Felix Stalder on Mon, 15 Nov 2010 17:18:36 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> WikiLeaks and the Culture of Classification

I don't think Wikileaks works on the level of operationally-relevant 
secrets. It's not about espionage. So the fact that there are other forums 
where more highly valuable stuff is being exchanged, doesn't diminish the 
value of Wikileaks. 

It's precisely its high profile and media exposure that constitutes its 
value. It's not about espionage, it's about politics. And, it's about 
inducing inducing dysfunctional habits into the organizations trying to 
prevent information from leaking. Assange called this once 'secrecy tax' 
and if I take this article here at face value, it seems to be working.



WikiLeaks and the Culture of Classification
October 28, 2010 | 0853 GMT

By Scott Stewart

On Friday, Oct. 22, the organization known as WikiLeaks published a cache
of 391,832 classified documents on its website. The documents are mostly
field reports filed by U.S. military forces in Iraq from January 2004 to
December 2009 (the months of May 2004 and March 2009 are missing). The
bulk of the documents (379,565, or about 97 percent) were classified at
the secret level, with 204 classified at the lower confidential level. The
remaining 12,062 documents were either unclassified or bore no

This large batch of documents is believed to have been released by Pfc.
Bradley Manning, who was arrested in May 2010 by the U.S. Army Criminal
Investigations Command and charged with transferring thousands of
classified documents onto his personal computer and then transmitting them
to an unauthorized person. Manning is also alleged to have been the source
of the classified information released by WikiLeaks pertaining to the war
in Afghanistan in July 2010.

WikiLeaks released the Iraq war documents, as it did the Afghanistan war
documents, to a number of news outlets for analysis several weeks in
advance of their formal public release. These news organizations included
The New York Times, Der Spiegel, The Guardian and Al Jazeera, each of
which released special reports to coincide with the formal release of the
documents Oct. 22.

Due to its investigation of Manning, the U.S. government also had a pretty
good idea of what the material was before it was released and had formed a
special task force to review it for sensitive and potentially damaging
information prior to the release. The Pentagon has denounced the release
of the information, which it considers a crime, has demanded the return of
its stolen property and has warned that the documents place Iraqis at risk
of retaliation and also place the lives of U.S. troops at risk from
terrorist groups that are mining the documents for tidbits of operational
information they can use in planning their attacks.

When one takes a careful look at the classified documents released by
WikiLeaks, it becomes quickly apparent that they contain very few true
secrets. Indeed, the main points being emphasized by Al Jazeera and the
other media outlets after all the intense research they conducted before
the public release of the documents seem to highlight a number of issues
that had been well-known and well-chronicled for years. For example, the
press has widely reported that the Iraqi government was torturing its own
people; many civilians were killed during the six years the documents
covered; sectarian death squads were operating inside Iraq; and the
Iranian government was funding Shiite militias. None of this is news. But,
when one steps back from the documents themselves and looks at the larger
picture, there are some interesting issues that have been raised by the
release of these documents and the reaction to their release.

The Documents

The documents released in this WikiLeaks cache were taken from the U.S.
government?s Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet), a network
used to distribute classified but not particularly sensitive information.
SIPRNet is authorized only for the transmission of information classified
at the secret level and below. It cannot be used for information
classified top secret or more closely guarded intelligence that is
classified at the secret level. The regulations by which information is
classified by the U.S. government are outlined in Executive Order 13526.
Under that order, secret is the second-highest level of classification and
applies to information that, if released, would be reasonably expected to
cause serious damage to U.S. national security.

Due to the nature of SIPRNet, most of the information that was downloaded
from it and sent to WikiLeaks consisted of raw field reports from U.S.
troops in Iraq. These reports discussed things units encountered, such as
IED attacks, ambushes, the bodies of murdered civilians, friendly-fire
incidents, traffic accidents, etc. For the most part, the reports
contained raw information and not vetted, processed intelligence. The
documents also did not contain information that was the result of
intelligence-collection operations, and therefore did not reveal sensitive
intelligence sources and methods. Although the WikiLeaks material is often
compared to the 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers, there really is very
little similarity. The Pentagon Papers consisted of a top secret-level
study completed for the U.S. secretary of defense and not raw, low-level
battlefield reports.

To provide a sense of the material involved in the WikiLeaks release, we
will examine two typical reports. The first, classified at the secret
level, is from an American military police (MP) company reporting that
Iraqi police on Oct. 28, 2006, found the body of a person whose name was
redacted in a village who had been executed. In the other report, also
classified at the secret level, we see that on Jan. 1, 2004, Iraqi police
called an American MP unit in Baghdad to report that an improvised
explosive device (IED) had detonated and that there was another suspicious
object found at the scene. The MP unit responded, confirmed the presence
of the suspicious object and then called an explosive ordnance disposal
unit, which came to the site and destroyed the second IED. Now, while it
may have been justified to classify such reports at the secret level at
the time they were written to protect information pertaining to military
operations, clearly, the release of these two reports in October 2010 has
not caused any serious damage to U.S. national security.

Another factor to consider when reading raw information from the field is
that, while they offer a degree of granular detail that cannot be found in
higher-level intelligence analysis, they can often be misleading or
otherwise erroneous. As anyone who has ever interviewed a witness can tell
you, in a stressful situation people often miss or misinterpret important
factual details. That?s just how most people are wired. This situation can
be compounded when a witness is placed in a completely alien culture. This
is not to say that all these reports are flawed, but just to note that raw
information must often be double-checked and vetted before it can be used
to create a reliable estimate of the situation on the battlefield.
Clearly, the readers of these reports released by WikiLeaks now do not
have the ability to conduct that type of follow-up.

