Jamil Jaffer served in the Bush administration as an associate counsel to the president handling State Department, Defense Department, and Intelligence community matters and as counsel to the assistant attorney general in the National Security Division of the Department of Justice, focusing on counterterrorism and intelligence issues.
The latest release of classified material into the public domain by Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks team undoubtedly represents yet another significant threat to American national security. Our friends and foes alike are more likely to mistrust the United States and our expressed intentions; our allies are less likely to be candid with us when discussing other nations and foreign leaders; and it could have a significant chilling effect on our diplomats and other assets in fully and accurately conveying the information they receive in the course of their duties abroad.
But as responsible as Assange and the team at WikiLeaks are for this harm to our national security—and they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law—it is important to note that others also bear substantial responsibility, in particular the source or sources of the classified material (who should likewise be aggressively prosecuted). But beyond the obvious culprits, here is also a reasonable question whether others—prior administrations, the current administration, and major American media outlets—also bear some measure of responsibility. The answer, troublingly, is yes.
We must begin with a basic notion, admirably shared by the current administration, the prior Bush administration, and other prior administrations alike: that our nation's ability to pursue its own best interests in the international realm is substantially enhanced when properly classified information remains secret and exclusively in the hands of policymakers, intelligence operatives, and warfighters authorized to receive it. The ability to pursue our interests and protect the nation, however, is undermined when (1) information is improperly classified (i.e., classified for illegitimate reasons or when simply unnecessary); (2) when properly classified information is declassified for political reasons without due regard for the impact on national security; and (3) when properly classified information is publicly released without being declassified. While the data dumps by Assange and his WikiLeaks organization have focused our attention on the third category of improper release, the former categories are similarly problematic and may even contribute to further leaks.
Leakers of classified information have historically justified their actions on the basis that the information they disclosed—even where problematic to the national security—was nonetheless justified either because the information was improperly classified in order to protect the government from embarrassment or to cover up illegitimate activities, or because the benefits to the public debate on a given topic of national interest outweighed (at least in the mind of the disclosers) the harm to national security. These leakers oftentimes delude themselves into believing that they are doing "the right thing" in releasing classified material. While these delusions of grandeur are just that—flights of fantasy about public heroism—in a very real sense, the, improper classification, or overclassification, and politicized declassification of properly classified materials can serve to buttress, and even encourage the improper release of classified information. Similarly, when major media organizations collaborate in the public disclosure of properly classified information—as did the news organizations that accepted "previews" of Mr. Assange's information and wantonly disclosed it at nearly the same time as WikiLeaks—leakers of classified information may feel increasingly justified and even inoculated from government action.
Indeed, there is a reasonable argument that the current administration's disclosure—contrary to the advice of four former CIA directors—of the specific details of the agency's highly classified interrogation program, as well as the failure (or inability) of the government to prosecute to those responsible for the disclosures of critically important post-9/11 intelligence collection programs, have encouraged a climate in which leakers of other highly sensitive national security information—including Mr. Assange and his colleagues—may feel justified (and perhaps even inoculated) in their actions.
All of this leads to at least a few basic conclusions about the way that the government and the media handle classified material and its disclosure. First, there is a substantial benefit to the national security when the government actively investigates and aggressively prosecutes leaks of classified information—and it should do so here. Second, by ensuring only appropriate material is classified, the government itself can help ensure that at least one quasi-"moral" justification for disclosure is unavailable to leakers. Third, government officials should tread extremely carefully when considering the declassification of highly sensitive national security information and only declassify such information when it actually beneficial to the national interest (not simply when politically expedient). And fourth, major media outlets (particularly those in the United States) need to carefully consider the impact of their own actions in creating a culture where the disclosure of properly classified information is not only accepted, but is viewed (incorrectly) by some as a badge of honor. One only hopes that the serious impact of the recent disclosures on our nation's warfighting, intelligence, and diplomatic efforts will at least move the needle for some (if not all) of the parties involved and encourage them to change their approach to the handling of classified material.