The whole WikiLeaks.com situation is getting old. Our government’s response is predictable, understandable, but 100% wrong. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech don’t go away just because you have computers, massive quantities of information and the words “top secret” are involved.
We, the people have the right to discuss our National Dirty Laundry. That doesn’t mean that the government has to tell us where or what the dirty laundry is:
- It’s illegal for someone who works for the government to disclose classified information to someone who is not entitled to see it. If you work for the government, you can be legally subjected to the death penalty for this.
- For those who don’t work for the government, it works differently: if you decide to publish something that is secret, the government has a problem. The Supreme Court has created a situation where the government has the right to try to stop publication, but has to meet an impossible high standard to punish the publisher. It’s a strange balance, and there is an excellent Congressional Research Service report on prosecuting disclosure of secret material by Attorney Jennifer Elsea. In short, the Supreme Court has held that the purpose of freedom of speech is to protect “the free discussion of government affairs.”
Ultimately, one of the features of our government is that it’s powers are limited. The government has the right to keep a secret. It does not have the right to punish the publication or discussion about a secret once it’s disclosed. So, it comes down to trusting people.
When I was in the Navy (I was enlisted), I had a clearance, and after training on handling of classified material, the one thing I knew is:
I was being ultimately trusted and the penalty for violating that trust was very, very severe.
The severity was for a reason: I was being trusted with information that in the wrong hands literally could undermine our entire country’s security. People could die. Fortunes could be lost. Nations could literally rise and fall. Leaders, up to and including the President could fall from grace. You see, no amount of technology, no process and no number of spies and watchers could stop even the lowest ranking sailor who wanted to disclose a secret. It’s remarkable, but true: our nation’s deepest, darkest secrets stay that way simply because the people entrusted with them choose not to disclose them. Because someone’s got to fix that expensive and deadly equipment we defend our country with, you have to trust people with some very scary information.
Back to WikiLeaks and Jullian Assange: the real criminal in all of this is PFC Bradley Manning, the soldier gave WikiLeaks their stash of cables. Manning is a tragic figure. He knowingly put his career, future and life on the line to give Julian Assange and WikiLeaks their trove of diplomatic cables. I’m sure Manning rationalized it. I’m sure he thought that he was doing right. Reality is that he’s going to be remembered as a great traitor, worthy of the same contempt we use when we say Benedict Arnold. Even worse, it appears that Manning’s disclosure is largely boring, everyday communication that every nation has with it’s diplomats and employees. So Manning traded it all in for nothing, and Julian Assange is milking it for every bit of attention he can get for his cause.