WikiLeaks founder Julianne Assange's release of some 76,000 classified reports is clearly a breach of our national security, but underscores a growing problem in balancing information sharing with operations security (OPSEC) since the end of the Cold War. Consider that the U.S. has been involved with coalition operations over the past two decades including Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and has endeavored to change the attitude of military forces from a "Cold War/OPSEC mindset" to one that encourages information and intelligence sharing. This attitude change emphasizes resisting the temptation to over classify information. While this is especially necessary in COIN operations, where intelligence is fleeting and requires quick action, recent events suggest that the Department of Defense may have gone too far.
Army PFC Bradley Manning, the 22 year old intelligence analyst who is suspected of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks, grew up in an environment of evolving social networking technology (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). One could argue that his views towards information sharing are more permissive than someone older or unfamiliar with social networking. Additionally, blogging (even from a combat zone) is becoming more common and is sanctioned (if not encouraged) by military leadership that is continuously trying to "connect" to America's youth, from which they draw their recruits. However, the openness of today's information environment goes beyond age and, given the collaborative nature of information sharing and ever-improving technology, how the military safeguards its information is a critical national security issue.
Fortunately, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates clearly understands the issue. As a former Director of Central Intelligence, he is in a unique position to understand that intelligence leaks have real world consequences even if they occur in the virtual world. Regarding Wikileaks, Gates said that "my attitude on this is that there are two areas of culpability: One is legal culpability, and that's up to the Justice Department and others. That's not my arena. But there's also a moral culpability, and that's where I think the verdict is "guilty" on WikiLeaks. They have put this out without any regard whatsoever for the consequences."
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen was more direct when he said, "Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family." In fact, a Taliban spokesman recently stated that they are "studying" the names in the released reports and "if they are U.S. spies, then we know how to punish them."
Unfortunately, this is a complex issue that offers no immediate solution. In my view, the key is to resist "knee jerk," draconian measures that upset the necessary balance between information sharing and OPSEC. Despite the consequences of the WikiLeaks issue, Secretary Gates said that "I must say, my bias is that if one or a few members of the military did this, the notion that we would handicap our soldiers on the front lines by denying them information in an effort to try and prevent this from happening, my bias is against that. I want those kids out there to have all the information they can have."
That said, there are some actions that the Department of Defense should take to address the problem. For example, the department should enact policy changes aimed at increasing our procedures for safeguarding classified information. Secretary Gates reported that "we have controls in place" in rear headquarters overseas or in the United States that would have allowed detection of leaked information - additional controls should be created for organizations operating forward in combat zones. There must be severe punishment for those found to have leaked classified information as deterrence is a key element of any solution - the PFC Manning case might serve as a case in point, assuming that there is a trial and he is found guilty. Finally, there must be more vigilance from leadership in all organizations that handle classified information. Gates' decision to partner with the FBI in the WikiLeaks investigation in order to "ensure that the investigation goes wherever it needs to go" is an example of the kind of vigilance we need in our senior leaders.
While these actions may be necessary to ensure OPSEC remains a critical consideration in the release or sharing of classified information, the key is to ensure the correct balance that allows our service men and women, as well as our coalition partners, to accomplish their mission.