13 August 2010


Let me start by saying I don't approve of releasing classified information. Just so we're clear about that. Releasing classified info is a bad idea. People shouldn't do it, unless they're properly authorized to declassify and release it.

But here's the thing: when classified information is released, I'm pretty sure it ceases to be classified (recent objections to the contrary not withstanding). The definition of classified material is information that would cause harm if it were released. As soon as it's released (inadvertently or otherwise) the proverbial genie is out of the bottle and the damage has been done. The released information it can't be re-released any more than it can be un-released (particularly in this digital age), and once it's out, I don't think it can do any further damage by being "more out."

Because of that, I don't understand the recent ban on troops accessing WikiLeaks. Never mind the fact that we're saying the bad guys can look at this stuff but our guys can't, which has its own logical flaws. And it's not as if I really want to go read any of that stuff. I'm just confused because as far as I can tell, the released stuff doesn't qualify as classified anymore - unless I'm missing something. (And just to be clear: I have not personally visited the wikileaks site and have no plans to do so).

The other thing I wanted to point out was that we're talking about digital files. Asking that WikiLeaks return the digital documents sounds kinda funny to me - it's sort of like asking someone to return a fax by faxing it back to you. Yes, the Pentagon also asked that WikiLeaks also delete their files, but the request to "return" them made me laugh a little. Would they like the files to be delivered on a flash drive (which isn't allowed on government computers) or as an email attachment (which would get stripped by the file server because it's too large)? Maybe they could return the stuff by posting it on a website somewhere so the DoD could just retrieve the files... oh, never mind.

As for deleting, the doc's have already been posted online and copied by more than one or two people. So even if WikiLeaks decided to cooperate, that would simply mean they don't have a copy anymore... but it wouldn't exactly take the info out of circulation. Such a move might have merit as a symbolic gesture, but it wouldn't do anything (a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g) to solve the problem.

By all means, let's go after people who break the law. Let's encourage WikiLeaks (and others) to not solicit this sort of thing or repeat this sort of thing. If they've got a stack of unpublished classified stuff, let's encourage them not to expose it. But let's also keep in mind that we're not dealing with paper. Concepts like "return" and "delete" simply don't have the same meaning they used to.


Raymond said...

I'll quibble slightly with this line:

"when classified information is released, I'm pretty sure it ceases to be classified"

Not true. It still is less useful to a foreign intelligence service/other adversary as a single data point, not confirmed. When we continually cite that piece of info in other unclass communications "because it's now in the open", we give confirmation of that single data point.

The rest of your piece? Spot on. Keep up the fire.

Glen B. Alleman said...

There's classified and then there's classified.

If we followed your advice we never would have known Kissinger was bombing Cambodia.

As a Vietnam combat Vet, we as citizens MUST know about the military's actions after the fact, to hold them accountable before the fact.

Without this we risk being lied to in the same way we were lied to in Vietnam.

Glen Alleman
101st Airborne Division
Phu Bai, I-Corp, 1970

The Dan Ward said...

@Raymond - I think there's a difference between releasing and confirming. I'm just saying I don't see how visiting the site constitutes release... and I don't think it constitutes confirmation either. But you've got a good point that we can make an unauthorized release worse by confirming it.

@Glen - I know you're not saying people should release classified information without authorization, right? As a general rule, I'm gonna say that's a bad idea. Are there VERY rare cases where it should be done? Maybe. OK, definitely. But like I said, very rare and you've gotta be willing to live with the consequences.

Keep in mind, it's not lawful to mark something classified just to prevent embarrassment, hide illegal activity or to avoid getting in trouble. If that sort of thing happens... it's been unlawfully classified.

Dick Field said...

Glen --

Disagreement with actions of the Government does not constitute justification for unlawful release of classified information. Period.

Dick Field
408th Radio Research Detachment
(supporting the 196th Light Infantry Brigade)
Chu Lai, I Corps, 1967-1968

Craig Brown said...

There is the other bigger question though, isn't there.

Just how tight can you keep a lid on things these days anyway?

The reaction of barring visits to wilileaks is more than just illogical.