The very first of President Woodrow Wilson’s famous “Fourteen Points” of 1918—what he called “our program . . . of the world’s peace”—was the abolition of “private international understandings of any kind” in favor of “diplomacy [that] shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.” Secret agreements, Wilson believed, had plunged the world into world war. A year earlier, Wilson had signed into law the Espionage Act of 1917, under which the likes of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Daniel Ellsberg, and WikiLeaks “whistleblower” Bradley Manning would be charged in connection with revealing state secrets.
On August 20, 2012, filmmakers Michael Moore and Oliver Stone published an op ed in The New York Times applauding Ecuador for protecting WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange against extradition to Sweden for questioning about a sexual assault. Moore and Stone argued that the extradition was a prelude to extradition to the United States, presumably to face charges—as Manning faces now—for having published 251,287 U.S. diplomatic cables, more than 400,000 classified U.S. Army reports from the Iraq War, and some 90,000 on Afghanistan, plus disturbing videos.
For Moore and Stone, at issue are human rights and freedom of speech.
I suggest, on the contrary, that the issue is hardly simple. The cognitive dissonance President Wilson exhibited concerning secrecy—renouncing it even as he enshrined it in law—is certainly endemic to our nation and perhaps to nationhood generally. Julian Assange did not hack into a top secret computer. He published what Bradley Manning gave him. Manning is charged (among other things) with “theft of public property or records,” yet—and here is where the cognitive dissonance really begins to kick in—it is hard to call how Manning obtained the unprecedented trove of documents “stealing” or even “hacking.”
Manning was an army private, an intelligence analyst—he explained in a message to threat analyst and self-confessed convicted hacker Adrian Lamo—“deployed to eastern Baghdad, pending discharge for ‘adjustment disorder’ in lieu of ‘gender identity disorder.’”
In other words, the U.S. Army put a soldier of the lowest possible rank in a highly sensitive position even though (as Manning told Lamo) he was in trouble for “revealing my uncertainty over my gender identity . . . which is causing me to lose this job” although “i managed to keep my security clearance so far.” This gave him “free reign [sic] over classified networks for long periods of time.” The documents he saw were “incredible things, awful things … things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC”—yet fully accessible to him in an outpost in Iraq, and ridiculously easy to obtain: “weak servers, weak logging, weak physical security, weak counter-intelligence, inattentive signal analysis … a perfect storm.”
Stolen secrets? The army, it seems, left them out for the taking. In a message sent at 1:13:10 p.m., Manning presented himself to Lamo as a moral martyr: “i wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed,” only to worry about “the possibility of having pictures of me … plastered all over the world press … as [a] boy ….” A minute later, at 1:14:11 p.m., he called himself just crazy: “I’ve totally lost my mind … i make no sense … the CPU is not made for this motherboard …”
Whatever Manning was or is, he wasn’t and isn’t a master hacker and spy. The “massive data spillage,” he told Lamo, was “facilitated by numerous factors . . . both physically, technically, and culturally.” It was a “perfect example of how not to do INFOSEC [information security].” He concluded by declaring that “information should be free,” a paraphrase of the famous line “Information wants to be free,” attributed to Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart brand and first uttered (perhaps) at the Hacker’s Conference of 1984.
Does information want to be free? Maybe. The U.S. Army created the conditions that allowed it to be set free by one of its lowest-ranking, least well-adjusted grunts. Did the U.S. Army want that information to be free? Did Woodrow Wilson, signer of the Espionage Act of 1917, want diplomacy without secrets?
I don’t think anyone can answer these questions. I know I cannot. But if we at least ask them, we must come to the conclusion that cognitive dissonance is not a viable security policy for a person, a company, or a nation. If there is a lesson in the “perfect storm” of Assange, Manning, and the U.S. Army, it is to set openness as a baseline for both business and diplomacy, with deviations into secrecy made selectively and upon careful thought. With fewer secrets to defend, defending them becomes a feasible management task, provided that a high value is put on this core of data, the keys to which must be closely held, quite possibly in “a dark room in Washington DC” but certainly not on a server in a remote Middle Eastern outpost manned by a lonely and tormented private on the verge of discharge.