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The 'WikiLeaks Phenomenon' & the Disease of Secrecy in US Government

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More than a thousand government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies currently work counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence programs. Well over two million Defense Department civilian, military and contractor personnel hold confidential, secret and top secret level security clearances. At the same time, the US government engages in a gross amount of classification of information, significantly limiting what citizens are allowed to know about the operations of government and effectively shielding routine abuses of power from scrutiny and outrage.

newly released report from the ACLU by former FBI agent and ACLU policy counsel, Mike German, and senior policy analyst for the ACLU's speech, privacy and technology program, Jay Stanley, comprehensively examines the cancer of secrecy in the US government. The report lengthily titled, "Drastic Measures Required: Congress Needs to Overhaul US Secrecy Laws and Increase Oversight of the Secret Security Establishment," could have more concisely been titled, "Why US Citizens Need WikiLeaks."

The report appropriately gives attention to all the abuses of secrecy committed since President Barack Obama was inaugurated, which include (but are not necessarily limited to): embracing the Bush Administration tactic of using overly broad "state secrets" claim to prevent the declassification or exposure of information; fighting court orders to release photos depicting abuse of detainees held in US custody and supporting legislation to retroactively exempt the photos from release under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); threatening to veto legislation to reform congressional notification procedures for covert actions; refusing to declassify information on Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, a section believed to allow for the collection of information not relevant to espionage or terrorism investigations and aggressively pursuing a war on whistleblowing by prosecuting whistleblowers to a greater degree than any previous president.

One of the whistleblowers highlighted in the report is Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused whistleblower to WikiLeaks:

The Obama DOJ charged Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst, with "aiding the enemy" for allegedly providing a large cache of classified information to Wikileaks, a website devoted to revealing government secrets Manning was reportedly motivated by a desire to expose secret government activities to public scrutiny. And while the data cache was so large the leaker was unlikely to have known all its contents, the materials did reveal significant evidence of U.S. and other government abuse and corruption. Indeed, U.S. diplomatic cables leaked to Wikileaks are credited with instigating the democratic revolt in Tunisia, which became a catalyst for the "Arab Spring" movements across the Middle East and North Africa. And despite government claims of severe damage done to national security, the government has yet to identify any specific person harmed because of the leaks, and Defense Secretary William Gates reported that no sensitive intelligence sources or methods had been revealed. Gates also called the later leak of diplomatic cables "embarrassing" and "awkward," but said the consequences for U.S. foreign policy were "fairly modest." Yet the government subjected Manning to uncharacteristically harsh and clearly retaliatory conditions of pre-trial confinement that a State Department spokesman called "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid."

The egregious detention of Manning is no anomaly but just one facet of the Obama Administration's war on whistleblowers. Also named in the report is former NSA official Thomas Drake, FBI linquist Shamai Leibowitz, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling and State Department Stephen Kim.

Of the five, Leibowitz's case is probably the least known. According to the report, Leibowitz "received 20 months in prison after pleading guilty to charges of leaking classified information to an unnamed blogger. Though what he divulged remains unknown even to the sentencing judge, Leibowitz stated that, "[t]his  was a one-time mistake that happened to me when I worked at the FBI and saw things that I considered a violation of the law."

The report describes the bogus nature of this war on whistleblowers. Noting what is known as the "Bob Woodward rule," it describes how government officials, to influence, take credit or deflect blame for a decision or policy, leak classified information routinely. Very few of these releases of classified information are prosecuted:

That exposing internal wrongdoing or failures of government policy are aggressively investigated and prosecuted while other potentially more damaging leaks are not only adds to the perception that these prosecutions are simply another form of whistleblower retaliation. For example, in September 2009, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post obtained a leaked copy of a confidential military assessment of the war in Afghanistan that included General Stanley McChrystal's opinion that more troops were necessary to avoid mission failure. The purpose of this leak was undoubtedly to manipulate the policy debate by putting public pressure on President Obama to comply with the commanding general's preferred strategy. Amid the mountains of innocuous and illegitimately classified documents the government produces each year, this leak involved one of the small categories of documents that are appropriately kept secret: a war planning document. Yet, the Pentagon showed little interest in discovering who was responsible for leaking the war plans--even as prosecutors relentlessly hounded critics of the national security policies for revealing much less harmful information. The failure to investigate or prosecute the vast majority of officials who leak classified information demonstrates the arbitrary and discriminatory fashion in which the Justice Department is now prosecuting whistleblowers.

This passage affirms the reality that there is such a thing as "good leaks" and "bad leaks." "Good leaks" make the government look better in the eyes of the public. They help an agency or institution in government establish a narrative that the public does not understand. "Bad leaks" reveal information that creates the potential for scandal. They disrupt abuses of power and require the government to conduct oversight of operations to ensure they are not engaged in lawless activity.

Read the rest of the article at FDL's The Dissenter.

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for
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