Global Politics

In post-Wikileaks world, classified documents being held more tightly than ever

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Wikileaks has gone quiet and efforts to leak classified documents are less frequent than ever.

When Wikileaks began to release some of its massive trove of U.S. government memos, the ambitions of the site seemed on the verge of realization.

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Pundits proclaimed that journalism would never be the same, and tyrants had to shudder, because this was the beginning of a golden age for whistleblowers.

“Unfortunately I think the opposite is closer to the truth,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy, which promotes public access to government information. “In terms of systemic openness there has been a predictable counter reaction setting in, and in place of greater transparency we are seeing heightened security on information.”

That heightened security extends to material many security analysts say never should have been classified in the first place. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that should have stopped the over-classification. But this year, the Federal government classified 40% more documents than the previous year.

J. William Leonard was the nation’s “Classification Czar” under President George W. Bush, and is outraged.

“No one has ever been held up accountable for improperly classifying information in the first place," he said.

Leonard thinks government secrecy is out of control— so much so that he took the unprecedented step of filing a complaint this year against the National Security Agency and Justice Department for classifying a document that contained no sensitive information.

He’s been very disappointed by the government’s response to Wikileaks.

“We are confronted with – like it or not – a tremendous volume of heretofore classified information has been entered into the public domain. This gives us a perfect opportunity to almost use it as a laboratory in terms of assessing our fundamental assumptions in terms of what constitutes information that requires protection by the classification system," Leonard said. 

No one in the current administration seems to be seizing this opportunity. And while the government increases up security and expands classification, potential leakers are rattled by what they’ve seen in the Bradley Manning case.

"They’re either thinking twice or they’re taking more sophisticated measures to protect themselves or in some cases less sophisticated measures in the sense of not dealing with email or any kind of Internet-based communication and simply sharing information in much more old-fashioned ways,” said Steven Aftergood a scientist and critic of U.S. government policy on secrets.

But for reporters on the national security beat, the old-fashioned ways is just fine.

Dana Priest, a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter for the Washington Post, said the WikiLeaks hoopla hasn't had an impact on her relationships with sources.

"Nor has that been the case with other reporters. If you’ve done national security for a long time, you’ve developed trusting relationships with people over the long run,” she said.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has criticized mainstream news organizations. He describes Wikileaks as a "scientific" journalism, though ironically, science relies on the replication of results. So far, Wikileaks hasn’t done that.

Priest thinks that’s because the massive cable leak was a one-off, as unique as the Pentagon papers.

“That’s not generally the way information comes to reporters," she said. "People might think that, it arrives in a package anonymously in the night. It doesn’t really — it’s the relationship building.”

Wikileaks has been silent most of the past year, which Assange blames on an economic blockade. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal wanted to fill the vacuum and were developing their own sites to accept anonymous leakes. Both efforts have stalled out.

“It reflects the fact that the core element of Wikileaks disclosure activities is not the platform for receiving leaks or the relationships with the news media or the colorful personalities of Wikileaks proprietors – none of that is essential," Aftergood said. "What is essential is the leaker, the individual who decides to break ranks, break the rules, perhaps break the law.”

The importance of the source is becoming even more clear, as attention shifts from globe-trotting provocateur Assange to Manning, a troubled 24-year-old Army private about to face the courtroom in Fort Meade, Maryland.

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