The danger of high-level intelligence leaks
As the world awaits Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s next move, he and United States president might have more in common than they believe.
In recent years, high-profile intelligence leaks have rocked the international stage.
From Wikileaks itself to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the intelligence community is suffering from a constant threat of leaked information.
At a time of increased classification of government communications, perhaps some information might be expected to slip through the cracks.
But there is something of a sea change towards leaks and leaking, so it is vital to recognise the importance of government secrecy and why it exists.
In November 2010, whistle-blower website Wikileaks was given an enormous collection of secret United States diplomatic cables.
The website uncovered sensitive information belonging to the US and other countries in these documents, although only a few were actually classified confidential.
The Wikileaks cables painted a mostly responsible picture of the governments involved, something that surprised many in the international community who perhaps expected revelations of deep corruption and widespread abuses of power.
Instances of dastardly deeds were indeed found, but these were by far the exception.
There are several schools of thought on intelligence leaks.
The first maintains that transparency of a government system must be enforced rigorously. A responsible government will not withhold secrets from its constituents. The public should be allowed to monitor them by having access to sensitive information.
If money is being spent on keeping secrets, the argument goes, then those secrets must be sinister. After all, who will guard the guards themselves?
Others emphasise the importance of ensuring sensitive information is hidden from view. Not to deliberately deceive the population, but to protect a country from military or economic rivals.
The amount of classified information should be kept to a minimum. In other words, if you try to classify everything, you classify nothing.
Still others wish to uphold a rigid standard of classification of all government traffic. Any information is deemed sensitive if it offers an insight into the government.
It is unwise to leave the curtains open even a sliver, lest light escape. You never know which fragment of information a competitor might find useful.
Overall, the importance of government secrecy is directly related to proper statecraft.
It is generally agreed that corrupt, runaway, totalitarian supervision should be resisted. But a certain level of secrecy is incredibly important for a healthy administration – this is the way the game is played.
A private diplomatic discussion between two countries cannot function while being blasted all over the media. The trust of secrecy is an integral part of the diplomatic experience.
Often a dialogue of strategically critical or economically sensitive topics requires extreme sensitivity for all parties involved. Agreements rely on an implicit understanding that full details will not be disclosed to protect each country from manipulation by a third party.
Diplomacy relies on the ability to leverage and manipulate the constraints of geopolitics, this is not the same as deception. It should not be surprising that a nation says one thing but acts in another.
For instance, the on-going saga in the Middle East between Iran and the West depends on high level, tremendously sensitive discussions.
Because the Iranians are bargaining for indigenous nuclear energy (and perhaps nuclear weaponry), and the West needs unfettered access to Arabian fossil fuels, each side has much to lose should these talks leak.
If they were made public, negotiating compromises might be revealed and critical respect for the leaders would diminish in their respective countries. Human lives would potentially even be lost and diplomacy thrown back months, if not years.
What the leakers and whistle blowers generally do not realise is that secretive discussions occur constantly around the globe. The policymakers of the world dictate what they wish to happen, but the intelligence officers are the ones who make it happen.
This week, somewhere in Jakarta, Cairo or Lima intelligence officers sit quietly discussing highly sensitive bilateral issues that will change the direction of their governments.
The same is occurring in an anonymous Arab or European city, except the participants are intelligence officers from Iran and the US or the UK.
One day soon, far away from the ceremony of international conferences, a decision will be made or deal struck to decide the nuclear issue in the Persian Gulf. The exact details of this detente will be unclear, but that is the way it should be.
If those full conversations were somehow leaked prematurely to the world, would it be useful information for the common citizen?
It would be juicy international gossip, but the crucial confidence in these important back channels would dissipate. Such channels must remain open for governments to function, bringing them down under the misdirected name of government transparency would be folly.
The allure of a leak can often blur the act’s ethics. Usually it is the leaker’s personal ethics driving them to release the information.
But leaking intelligence can sometimes be the unethical action. There are many times the leak does more harm to a constructive diplomatic process than it alleviates.
This is even the case for government-level leaks – those disclosed to the public in pre-prepared statements.
Most incumbent administrations are guilty of using intelligence or secret diplomacy to further their own careers. It is a rare and delicate specimen indeed that refuses to use such insightful snippets for power.
Case in point: directly after the raid on al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound in 2011, US President Barak Obama leaked the mission’s success in an official address to the world.
While it is understandable that such a significant mission be considered immediately newsworthy by the White House, intelligence officials were stunned.
The amount of material recovered by the Special Forces team at bin Laden’s home could have led to the arrests of other al Qaeda members if their leader’s death had remained quiet for just a while longer.
Using the confusion of his death to flush out other militants, or exposing other leads, may have resulted in even larger intelligence hauls.
Also, an unprecedentedly thorough detailing of the extremely sensitive mission was made public remarkably soon after the raid. The code name of the special forces group involved, the real unit name of the group, the tactics and mission plan and even the equipment used was all released.
A new stealth helicopter used the US military for a number of years but kept secret was divulged by White House officials with careless candour.
The crash of one at the mission site may have eventually forced Washington into coming clean, but the secrecy of the helicopter, and therefore its ultimate usefulness, could have been maintained for much longer had it not been discussed.
Some crucial raid details were not released, however.
Just how it was that the US helicopters were not seen by Pakistani air-defence radar during the raid, even though the air controllers tracked them taking off from their bases in Afghanistan, may never be known.
While not all aspects of the raid were divulged many critically sensitive details were, and there is a good chance it was done for political gain. In other words, personal gain.
Intelligence agencies and diplomats produce their product for whatever government is in power. There should never be a political motive to the intelligence-gathering processes. A certain level of trust is needed for this relationship to thrive.
That the consumer of intelligence will not abuse their position for political gain must be assumed for the channels to function properly.
No singular government will ever be immune to temptation or human error, but a watchful eye is needed. After all, who will guard the guards themselves? Let it not be the whistle blower.
Secrecy is important for a healthy government. And whistle blowers are sometimes a healthy external calibration, keeping the people in charge honest. But occasionally a leak does real harm to real people.
It pays to remember that humans work in secret to make the world a better place far more regularly than those who wish to sow disorder.
Those important and unnoticed diligent workers mostly deserve our recognition, not our scorn, for maintaining intelligence secrecy.
Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict.