When the curious case of Army Pvt. Bradley Manning began Friday, his attorney argued in a pretrial hearing that little harm was done by his client's alleged transfer of hundreds of thousands of classified documents and cables to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
"All this stuff has been leaked," attorney David Coombs said. "A year and a half later, where's the danger? Where's the harm?"
Manning may well be the misguided young idealist who allegedly told an acquaintance in an Internet chat room that he just wanted "people to see the truth." He may have sensed a kindred soul in WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has likewise defended the benefits of exposing the inner workings of the Pentagon and State Department to a little sunlight, no harm, no foul. Leaked cables from the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia detailing the corruption and lavish lifestyle of the ruling family may even have added fuel to the spark that became the Arab Spring, as some Tunisian demonstrators have argued.
Whether you see Manning and Assange as heroic whistleblowers or traitors, however, the argument that they caused no harm is dubious. In fact, the WikiLeaks episode is one of those rare cases from which almost no player has escaped unscathed.
Consider the case of "Arturo" (not his real name), a dissident from a very authoritarian country which has strained relations with Washington. When a classified State Department cable detailing a conversation he had with an American diplomat was published by WikiLeaks, Arturo was outed in the state-controlled media as a collaborator or possible spy for the United States. And just like that, Arturo is a man without a country.
"If you told me that an informal 20-minute conversation with an American diplomat would be detailed in a classified State Department cable and made accessible to a young soldier in Baghdad, who would give it to WikiLeaks to publish to the entire world, I would have thought you were describing the plot of a bad Hollywood movie," said Arturo, who has sought asylum in the West. "Yet here I am, caught in this madness because of the U.S. State Department's error and the recklessness of WikiLeaks, unable to return home to my family."
Certainly the U.S. military has been impacted by l'affaire WikiLeaks. The Pentagon has been forced to explain why it allegedly made hundreds of thousands of classified State Department cables accessible to a young private first class barely out of high school, and to clamp down on the access to intelligence by frontline troops.
"The Manning case has presented us with a difficult conundrum, because the power of the intelligence and analytical work we do is a function of our access to information," said a senior U.S. military officer who was directly in Manning's chain of command. "That access comes with a certain amount of risk, though, and in this case an unscrupulous individual used it to cause us harm. The danger is that we overcorrect, however, and so compartmentalize information access that we affect our ability to leverage intelligence-based analysis, which is one of our strengths."
The collateral damage of the WikiLeaks episode has also impacted the State Department and its relations with foreign governments. Foreign officials now know that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered U.S. diplomats to act almost as spies, collecting personal information on them to include credit card data, frequent-flier numbers and even biometric information. In meetings in Moscow and Paris, U.S. diplomats are in the uncomfortable position of having referred to Vladimir Putin as "alpha dog" and Nicholas Sarkozy as "the emperor with no clothes." Diplomats also have to convince foreign officials that this time, really, they can keep a private conversation private.
"Diplomacy is a combination of open and confidential communication, and by betraying confidences that people shared with the U.S. government, those leaked cables hurt our credibility," said Nicholas Burns, professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "As a former diplomat, I strongly believe that the WikiLeaks case has been a heavy blow to the conduct of successful diplomacy, and thus injurious to U.S. national security."
The Fourth Estate has also come under uncomfortable scrutiny as a result of the WikiLeaks case. Though a number of media outlets sought to redact names from the leaked cables that could endanger the individuals involved, generally the media acted as a willing conduit for whatever secrets WikiLeaks was willing to expose, without questioning the motives of the source.
"I think WikiLeaks challenged professional journalistic ethics, because to take information from a prejudiced source whose primary intent is simply to embarrass governments in general, and the U.S. government in particular, and to distribute that as widely as possible is not providing a great service to the public," said Marvin Kalb, the longtime CBS newsman who currently focuses on the impact of media on public policy as a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. "Given the motivation of the source, as an editor I would have thought long and hard about simply passing that information along."
Ironically, the U.S. military's throwing the book at Bradley Manning for allegedly "aiding the enemy" and violating the Espionage Act could also have the collateral effect of discouraging future whistleblowers and stemming the critical flow of information between official Washington and the media. Though the Army has said it will not seek the death penalty, the 23-year-old Manning could face a life sentence if convicted.
Stephen Aftergood is a specialist in government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "I think the whole WikiLeaks episode is a setback for the cause of open government, because it has triggered a predictable tightening of control on government information, and greater internal surveillance of classified networks," he said. "The next would-be `leaker' will face a much tougher challenge, which is regrettable because some leaks of classified information really do serve the public interest."