In July the Washington Post published "Top Secret America," a series of articles based on a two-year investigation by Dana Priest and William Arkin. The report meticulously documented the growth of a vast secret government in the wake of September 11 encompassing at least 1,271 government organizations, 1,931 private companies and an estimated 854,000 individuals with top-secret security clearance. Secret America, Priest and Arkin wrote, has become "so large, so unwieldy and so secretive" that it is not only unaccountable, it is practicably unknowable—even to the officials charged with administering it. The series elicited much praise from fellow journalists, but from the government there was—nothing. The Post‘s report generated not one Congressional hearing, subpoena or reform. As far as we know, Secret America continues its work unchecked and unchastened.
The equanimity with which the government was able to breeze past the Post series is telling in light of the great ruckus caused by WikiLeaks and its slow drip of more than 250,000 State Department cables. The Post didn’t tell secrets so much as outline the contours of the shadow world from which they originate; WikiLeaks rips off the veil. It’s the exposure of these secrets that has the world’s power elite so rattled. Pols and pundits are calling for the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act of 1917. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Assange be assassinated. As a magazine that champions free speech, The Nation defends the rights of leakers and media organizations to disclose secrets that advance a public interest without fear of retribution—or murder. If the Justice Department goes after Assange as an enemy of the state, what’s next? The arrest of the editors of the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País, the news outlets that collaborated with WikiLeaks?
By and large WikiLeaks has come to embrace the ethics that guide traditional news organizations’ disclosure of secrets, and it should be afforded the same protections. WikiLeaks’ critics assert—without evidence—that its leaks have endangered lives, but a senior NATO official told CNN in October that "there has not been a single case of Afghans needing protection or to be moved because of the [Afghanistan] leak." Critics characterize WikiLeaks’ actions as indiscriminate document dumps, but at press time WikiLeaks had released only 1,095 cables, almost all vetted and redacted by its partner news organizations. WikiLeaks even asked the State Department to help redact the cables before they were released. It refused.
What’s really at stake here is not individual privacy, the safety of sources or America’s diplomatic leverage—it’s the secret state. Over the past decade, our leaders have come to see secrecy as a casual right instead of a rare privilege. The cables released so far illustrate this corruption: routine, even banal, matters of diplomatic correspondence are labeled "NOFORN" (not for release to foreign nationals), "Confidential" or "Secret."
Beyond revealing the unprecedented scale of secrecy, WikiLeaks has also brought to light the antidemocratic actions secrecy protects. In Yemen, for example, the United States conducted secret airstrikes on suspected Al Qaeda targets, then conspired with Yemeni leaders to pretend that Yemen’s military had done it (see Jeremy Scahill, "WikiLeaking Covert Wars," in this issue). Here is an instance where America’s standing in the world was put at risk. But it’s not WikiLeaks that did it. It’s the policy of covert action and the lies told to cover it up.