Call it the Year of WikiLeaks. From April 5, when the site posted a grainy video showing the death of two Reuters employees from a U.S. helicopter attack, to November 28, when mainline journalism organizations began releasing stories based on a trove of some 250,000 diplomatic cables, the secret-sharing site shaped the news cycle. It also threatened to upend America’s working assumptions about journalism and free speech.
Of course, WikiLeaks has been around for years, posting anonymously sourced documents that others would have rather been kept hidden. But it was this year that people noticed.
The helicopter video—easy for cable news to broadcast, and shocking in its graphic depiction of death—captured world attention. In June, Wired broke the news—based on a tip from the hacker who turned him in—that federal officials had arrested Bradley Manning, a young army intelligence analyst who claimed to be a WikiLeaks source. And then came three “mega leaks”—the cables most recently, but action reports and logs from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, before that—where WikiLeaks gave journalists and analysts advance looks at the data, providing them the chance to report out stories from the documents.
The old WikiLeaks model had simply been to post the documents on their own site, perhaps with a short amount of explanatory analysis. Even when the site had truly important documents, they didn’t get the attention they perhaps deserved. Exclusivity matters to journalists, who are always picking and choosing which stories are most worth their limited time to write and report.
While the four recent high profile releases are quite different that the site’s previous fare, there’s no denying these documents got far more attention than any that were released under the previous model. (And it has clearly netted WikiLeaks more attention—some positive; some quite negative.)
But this year of WikiLeaks must be footnoted by the fact (a reasonable and well supported presumption, really) that the origin of the megaleaks, and of the video, is a single source who is now locked up, and will, no matter what happens at his trial, never get access to classified documents again. Are there people, who hold positions like Manning once did, inclined to leak massive tranches of documents? Maybe yes, maybe no.
It there aren’t, and WikiLeaks continues to partner with news organizations by giving them advance looks at documents they receive, well, this becomes a much more vanilla enterprise—something like ProPublica with an anonymous dropbox.
Of course, there is always the potential that WikiLeaks—or OpenLeaks, or any other site that would copy or expand their model—will again get massive troves of U.S. secrets. That has led some to the conclusion that the U.S. secrecy regime must be rewritten to match this threat.
But the month since the cables began being reported on have allowed for some serious thought, and some serious deep breaths.
Despite protests from members of the Obama administration that the leaks would greatly damage national security—and even more strident cries from members of Congress, media commentators, and other political hangers-on—the full impact of the leak on America’s long term national security interests is unknown, but likely quite “modest,” according to no less an authority than Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
“Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think - I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought,” Gates said. “Other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another. Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”
David Sanger, The New York Times’s chief Washington correspondent, and the author of several articles based on the leak, recently said that has heard from his sources inside government that they think having more information in the public domain on China’s cyber warriors, and on Middle Eastern governments’ true feelings toward Iran’s nuclear program—two major stories to emerge from the leak—may ultimately be salutary.
Naturally, Sanger also said that members of the foreign policy bureaucracy were worried that the publication of the material would convince foreign leaders, midlevel bureaucrats, and dissidents that the United States cannot protect their words offered in confidence.
There’s no arguing that point—the cables were never meant to be seen by unauthorized users, and, to say the least, they now have been. (Whether or not that means that some will be more circumspect in what they tell the U.S’s emissaries is another question, and if that were the case, its impact on national security yet another.)