Few True Secrets

By saying there are very few true secrets in the cache of documents
released by WikiLeaks, we mean things that would cause serious damage to
national security. And no, we are not about to point out the things that
we believe could be truly damaging. However, it is important to understand
up front that something that causes embarrassment and discomfort to a
particular administration or agency does not necessarily damage national

As to the charges that the documents are being mined by militant groups
for information that can be used in attacks against U.S. troops deployed
overseas, this is undoubtedly true. It would be foolish for the Taliban,
the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and other militant groups not to read the
documents and attempt to benefit from them. However, there are very few
things noted in these reports pertaining to the tactics, techniques and
procedures (TTP) used by U.S. forces that could not be learned by simply
observing combat operations ? and the Taliban and ISI have been carefully
studying U.S. TTP every hour of every day for many years now. These
documents are far less valuable than years of careful, direct observation
and regular first-hand interaction.

Frankly, combatants who have been intensely watching U.S. and coalition
forces and engaging them in combat for the better part of a decade are not
very likely to learn much from dated American after-action reports. The
insurgents and sectarian groups in Iraq own the human terrain; they know
who U.S. troops are meeting with, when they meet them and where. There is
very little that this level of reporting is going to reveal to them that
they could not already have learned via observation. Remember, these
reports do not deal with highly classified human-intelligence or
technical-intelligence operations.

This is not to say that the alleged actions of Manning are somehow
justified. From the statements released by the government in connection
with the case, Manning knew the information he was downloading was
classified and needed to be protected. He also appeared to know that his
actions were illegal and could get him in trouble. He deserves to face the
legal consequences of his actions.

This is also not a justification for the actions of WikiLeaks and the
media outlets that are exploiting and profiting from the release of this
information. What we are saying is that the hype surrounding the release
is just that. There were a lot of classified documents released, but very
few of them contained information that would truly shed new light on the
actions of U.S. troops in Iraq or their allies or damage U.S. national
security. While the amount of information released in this case was huge,
it was far less damaging than the information released by convicted spies
such as Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames ? information that crippled
sensitive intelligence operations and resulted in the execution or
imprisonment of extremely valuable human intelligence sources.

Culture of Classification

Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of the WikiLeaks case is that
it highlights the culture of classification that is so pervasive inside
the U.S. government. Only 204 of the 391,832 documents were classified at
the confidential level, while 379,565 of them were classified at the
secret level. This demonstrates the propensity of the U.S. government
culture to classify documents at the highest possible classification
rather than at the lowest level really required to protect that
information. In this culture, higher is better.

Furthermore, while much of this material may have been somewhat sensitive
at the time it was reported, most of that sensitivity has been lost over
time, and many of the documents, like the two reports referenced above, no
longer need to be classified. Executive Order 13526 provides the ability
for classifying agencies to set dates for materials to be declassified.
Indeed, according to the executive order, a date for declassification is
supposed to be set every time a document is classified. But, in practice,
such declassification provisions are rarely used and most people just
expect the documents to remain classified for the entire authorized
period, which is 10 years in most cases and 25 years when dealing with
sensitive topics such as intelligence sources and methods or nuclear
weapons. In the culture of classification, longer is also seen as better.

This culture tends to create so much classified material that stays
classified for so long that it becomes very difficult for government
employees and security managers to determine what is really sensitive and
what truly needs to be protected. There is certainly a lot of very
sensitive information that needs to be carefully guarded, but not
everything is a secret. This culture also tends to reinforce the belief
among government employees that knowledge is power and that one can become
powerful by having access to information and denying that access to
others. And this belief can often contribute to the bureaucratic jealously
that results in the failure to share intelligence ? a practice that was
criticized so heavily in the 9/11 Commission Report.

It has been very interesting to watch the reaction to the WikiLeaks case
by those who are a part of the culture of classification. Some U.S.
government agencies, such as the FBI, have bridled under the post-9/11
mandates to share their information more widely and have been trying to
scale back the practice. As anyone who has dealt with the FBI can attest,
they tend to be a semi-permeable membrane when it comes to the flow of
information. For the bureau, intelligence flows only one way ? in. The FBI
is certainly not alone. There are many organizations that are very
hesitant to share information with other government agencies, even when
those agencies have a legitimate need to know. The WikiLeaks cases have
provided such people a justification to continue to stovepipe information.

In addition to the glaring personnel security issues regarding Manning?s
access to classified information systems, these cases are in large part
the result of a classified information system overloaded with vast
quantities of information that simply does not need to be protected at the
secret level. And, ironically, overloading the system in such a way
actually weakens the information-protection process by making it difficult
to determine which information truly needs to be protected. Instead of
seeking to weed out the overclassified material and concentrate on
protecting the truly sensitive information, the culture of classification
reacts by using the WikiLeaks cases as justification for continuing to
classify information at the highest possible levels and for sharing the
intelligence it generates with fewer people. The ultimate irony is that
the WikiLeaks cases will help strengthen and perpetuate the broken system
that helped lead to the disclosures in the first place.

--- http://felix.openflows.com ----------------------- books out now:
*|Deep Search.The Politics of Search Beyond Google.Studienverlag 2009
*|Mediale Kunst/Media Arts Zurich.13 Positions.Scheidegger&Spiess2008
*|Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network Society. Polity, 2006 
*|Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks. Ed. Futura/Revolver, 2005 

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@kein.org