, that were never meant for public consumption.

In some instances, the documents also show that the U.S. government has lied. A case in point: For years the Pentagon insisted publicly that it was not keeping a tally of Iraqi civilians and soldiers killed during the war and that counts provided by private aid groups and journalists were wildly inflated. In reality, the Pentagon did keep count, and its numbers were, if anything, slightly higher than the most widely cited press tallies. [Footnote 21]

But does embarrassment and scandal rise to the level of a national security threat?

Defense Secretary Gates denounced the release of thousands of once secret battlefield reports from troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but sounded a word of caution. “I've heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought,” Gates said.

“The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it's in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments — some governments — deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.” [Footnote 22]

Concerns over the disclosures have centered on two issues. First, that those who had provided information to, or cooperated with, the U.S. government — on the battlefield in Afghanistan, for instance — would face immediate reprisal. Second, that the release sowed mistrust that would make governments and individuals unwilling to cooperate candidly with the government in the future, for fear they would later be identified in leaked documents.

The first concern has been the more immediate and serious. In the wake of the first release of Afghan documents last July, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it bluntly: “Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” [Footnote 23]

Highlighting what it sees as the seriousness of the issue, the State Department released a letter to WikiLeaks from its legal adviser, Harold Koh, warning that the site was jeopardizing “the lives of countless innocent individuals — from journalists to human-rights activists and bloggers to soldiers to individuals providing information to further peace and security.”

John Bellinger III, a State Department legal adviser in the Bush administration from 2005–2009, says WikiLeaks undoubtedly caused damage, especially regarding the willingness of people to cooperate with the U.S. government in the future. “What if WikiLeaks had published the internal source list for Human Rights Watch, which relies on confidential sources to write its reports?” he asks. “Not many people would agree that transparency in that case was a good idea. Foreign Service officers routinely meet with dissidents, human-rights workers [and] environmental activists, and they do good work that may be compromised.”

But months after the leaks were published, nearly 100 government intelligence analysts reported to Congress that the disclosures had done little actual damage to U.S. national interests. “We were told [by intelligence analysts that the impact of WikiLeaks revelations] was embarrassing but not damaging,” a government official familiar with the report told the Reuters news agency. [Footnote 24] The State Department did note, however, that it helped relocate a small number of people who had been compromised through the release of the documents. [Footnote 25]

Some intelligence experts say the release of sensitive information may actually have had benefits. The documents showed frequent duplicity on the part of foreign governments. The Yemeni president, for instance, allowed U.S. forces to operate in his country and lied about it to the country's parliament. [Footnote 26] On the other hand, the State Department comes across as rather honest, experts say. As Blake Hounshell, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine noted, WikiLeaks actually showed that “the U.S. is remarkably consistent in what it says publicly and privately.” [Footnote 27]

But others contend that analysis misses the point. “Undermining the confidentiality of diplomatic communication harms our national security all by itself,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a former U.S. diplomat and current fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Yes, the leaks may show that American diplomats are good, honest, capable people, but that isn't reason enough to think that the affair helps us.”

Others have mixed views. Professor Peter Feaver, who heads the Triangle Institute for Security Studies at Duke University, says the WikiLeaks disclosures have imposed “costs on friends and allies in other countries who trusted us, making diplomacy and cooperation harder, feeding noxious conspiracy theories and contributing to an image of a weak administration incapable of protecting items it has claimed must be kept secret to protect our national security.” Then again, he says, “for fair-minded and careful observers, many of the files disprove certain critiques of the United States and so, in this limited sense, there are some silver linings.”

The Issues

* Has WikiLeaks threatened national security?
* Should the government prosecute Julian Assange?
* Is too much government information classified?

For more information on the CQ Researcher report on "Government Secrecy" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF.



[21] “Iraq death toll higher: WikiLeaks,” CBC News, Oct. 23, 2010, www.cbc.ca/world/story/2010/10/23/wikileaks-iraqi-death-toll.html.

[22] Robert Gates, Pentagon briefing, Nov. 30, 2010.

[23] Mike Mullen, Pentagon briefing, July 29, 2010, www.jcs.mil/speech.aspx?id=1432.

[24] Quoted in Hosenball, op. cit.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Nick Allen, “WikiLeaks: Yemen covered up US drone strikes,” The Telegraph, Nov. 28, 2010.

[27] Daniel Drezner, “The Utopianism of Julian Assange,” Foreign Policy, Nov. 29, 2010.