Closing the Barn Door After the Secrets Have Gone

In the wake of Wikileaks release of leaked diplomatic cables, the White House has directed federal employees not to access the Wikileaks web site with out authorization. That includes people working at the Library of Congress, which has blocked access to the website on its networks. In an e-mail to the general counsels at other federal agencies, the Office of Management and the Budget wrote that federal agencies have an obligation to “protect classified information pursuant to all applicable laws, as well to protect the integrity of government information technology systems."The Office of Management and the Budget reminded them that classified information "remains classified until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. government authority."

The move makes a certain perverse sense. As they say, the cables themselves are still technically classified. And federal employees can still—like everyone else in the world—access the cables that have been republished elsewhere. The American Wikileaks website is down at the moment anyway, having been booted off several hosted servers after the hosts faced public pressure and the website was subject to denial-of-service attacks, although the German and Dutch mirror sites are for the moment still available.

But in another sense it is little more than a silly symbolic move. The truth is that while there is plenty in the cables that is publicly embarrassing for the U.S. and its diplomatic partners, the truth is that the cables reveal very little that would surprise anyone who follows international politics. You could already read about Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s relationship with teen prostitutes online. Much of what is in the cables is simply impolitic or impolite to say aloud. And while the massive leak may make our diplomatic partners less likely to confide in us in the future, governments could not seriously have expected that anything they said to low-level diplomats—which they knew would be widely distributed—would be particularly secure.

It’s not simply that while governments have a legitimate need to keep some information confidential, they also—as I have argued in different context—use their secrecy power to shield themselves from legitimate scrutiny. Or that when the government tried to block publication of the leaked Pentagon Papers, the Supreme Court ruled that the government would have to meet “a heavy burden” to restrain people from exercising their right to publish leaked classified information, even if leaking classified information is itself still a crime. The truth is that precisely what makes information technology so powerful—that it allows you to search and access vast amounts of information easily—makes it difficult for organizations of any size to keep secrets. Not when it just takes one of the thousands of people with access to that information to smuggle it off of secure servers on a CD labeled “Lady Gaga.”

What this episode ultimately shows is that we need a new approach to keeping secrets. The U.S. government routinely classifies vast amounts of information just to be on the safe side. When I worked briefly for the foreign service, we would classify even the summaries I would write of what had been in local news each day. Governments have to know that very little of what they do is secure now. They can still keep a few genuinely important secrets by drastically limiting access to them. But nothing that everyone in the State Department knows is a secret any more. We should stop pretending that it is.

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