When the secret information publisher WikiLeaks released some 92,000 classified documents related to the war in Afghanistan Sunday, the response from the US government was harsh. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the leak “has a potential to be very harmful to ... those that are working to keep us safe.”
President Obama echoed Mr. Gibbs Tuesday. “I’m concerned about the disclosure of sensitive information from the battlefield that could potentially jeopardize individuals or operations,” he said.
But just after that, he added, “The fact is these documents don’t reveal any issues that haven’t already informed our public debate about Afghanistan.”
To listen to Mr. Obama at one moment, WikiLeaks is damaging security. But seconds later, it sounds as though WikiLeaks’s information is far less exciting than the fact that it was leaked.
The true state of affairs lies somewhere in the muddled middle, say security experts.
In the wake of The Washington Post’s report on “Top Secret America” last week, which highlighted redundancies and a trend toward “overclassification” in the intelligence community, many have wondered why the information given to WikiLeaks needed to be secret at all or whether this incident amounts to a “serious” leak.
There may be more sensitive material that WikiLeaks decided not to publish, but analysts have mocked some of the exposed files marked “secret.” Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, commented on his blog that if he read further, he expected to learn such “scoops” as “ ‘Afghanistan’ has four syllables” and that the Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series.
The public impulse is toward greater openness, but there are legitimate reasons for keeping even mundane intelligence classified, some say. Especially in a war zone like Afghanistan, too much intelligence is flowing in to make immediate judgments about classification, says Mr. Cordesman, a former official at NATO and the State and Defense Departments. Making that decision for each report on the spot would create a logjam, he says.
“You cannot sit around and evaluate real-time reporting for classification,” Cordesman says. “You feed it into the classified system so you can get immediate feedback without having to fight over the classifications.”
A basic level of secrecy also allows analysts a degree of candor and freedom in evaluating intelligence. This is a subtler but still-important reason to classify low-level intelligence, says Gary Schmitt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. If documents can be leaked without punishment, analysts may hold back from attaching their names to provocative opinions.
“You do want the government to be able to talk fairly freely,” Mr. Schmitt says. “You get a classified jumble, but you also get candor. That’s the price you pay.”
Then there is the matter of protecting human sources working on the ground. “One official reason may not be substance but sourcing,” says Schmitt. “If it is connected to some level of human intelligence ... it can still have to be classified.”
In the latest leak, news organizations focused on accounts of collateral damage and reports speculating that elements of Pakistani intelligence were supporting the Taliban. The WikiLeaks papers were also filled with battlefield reports much like those in the news every day. Those reports, however low-level, reveal enough – specific details about personnel and location operations, for example – that it is uncomfortable having them out in the open, Cordesman and Schmitt say.
“It’s too easy to dismiss that it’s all low-level and you can’t do anything with it," Schmitt says. "You’d be surprised what people can get out of low-level intel with enough of it,” he adds.
The concentration of those reports in one place is what troubles Cordesman. “A lot of it is familiar,” he says, “but now it is in one place for Al Qaeda and whoever else to review.”