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Intelligence leaks, life and death

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Arthur I Cyr
August 11, 2010

Julian Assange of WikiLeaks boasts his mission is “crushing bastards,” and that he enjoys the work. This is part of his justification for unauthorized publication of thousands of stolen classified U.S. military intelligence documents.


Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen have publicly denounced those involved. Admiral Mullen has stated bluntly that Americans and our allies may pay for this publicity with their lives.


There are obvious parallels with the controversial Pentagon Papers of the Vietnam War era. Daniel Ellsberg, an analyst at RAND, a military think tank, copied the top-secret documents.


The material was leaked to and published by The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers. Ellsberg immediately became a hero of the anti-war movement, reinforced by his persecution by the Nixon administration.


Assange and associates have spewed out an avalanche of disorganized, random information. Separating facts from misinformation is the task of intelligence analysis. The sanctimonious, superficial attention-seekers at WikiLeaks in effect have confirmed they are clueless about this reality.


By contrast, the Pentagon Papers were initiated by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to create an accurate Vietnam War record. After starting the project, he kept hands off, an act of enormous self-discipline by a man who was usually exceptionally domineering and interfering.


The result was a well-organized, credible and very revealing description of planning, decision-making and improvising at the top of the U.S. government as the Vietnam tragedy unfolded.


Ellsberg was tried for conspiracy, espionage and theft; but an increasingly paranoid Nixon White House had wiretapped Ellsberg and burglarized his psychiatrist’s office. When this information became known, the charges against Ellsberg were dismissed.


The more direct analogy with WikiLeaks’ irresponsibility is the criminal behavior of Philip Agee, an unstable disaffected U.S. intelligence veteran who published the names of CIA agents in his 1975 book “Inside the Company.” This despicable act could have led to criminal prosecution, but Agee fled abroad.


The contemporary computer and information revolutions from the start have been intimately interconnected with the military. The Internet began as a project of the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Defense Department. Military command, communications and reconnaissance all benefited.


Yet these revolutions also facilitate theft of information. Along with aggressive investigation of the WikiLeaks incident, the Pentagon and other security agencies should undertake a thorough review and tightening of access to sensitive information. That is a very tangible way of helping the troops.


Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College and the author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu.

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