Bradley Manning and Our Real Secrecy Problem

The dilution of vital state secrets with information that isn't truly sensitive made Wikileaks and Bradley Manning inevitable

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Army Private First Class Manning is escorted in handcuffs as he leaves the courthouse in Fort Meade
Jose Luis Magana / REUTERS

Army Private First Class Bradley Manning leaving the courthouse in Fort Meade, Maryland June 6, 2012.

Is he a traitor or a hero? This is the question surrounding Bradley Manning, the army private currently being court-martialed at Fort Meade for aiding the enemy by wrongfully causing defense information to published on the Internet. But among the questions arising out of his case, it is also the least important.

At his trial this week, Manning will be portrayed by the prosecution as a conniving turncoat who knowingly endangered fellow soldiers by giving sensitive information to al Qaeda via WikiLeaks. The defense will tell of an idealistic young man who was troubled by troubling things, like the Orwellian nightmare of prisoners at Guantanamo and the cheapness of life in war torn Iraq. What will not be discussed—because the judge has forbidden the defense from touching the subject— is that Bradley Manning is as much a product of historical forces as an agent in them, that we have stumbled into such a secrecy morass that something like this leak was probably inevitable, and that, worst of all, we were warned.

(MORE: Private Bradley Manning: Hero or Traitor?)

Manning’s leak was the biggest ever not because he was the most dedicated secret spiller in history, but because he joined the army in the age of big data and the collaborative ethos of the Internet. He enlisted in 2007, a year after the State Department launched the Net-Centric Diplomacy program through which classified embassy cables were made available on computer networks like those used by low-level army intelligence analysts in Iraq, like Bradley Manning.

Manning was not a member of an elite cadre of people with special access to the country’s secrets. He was one of more than 1.4 million people with a Top Secret security clearance in 2010 and one of the nearly 5 million with at least some clearance to see classified information. So many people had security clearances that until Dana Priest’s groundbreaking investigation into the matter, and subsequent internal government reviews, no one knew just how many security clearances there were.

By leaking three quarters of a million classified documents to WikiLeaks, Manning didn’t reveal all or even most of the United States’ secrets. In the decade after 9/11, the number of newly classified documents in the U.S. tripled to more than 23 million, all protected by the overworked staff of the Information Security Oversight Office at a cost of $10 billion a year, according to Priest’s book, Top Secret America: The Rise of a New American Security State.

(MOREIs “Don’t Ask” to Blame for Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks?)

And Manning’s leak didn’t reveal the country’s most sensitive secrets. None of the information he sent to WikiLeaks was classified Top Secret and some of it—like the famous Collateral Murder apache helicopter video—wasn’t classified at all. 11,000 of diplomatic cables he leaked were classified Secret, a designation ostensibly reserved for information “the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security.” That’s “serious damage to the national security” times eleven thousand. And yet, the country survives. One is given to wonder just how sensitive those secrets really were.

In the years after the Cold War, a government commission led by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan looked into the state of secrecy in America with disturbing results. Years before 9/11, the Moynihan Commission warned that secrecy was already so out of control that, by diluting the well of vital state secrets with information that wasn’t truly sensitive, secrecy was sure to undermine itself; echoing Justice Potter Stewart in the Pentagon Paper’s case, the commission wrote that “when everything is secret, nothing is secret.”

In his 1998 book on the subject, Moynihan saw what was coming. With the Cold War over, the Soviet Union in tatters, and something called The Internet gaining steam, it was clear then that, as Moynihan said, “Secrecy is for losers.”

“Openness is now a singular and singularly American advantage. We put it in peril by poking along in the mode of an age now past,” he wrote. “It is time to begin building the supports for the era of openness that is already upon us.”

Needless to say, we did not, and a decade later, Bradley Manning inelegantly opened up the national security state against its will. With so many poorly protected secrets accessible to so many people, it was only a matter of time. We can be grateful that Bradley Manning rather than someone less charitably inclined perpetrated this leak. Manning leaked information for the world to see rather than selling it to a foreign power. As it is, Manning’s actions have proven fairly harmless with no serious damage to national security yet, but the next leaker may not be so benign. The question before us now, 15 years after Senator Moynihan’s prescient warning, is whether we will leave Manning’s warning unheeded too.

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