The Anatomy of an Evolving Threat: Publication of Classified Information

November 20, 2013

Fast-paced technological advances have, for decades, been causing wrenching changes to national security and international affairs that are generally unappreciated until a crisis arrives. And even after crisis has struck, such as the massive disclosures of classified material by Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, it still often takes years to contextualize what happened, and why.

In the case of Manning and Snowden, a couple of specific changes that have been underemphasized in the public debate explain how such disclosures of information have, in a short time, dramatically evolved as a national-security challenge. The first change is an individual’s ability to steal vastly larger troves of information than ever before, and the second is his ability to present that information to the world without passing through traditional channels of publication. While the U.S. has struggled to understand these changes and formulate appropriate responses, the biggest state ally of “transparency activists”—Russia—clearly apprehends the value of both disseminating and suppressing information in this new environment. While supporting, encouraging, and enabling the secrets of its rivals to be spilled on the world stage, Russia has ruthlessly suppressed political difference within its own borders.

Technology, Theft, and Publication

A theft of documents on the scale of Snowden’s would have been impossible twenty years ago. National Security Agency director general Keith Alexander has said that Snowden may have given as many as 200,000 classified documents to reporters. By contrast, when former national security adviser Sandy Berger got into hot water a decade ago for removing and destroying classified documents on the Clinton administration’s terrorism record, he was forced to smuggle them out of the archive in hard copy, tucked away in his suit jacket. Jonathan Pollard, who spied on the U.S. for Israel, had to remove the classified material in “either his briefcase or a box stuffed to the gills.” Though he was able to steal an astounding amount—over a million pages of classified documents—it took Pollard a longer time than Snowden (eighteen months) to remove a smaller trove of material.

The volume of classified documents that Manning and Snowden were able to steal is exponentially greater due to the difference between digital and analog storage of information. Though they have both been referred to as “leakers,” Manning and Snowden’s disclosures resemble a flood more than they do a leak.

The greater volume of information that a trusted insider can steal intersects in important ways with changes in how such information can be published. Two decades ago, someone who wanted the world to know about information in his possession had essentially no options other than providing it to a recognized publication. As WikiLeaks demonstrates, that is no longer the case: classified material can be put directly on the Internet, without a middleman like the New York Times. This is a notable change because an established paper like the Times, though it is no government lapdog, has historically felt a responsibility to carefully balance the newsworthiness of information it was considering publishing against the potential harm to national interests.

There are obvious ideological differences between an outfit like WikiLeaks and traditional news organizations. But the structural differences are no less important. The Times is a repeat player, in that its mission is to report news, and it needs to continue its day-to-day reporting even after it publishes classified information that the government would prefer to keep hidden. To do its job, the Times requires strong relationships with U.S. government sources. The relationship between the Times and the government may often be adversarial, but the newspaper would be hard pressed to treat the government as if it were an enemy, full stop.

In contrast, WikiLeaks’ mission is the publication of classified material. It won’t go out of its way to prevent harm to national security: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s view that government itself is a conspiracy leaves the organization with little philosophical room to try to safeguard states’ national-security interests. WikiLeaks also has done little to prevent harm to specific individuals, as it brazenly published the names of those who spoke to, and worked with, the U.S. in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s no structural incentive for WikiLeaks to have an ongoing relationship with the U.S. or any other government, as it requires no news sources: its only need from government insiders is to convince them to share secret information. An organization like WikiLeaks thus lacks both the ideological and structural motives to constrain its reporting in the way that mainstream news organizations might. (This has not stopped transparency activists from developing a rather warm relationship with Russia, as will be discussed subsequently). Further, the virtually unlimited multiplication of publication options has, in turn, made traditional media outfits more likely to print information that may be damaging to national interests, on the theory that it would inevitably be published anyway.

Changes in both the amount of classified information that can be taken from secure facilities and the means of publication have resulted in extremely high-volume disclosures. Rather than publicizing a trickle of information about U.S. counterterrorism or spying programs, a trusted insider can now, with a bit of deviousness, steal tens or hundreds of thousands of documents at a time. While a trickle may render discrete programs ineffective, the volume of information involved in both the Manning and Snowden incidents can have a highly disruptive effect on an agency’s efforts across the board, on diplomacy, or on military efforts (or all three at once).

For massive disclosures of classified information, what comes to light need not reveal wrongdoing to be highly damaging. One interesting aspect of the Manning documents was how little evidence they contained of U.S. misdeeds. As Joshua Foust, one of the most perceptive commentators on transparency activism and government secrecy, has observed:

Many of the incidents Manning publicized through his leaks — mistaken shootings at checkpoints, intelligence failures, civilians caught in crossfires — are the routine things that happen during war. It’s why those who have seen war believe, firmly, that it is a wretched state of affairs we should never enter into lightly. Yet publicizing the carnage of war does not prove that such carnage is a war crime.

