The Morality of Leaks

I have been musing about the Wikileaks leaks ever since I posted yesterday’s comment. Not so much about the leaks themselves as about the change in attitudes about classified information over the last half century.

During WWII, we broke a number of Axis codes, the most famous being Purple, the primary Japanese diplomatic code, and Enigma, a German high-level military code handled on the Allied side under the codeword Ultra. The men and women at Bletchley Park, who did most of the work with Ultra, were sworn to secrecy. They kept that secret for thirty years, and it was only after Winterbotham’s book “The Ultra Secret” was published in 1974 that the stories began to come out. One anecdote (which may come from Winterbotham, I don’t recall) talked about a high society grand-dame who had to undergo an operation in the 1960’s. Her greatest fear was not of dying, but that she might, under the influence of the anesthetic, speak of Ultra, which she worked on during the war twenty years before. In my day, long after everything about the code-breaking had come out, there was a conference on the history of Ultra, held at the Defense Intelligence Agency. One person in the audience stood up and challenged the speaker, asking how it was possible that such a secret had been kept for so long. Another, older, historian stood up, and said (with his wife looking at him somewhat open-mouthed, from her seat by his side) “Because we gave our word not to speak of it.”

I think that since the end of WWII, a number of trends have come together to erode this level of dedication. First, is the fact that Intelligence information of all kinds is available to a much wider audience than before, and that this audience is dedicated to things other than preservation of secrets. It was well known in my day that the biggest source of leaks of highly classified information was the colonels and generals in the Pentagon and the major commands, who were trying to protect their programs and budgets. This set the stage.

In addition, the system itself has been systematically misused as a way of covering up embarrassing information. Think of the number of times that redacted information becomes available and proves to be not of national security importance but merely politically inexpedient, or demonstrates actually illegal activity by the government. Think of the number of times the powers that be made some claim about jeopardizing national security, that later turned out to be false. For example, the original WikiLeaks leak — it didn’t compromise any Intelligence sources.

Finally, I think there is a certain war-weariness engulfing the nation, but those who are weary see no good way out. The second Iraq war was, as many have said, unjustified, illegitimate, the adventurism of an incompetent President and an oil-obsessed Vice President. It not only used up the regular Army, it ground down the Guard and Reserves. PFC Manning, who leaked at least some of the Wikileaks inventory had a lot of problems other than opposition to the war, but the fact is that a lot of people in similar positions found that the US was less than pure in its actions there. Everyone points at Manning as the possible source of all the leaks, but others could have been involved, given the situation and the climate.

I am not going to bewail the loss of honor and dedication in our country, like some provincial Roman scribbling in his villa while awaiting the arrival of the Burgunds. We are what we are and where we are. Those in power have, as the neocons would put it, created a new reality. In doing so they squandered a valuable resource and now will suffer the loss. If they had kept faith with the American people, we wouldn’t be in this mess.


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