Yesterday, three major international newspapers - the Guardian, New York Times and the weekly Der Spiegel - simultaneously began publishing information contained in documents from a stolen treasure trove of classified US military documents related to the war in Afghanistan. The documents, some 91,731 of them in all, cover the period from January 2004 and December 2009.
The information came from the whistleblower Web site Wikileaks, which has published all the documents on its Web site (if you can get to it). According to the New York Times, it will be publishing another 15,000 documents that have been withheld until names of individuals in the documents can be retracted to protect their safety.
The Guardian says (as do the other papers) that it "has no direct knowledge of the original source of the material", although there is rampant speculation that it came from Pfc. Bradley E. Manning, an Army intelligence analyst, who is under military arrest for the leaking of classified information.
The White House and others have condemned the unauthorized release of the information by Wikileaks. White House National Security Advisor James Jones said that (quoting from a story in the Politico):
"The United States strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security."
Security Advisor Jones went on to say that the information in the documents only serves to support the changes in strategy that the Obama Administration has taken in Afghanistan in the past year.
Others in the administration - mostly off the record - are downplaying the significance and credibility of the information, saying it is old, mostly hearsay, filled with rumors, vague, etc.
I'll let you wade through the information and summaries for yourself at Wikileaks, the Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel and decide its material relevance. Each paper has highlighted different aspects of the classified material.
The Wikileaks story follows on the heels of one last week in the Washington Post that also created a firestorm in Washington. The Post ran a three-part series describing the massive increase in the size and cost of the US national intelligence apparatus since 9/11. Just before the story was published, the US government sent out memos (like this [updated] one) to both its employees and contractors reminding them to watch what they say, especially to reporters.
In the Post's case, the story did not use classified information, but instead used only public information combined with good investigate reporting. Quoting from the Post editor's note about their story:
"Every data point on the [Post's] Web site is substantiated by at least two public records."
Still, many readers and government officials complained to the Post that it was effectively aiding and abetting the enemy.
The Post and Wikileaks stories, as did the so-called Climategate story last year, will only continue to fuel the raging debate about the ethics of leaking documents to the Web. The IT community is going through its own vigorous debate about the ethics of disclosing security holes in IT products.
Feel free to voice your view on the whole topic of releasing information to the Web, including the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of it.
And is it any different than releasing information to the newspapers, as happened with the Pentagon Papers in 1971?
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.