Wikileaks v. The Pentagon

There's a war of words developing between the Pentagon and the information-sharing website Wikileaks.

The war of words between Wikileaks and the U.S. military over the treasure trove of leaked documents relating to the Afghan War that the website came into possession of last week is heating up. First, the Pentagon issued a strongly worded statement yesterday demanding that Wikileaks return all classified American documents in its possession immediately:

“The only acceptable course is for WikiLeaks to take steps to immediately return all versions of all of those documents to the US government and permanently delete them from its website, computers, and records,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said on Thursday, according to the Guardian.

He added: “If doing the right thing is not good enough for them, then we will figure out what alternatives we have to compel them to do the right thing.”

It isn’t exactly clear what the United States can do in this situation, though. The Wikileaks servers are apparently located in Iceland and other locations beyond the jurisdiction of the United States and their spokesman, Julian Assange, seems very adept at keeping his location secret. Presumably, if foreign law enforcement authorities were to cooperate, we might be able to bring the people responsible for publishing the documents — who are actually individuals other than Assange — to justice, but it won’t be easy; and shutting down the website doesn’t seem to be either realistic or proper.

Nonetheless, Wikileaks seems to take the threat seriously enough to engage in what can only be called a game of “chicken” with the Pentagon:

LONDON — Online whistle-blower WikiLeaks has posted a huge encrypted file named “Insurance” to its website, sparking speculation that those behind the organization may be prepared to release more classified information if authorities interfere with them.

At 1.4 gigabytes, the file is 20 times larger than the batch of 77,000 secret U.S. military documents about Afghanistan that WikiLeaks dumped onto the Web last month, and cryptographers say that the file is virtually impossible to crack — unless WikiLeaks releases the key used to encode the material.

“There’s no way that anyone has any chance of figuring out what’s in there,” Paul Kocher, president of US-based Cryptography Research, said Thursday.

That hasn’t stopped bloggers and journalists from speculating. Some say the files could be the 15,000 or so intelligence reports which WikiLeaks says it’s held back for vetting. Others, pointing to its enormous size, say it could be a compilation of the 260,000 classified diplomatic cables allegedly accessed by Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley acknowledged Thursday that the government suspects that WikiLeaks is sitting on at least some of its message traffic. The organization itself is keeping mum, at least in public.

“We do not discuss security procedures,” WikiLeaks said in an e-mail response to questions about the file.

Editor-in-chief Julian Assange was a bit more expansive — if equally cryptic — in his response to the same line of questioning in a television interview with independent U.S. news network Democracy Now! earlier this week.

“I think it’s better that we don’t comment on that,” Assange said, according to the network’s transcript of the interview. “But, you know, one could imagine in a similar situation that it might be worth ensuring that important parts of history do not disappear.”

Or, more likely they’re using this as a bargaining chip.

Also, while it’s fairly easy to condemn Wikileaks for it’s role in this affair, it’s also worth noting that the organization has played a role in uncovering scandals around the world that the public otherwise would not have known about. One of the first documents made available on the site revealed efforts to assassinate Somali government officials by a Somali religious leader. The site also revealed corruption on the part of the family of the former President of Kenya, released information documenting the bizarre internal procedures of the Church Of Scientology. and, of most interest to conservatives, was one of the sites that leaked the emails that were at the center of the so-called “Climategate” scandal in 2009.

The organization itself describes its purpose as:

WikiLeaks is a multi-jurisdictional public service designed to protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public. Since July 2007, we have worked across the globe to obtain, publish and defend such materials, and, also, to fight in the legal and political spheres for the broader principles on which our work is based: the integrity of our common historical record and the rights of all peoples to create new history.

We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies. All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information. Historically that information has been costly – in terms of human life and human rights. But with technological advances – the internet, and cryptography – the risks of conveying important information can be lowered.

In its landmark ruling on the Pentagon Papers, the US Supreme Court ruled that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” We agree.

We believe that it is not only the people of one country that keep their government honest, but also the people of other countries who are watching that government. That is why the time has come for an anonymous global avenue for disseminating documents the public should see.

It’s a noble sentiment and, even in the United States, probably a correct one since there is surely information that the government classifies on a daily basis not because it is actually an essential state secret, but because it is potentially embarrassing to political officials, or to a policy goal. That is arguably the logic behind the reason that much of the information contained in the Afghan War Diaries was kept secret, after all.

The question is who gets to make the determination that something that’s secret needs to be released. In this case, it was Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst who is believed to be behind most, if not all, of the leaking of Afghanistan War information that Wikileaks has published. While some have taken to considering Manning a hero of some kind, it’s fairly clear that he broke the law and, like Jonathan Pollard or Aldrich Ames, he deserves to be prosecuting for revealing classified information.

What about Wikileaks, though ? Should they be targeted by the United States Government ? My gut tells me that the answer is no. Like The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case, they are, at heart, journalists. They published information that came into their possession. The fact that laws may have been broken in order by others seems to me to be irrelevant. Like it or not, the information it out there and we simply have to accept that fact.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Intelligence, National Security, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Brian Knapp says:

    To my knowledge, Wikileaks did not break any laws and therefore have no obligation here.  But I am no expert in this arena and could certainly be mistaken.

    And it bothers me the language that the Pentagon used to condemn them, particularly if what they did was lawful.

