From One Transparency Advocate to Another: Steven Aftergood on WikiLeaks
from July, 2010
Thoughtful and rational discussion of this issue is in short supply. Steven Aftergood is the writer of Secrecy News, a publication of the Federation of American Scientists, which reports on new developments in government secrecy and provides public access to documentary resources on secrecy, intelligence and national security policy.
July 30, 2010 Transcript Onthemedia audio available at site
WikiLeaks leaked the biggest collection of classified documents in U.S. history, a fact that should make government-transparency advocates proud. But even some of WikiLeaks most likely allies have mixed feelings about precisely how this leak took place and how WikiLeaks operates. Longtime open government writer Steven Aftergood makes his case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: WikiLeaks has demonstrated its ability to flout U.S. law by being, in effect, stateless. Guided by different priorities than the more traditional advocates of sunlight, it lives by the rules of the Internet. Here’s Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, explaining his code of conduct.
JULIAN ASSANGE: We’re an activist organization. The method is transparency. The goal is justice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven Aftergood is the longtime writer of the email newsletter and blog, Secrecy News. For years he’s reported and researched government secrecy and advocated for U.S. government transparency. He’s no stranger to the antagonism between secrecy and disclosure. But in recent months he’s been a critic of WikiLeaks and its methods. Steven, welcome back to the show.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So in June you wrote a blog post offering some praise for WikiLeaks, but you didn’t mince words when it came to its failings. You wrote, quote: “It is not whistleblowing and it is not journalism. It is a kind of information vandalism.”
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: What I was responding to there was a pattern of activity by WikiLeaks in which they were disclosing confidential records of social and religious groups, like the Masons and the Mormons and several others, that did not reveal any misconduct. And it seemed to me that they were using the posture of transparency as a kind of weapon against disfavored groups. And, to me, that was a really repugnant thing to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the video of the Apache helicopter attack in Iraq in 2007 that WikiLeaks leaked in April?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Well, that I thought was a perfectly legitimate disclosure. I wish the Pentagon had released it when they had been asked to do so. The problem I had there with WikiLeaks was that they edited and presented an excerpt from the longer video in what I thought was a heavy-handed propagandistic fashion, starting with the name they gave to the video, Collateral Murder. I thought they undermined their own presentation by the way they packaged it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So to this week, WikiLeaks offered the material first to three major news outlets, and all of them, and WikiLeaks, decided to withhold certain names and details to protect people. Is this a sign that WikiLeaks is maturing, or did it just cave in to pressure from the news outlets?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: The mere fact that they acknowledged that there might be reasons to withhold certain records is a very important concession. It means that transparency is not the unique and overriding value but that it needs to be factored in along with others, such as security and privacy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the other hand, those names, those details that might endanger somebody are probably going to be released by WikiLeaks.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Whenever you do a wholesale release of enormous quantities of confidential or classified records, you run serious risks. And they’re not risks to WikiLeaks. They are risks to individuals who might be named in those records, to U.S. relations with allies, to intelligence networks. It is not risk-free.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve developed your own tacit list of what should or shouldn’t be disclosed when it comes to secret information. How has your behavior evolved over these years?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: I have been willing to do what WikiLeaks up to this point has refrained from doing, consult with government agencies that may have originated the information when we’re talking about currently classified records. A document that seems utterly benign may nevertheless reveal significant information that could pose a threat when viewed by either an opponent or a skilled analyst. That doesn’t mean you yield your decision-making power or your news judgment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But let’s face it, the usual challenge from officials when documents are leaked is that they jeopardize national security. The White House has cited that objection in nearly every public statement this week. How do you determine when the critique is legitimate?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: You know, if you don’t want me to publish something, you don’t tell me, well, it’s classified. You don’t tell me it would damage national security. You tell me a specific security argument about the likely consequences of the disclosure of a particular item of information. And if that argument is at all plausible, I myself am inclined to give it serious consideration.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven, you, rightly I think, pride yourself on having achieved real institutional change. You’ve compelled the government to declassify, what, hundreds of thousands of documents? Do you feel a little envious of a group like WikiLeaks that can affect the global conversation on such a grand scale?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Well, I would say I’m impressed by WikiLeaks. I mean, I think they literally made headlines in every significant news organization there is. I think they have a long ways to go in developing a code of conduct.
I would also say that in the U.S., the political process is still flexible enough that it is possible to put forward an argument for a change in policy and to see that change put into practice. We’ve seen more than a billion pages of historically valuable records declassified since 1995.
So I look with a little bit of concern at the broadsides that WikiLeaks is launching at the classification system. They seem oriented not towards fixing it but towards defeating it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But when it comes to crucial information that really needs to get before the public quickly, you sort of remind me of that character in the uh Indiana Jones film, the guy with the fancy swordplay, whereas WikiLeaks is like Indiana Jones – he just takes the gun and shoots him. It’s a blunt instrument [LAUGHS] but it works.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Yeah. I’m talking about systemic reform, which does take a long time. There is a place for leaks. Almost every day in the national news there is a significant story that involves the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. And that is as it should be, as long as the classification system is applied too broadly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even if WikiLeaks is more of a blunt object than you’d like it to be, does the good outweigh the bad?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: I think a lot of their talk about fighting injustice is pretty woolly and a little hard to take seriously. Whether the good outweighs the bad, there are lots of potential consequences of just this latest release that may turn out to be really positive and constructive, including a change of course in the war, perhaps, and there are potential consequences that are disastrous, including the potential loss of life and future difficulties in assembling new intelligence networks, because sources will lack confidence that the U.S. can keep the secrets it commits to keeping.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Steven, thank you very much.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Okay, thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven Aftergood is a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, and he directs the FAS’ Project on Government Secrecy.
Update: see also December 3, 2010