When Too Much Knowledge Becomes a Dangerous Thing

Socrates was relentless in his pursuit of knowledge and truth and this eventually led to his death   In The Apology, Plato writes that Socrates believed that the public discussion of important issues was necessary for a life to be of value.  “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Danger, Professor Robinson?

In the olden days, before the Web, someone wishing to leak secret government documents would adopt a code name (think “Deep Throat” of the Watergate era) and covertly contact a journalist.  The reporter would then publish the information if, in the view of the reporter, editor, and publisher, it did not cross certain lines, such as placing the lives of covert CIA agents in danger.

Enter WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks, founded in 2006, describes itself as “a multi-jurisdictional public service designed to protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public.”

The site was founded to support “principled leaking of information.”  A classic example of an individual following this line or reasoning, namely that leaking classified information is necessary for the greater good, is that of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, thereby exposing the U.S. government’s attempts to deceive the U.S. public about the Vietnam War.  The decision by the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers is credited with shortening the war and saving thousands of lives.

Time magazine wrote that WikiLeaks, located in Sweden, where laws protect anonymity, “… could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act.”

On the other hand, the U.S. government considers WikiLeaks to be a potential threat to security.  In a document eventually published on the WikiLeaks site, the Army Counterintelligence Center wrote that WikiLeaks “represents a potential force protection, counterintelligence, operational security (OPSEC), and information security (INFOSEC) threat to the US Army.”  The document also states that “the identification, exposure, termination of employment, criminal prosecution, legal action against current or former insiders, leakers, or whistleblowers could potentially damage or destroy this center of gravity and deter others considering similar actions from using the WikiLeaks.org web site.”

Ten days ago, Wired magazine reported that U.S. officials had arrested Spc. Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old army intelligence analyst who reportedly leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents and records as well as classified U.S. combat videos to WikiLeaks.

Although WikiLeaks confidentiality has never been breached, Manning reportedly bragged about his exploits, resulting in his apprehension.

According to Wired, Manning took credit for leaking the classified video of a helicopter air strike in Baghdad that also claimed the lives of several civilian bystanders.  The previously-referenced Army Counterintelligence Center document also reportedly came from Manning.

The case of Manning is perhaps the tip of the iceberg.  Several million people in the U.S. hold security clearances and, while their motives may vary from clear (e.g. trying to end a war as in the case of Ellsberg) to unclear (e.g. Manning), the genie is clearly out of the bottle.

Socrates, a social and moral critic, preferred dying for his beliefs rather than to recant them.  Indeed, Plato referred to Socrates as the “gadfly” of the state.  The motives of today’s leakers may not be as virtuous as Socrates’ but today’s technology virtually ensures that a secret may not remain a secret for very long.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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