  2. legion says:

    Additionally, the demand itself is nonsensical – what exactly does it mean to “return” the documents? They’re digital records – a bunch of ones and zeroes – there it literally NO WAY to give any kind of guarantee that WikiLeaks (or anyone else) doesn’t have additional copies of the material. In fact, if it’s ever been sent through a network the Assange and WL don’t personally control, it’s practically a certainty that those documents are in someone else’s memory.
    This is a completely pointless demand, and anyone with any concept of technology from the last 20 years or so can see that at a glance – so it’s either petty foot-stomping, or it’s pro-forma justification for doing something irrationally aggressive…

  3. Steve Plunk says:

    Legal?  Perhaps.  Ethical?  It put people’s lives at risk.

  4. DC Loser says:

    I guess now Russia, China, Iran and North Korea can demand the CIA to return all those secret documents they “illegaly” gathered on them?  This is futile and silly beyond belief.

  5. mannning says:

    <Blockquote>They published information that came into their possession. The fact that laws may have been broken in order by others seems to me to be irrelevant. Like it or not, the information it out there and we simply have to accept that fact.</Blockquote>

    This is really silly!  Do you mean that anyone that picks up a mislaid piece of paper with SECRET written all over it has the right to publish it?  Or does the citizen (even journalists are citizens) have some real obligation to handle this paper with the care it should get? It is most certainly not irrelevant that the paper was mislaid or stolen and is potentially exposed to public view. It is the obligation of a rightuous citizen to turn in such a paper to the authorities as soon as possible. How the paper became exposed is immaterial to the duty of a true citizen. What a scandalous statement!

  6. mannning says:

    Further, it is not up to the receiver of such information to decide its true classification. Only the original authorities can do that.  It is no wonder that we have such an organization as this Wikileaks when our citizens do not perform their duties properly, and even to promote the idea that it is ok to publish classified info and be damned!

  7. legion says:

    Steve P,
    I fully supported the original invasion of Afghanistan – going after OBL where hi lived & taking out the group that supported him was the right thing to do. But when we shifted focus to Iraq, we literally stopped even trying to accomplish anything in Afghanistan. We have no plan, no strategy, no concrete objectives to even work towards there – it is painfully clear that sending people there _at all_ puts them at risk needlessly.
    I’m not saying Assange’s actions aren’t worthy of criticism (I haven’t dug through the postings yet to see if there’s really something dangerous there, and I’m not taking a Pentagon PR flak’s word for it), but why aren’t the actions the US has taken – that clearly put far more US troops in danger – also worthy of criticism or investigation?

  8. mannning says:

    This last hold true for any media, such as a disk, or tape, or what have you. The fact that it may be further compromised is not the point, but to report it and hand it over to authorities is demanded of the good citizen, once he knows its nature.

  9. mannning says:

    Wikileaks is in the position of the good organizational citizen, but has failed the test. There is a law concerning the handling of classified information by whomever acquires it, I simply cannot repeat its provisions from memory today.  Wikileaks is guilty of mishandling classified material in my book and should be prosecuted.

  10. Juneau: says:

    Yeah, no doubt Ames and Walker were simply early versions of “information-sharing websites” as well.  And, just like with Wikileaks, I’m sure the resultant murder of those exposed as American sympathizers is most properly examined as just an intellectual side-show to the debate (sarc).
    The leakers are traitors and accessories to murder.  There are verified reports of tribal elders being taken from their homes and murdered by the Taliban based on  information contained in the leaked reports

  11. ratufa says:

    I’m not sure why Julian Assange should feel he has any legal obligation to turn over the documents. He’s not a US citizen. If he was publishing secret documents from some other country, like Venezuela for example, and Chavez was talking about his legal obligation to return them, we’d be laughing at the demand.

    Obviously, the US Government employees who leaked the documents must be prosecuted. The US needs a functioning national security apparatus and this apparatus needs secrecy in order to be effective.

    On the other hand, it should be very clear by now that our government has lied on numerous occasions about the reasons for starting and continuing wars (among other topics). Some portion of our government propaganda machine specifically targets the American public. For this reason, I think that organizations like WikiLeaks have a useful role to play in exposing secrets.

  12. James M. says:

    Anything that weakens ZOG is great news.

  13. mannning says:

    While I recognize that Mr. Assange is not an American, and therefore perhaps does not have to comply with US law, I see any organization such as Wikileaks as an enemy of the state, and we should take all due steps to make life very, very miserable for all of them. Promoting the gathering and release of classified documents from our traitors is a highly hostile act, in my opinion, and there are several remedies available that I can imagine for their continued existence to become quite difficult, if not impossible.
    I am not sure that Mr. Assange is or is not covered under the UK secrets act, and its linking provisions to the US security system.  If he is, he can be prosecuted in the UK.  I do not know whether he can be remanded to the US for trial under these agreements, but I doubt it. I hope this is being looked into most seriously.
    My own shock and outrage is that there are some people that simply do not believe in our security laws and are very willing to see them violated….perhaps even to violate the laws themselves…and the FBI should take careful note of this.

  14. mannning says:

    On second thought, Wikileaks can perform a stellar service to the US by sending some watchers to glue themselves to Wiki contacts of all types. We could both prevent exchanges and get a line on the traitors in our midst. Eventually, when their usefulness is over, they can be treated appropriately.

  15. mannning says:

    We do have mutual exchange of intelligence agreements with both the UK and Australia.  Whether they also cover violations of the agreements I do not know.  I would presume so.  Thus, we need to look to the Australian government for some positive and heavy pressure on Assange.  If he operates out of the UK then they become involvee also.  This very murk, plus the cover he seems to be getting from sympathizers in all of the governments involved may thwart the usual processes to put a stop to him.  So be it.  There are other methods.