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WikiLeaks: When is it 'right' to leak national security secrets?

The WikiLeaks trove of 91,000 classified US military documents has prompted discussion about how to maintain national security in the digital age – and when the end justifies the means.

By Staff writer / August 2, 2010


Shortly after speculation hit the Internet that a US Army intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, might be one source of the 91,000 classified documents on Afghanistan that the website WikiLeaks released, a visitor to a liberal blog offered the following comment: "Bradley Manning is my kind of war hero."

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Yet Mr. Manning – an Army specialist in his early 20s who sits in a military jail over his alleged leaking of a military video capturing a 2007 helicopter attack in Iraq – is considered by others a treasonous villain. The FBI is currently investigating Manning and possible accomplices who may have provided the technical expertise to steal the material.

No doubt, this mix of Jekyll and Hyde is the sort of characterization that leakers and whistle-blowers have always endured. But the US military's focus on Manning in its investigation of the highest-profile leak of classified documents since the Pentagon Papers in 1971 raises questions about the culture of leaks in the Information Age – and in the era of the pocket-size USB stick.

Are the opportunities for leaks of classified information ballooning, given that the military and America's 16 intelligence agencies are classifying more information and that, according to a Washington Post investigative report, more than 854,000 Americans have clearance for top-secret work?

Is the likelihood rising that someone with access to information will feel a moral obligation to "get the truth out" – as the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq grind on and as many debate controversial practices such as waterboarding and secret prisons?

The existence of WikiLeaks, of thumb drives, and of thousands of young soldiers recruited for the wars every year supports answering that question with a "yes."

"The classifying of information has gone way up – it's doubled or tripled since these wars began – and then we have nearly nine years and counting of Afghanistan and Iraq and the controversial practices associated with them," says Coleen Rowley, a former field-office legal counsel for the Federal Bureau of Investigation who blew the whistle to FBI Director Robert Mueller about information lapses prior to 9/11 – and saw her career stall.

"Of course someone with access to information is going to be having second thoughts about all this," she says. "Someone is going to decide 'this is enough' and act on it."

The whistle-blower, often associated with the courageous revealing of corporate or government fraud, dishonesty, or malfeasance, is usually celebrated. In some cases, laws have even made whistle-blowing an obligation.

But the WikiLeaks case involves military and diplomatic secrets, and thus the higher question of the impact on national security has been invoked. Indeed, a legal differentiation exists between the corporate whistle-blower and the leaker of government secrets.

"In legal cases, we speak of the 'protected activity' of the whistle-blower, the individual who comes forth with information about something the employer is doing that is damaging to the public good," says Richard Renner, legal director of the National Whistleblowers Center in Washington.