Manning’s disclosures illustrated the carnage of war, but also detailed relatively innocuous transactions that nonetheless jeopardized or undermined those who were mentioned. As previously noted, the documents named Iraqis and Afghans who spoke to the U.S.—providing it with information, trying to work with the Americans to stabilize their countries. In this way, as Foust wrote, the disclosures endangered “many of the Iraqis, Afghans, and democracy or human rights activists elsewhere who were playing constructive roles in their respective societies.” The documents further revealed the frank and unvarnished thoughts of American diplomats, some of whom were removed from their posts for making entirely appropriate observations. Ecuador expelled Ambassador Heather Hodges because of a cable in which she discussed corruption in the country’s National Police. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, was forced to leave his post after WikiLeaks published cables in which he discussed dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s bizarre proclivities, including his relationship with a Ukrainian nurse whom Cretz described as “voluptuous.”

Russia and Information Warfare

While some pundits continue to deny the harm of these massive disclosures of classified U.S. information, the transparency activists’ closest state supporter, Russia, certainly understands how it can benefit from information warfare. Though Russia and the U.S. are no longer archenemies, as they were during the Cold War, they are certainly rivals on the world stage. While encouraging the U.S.’s secrets to be broadcast to the world, and working feverishly to co-opt the transparency movement, Russia has simultaneously engaged in Machiavellian schemes to suppress the free flow of information within its borders.

As William Dobson outlines in The Dictator’s Learning Curve, the Russian government controls about 93% of domestic media, and has been willing to manipulate news coverage. That regime has also manipulated both its political opposition and non-governmental organizations to prop up its power. Dobson refers to “the systemic opposition” who, while seemingly critical of the Russian regime, in fact “never push their criticism beyond the boundaries set by the Kremlin.”

As for NGOs, one tactic Russia has employed since the Cold War is the government-operated NGO (GONGO), which can legitimate the regime by presenting “alternative” findings that compete with outside NGOs critical of Russian policies. Dobson points to the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights as one example. Tanya Lokshina, the Moscow deputy director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Dobson about the Moscow Bureau’s conduct when HRW was about to release a report on the Republic of Ingushetia detailing abductions, torture, and other abuses. The head of the Moscow Bureau, after a trip to Ingushetia, announced a press event prior to HRW’s release. The obvious message of this press event was that HRW was lying. Lokshina asked: “How do you figure out who to trust? He’s been there, he’s done it, he’s got the T-shirt. That is a very particular, sophisticated feature of this authoritarian regime.”

While Russia has adopted this “soft” strategy of co-opting and confusing the internal information environment, there is also the matter of the killing and intimidation of journalists and activists. Between 2000 and 2012, when Dobson’s book came out, nineteen Russian journalists were killed, and Lokshina told Dobson that “attacks and beatings have become almost routine.” Many killings have gone unsolved—with the regime the obvious suspect, but maintaining a degree of deniability.

Even while adopting these repressive internal policies, Russia has actively reached out to the transparency movement. Assange was given a show on the Kremlin-funded network RT, while Russia famously granted Snowden asylum. In his first public appearance in Russia, Snowden praised the Russian government and several Latin American states for “being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless,” and for “refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation.”

The irony of this praise is self-evident given Russia’s repressive policies—and also Russia’s extremely frank warnings when WikiLeaks threatened to expose information about its doings. (WikiLeaks ultimately backed off from publishing documents about Russia after a Russian official warned that WikiLeaks could “be made inaccessible forever.”) But this is beside the point: the fact is that Russia has a canny view of the value of information – both the dissemination of its adversaries’ secrets and the suppression of its own. While its heavy-handed approach may not succeed in the long run, it certainly has adapted its policies to the twenty-first century information environment.


In contrast to Russia, the U.S. is still struggling to define how the information environment has changed. Policymakers have only begun to scratch the surface of how politics, diplomacy, and the legal regime might adapt to the new realities.

The public debate over publication of classified information is not going away. To the contrary, this debate will probably intensify as the remarkable changes that have occurred in such a short time become better understood, particularly if there is another large-scale leak of classified documents. At the end of the day, it is not the Russias of the world that will struggle most with transparency activism—at least, not anytime soon. Rather, the hardest questions will be asked in open societies like the U.S. that provide robust legal protections to free expression—even allowing media organizations to possess and regularly publish classified information that will harm the country’s national interests—but that, at the same time, want to maintain voluminous state secrets.


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of twelve books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011).


Photo credit: Imaginary Museum Projects: News Tableaus