COMMENTARY

Workforce: Get used to the WikiLeaks mindset

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org and a writer and commentator on the science and technology of national security.

Back in the early 1990s, I edited an electronic newsletter that dealt with the culture of amateur virus writers — hackers who wrote mobile malware. Julian Assange was a subscriber. This is only to illustrate Assange's bona fides as someone from the original world computer underground, a place where one of the driving philosophies was to reveal the secrets of institutional power.

Once confined to what was considered a computer geek fringe, that ideology is now entrenched. It's no longer an outsider mindset, and it hasn't been for a long time. Now it's inside, with its originators entering middle age. And younger adherents of the philosophy are coming along all the time.

They're everywhere — employed by government, the military and corporate America. And because we have come to the point that the United States is considered by some to be a bad global actor — whether you share that point of view or not — the government is faced with a problem it cannot solve. Its exposure is thought by many to be deserved.

In this new reality, as in nature, a vacuum is abhorred. The mainstream media no longer fulfills the role of speaking truth to power. It opened the door for Assange and WikiLeaks.

Even then, however, the real damage was done by Bradley Manning, an employee who apparently was so bored at his job that he was driven to assiduously exploit the U.S. government's desire to use world-networked computers to share volumes of secret and sensitive materials and its willingness to make that information available to all its legions, regardless of whether they need access to it or not.

There is no effective defense to be mounted against those potentially willing and positioned to perpetrate a WikiLeaks-type operation. And it stands to reason that there might always be insiders like Manning who have the old hacker philosophy as part of their DNA.

There is no simple answer. More paranoid employee reliability screenings or a view that all employees need continuous scrutiny won't solve the problem. And networked computers are incompatible with secrecy as practiced by the government, so adding layers of restrictions and other barriers won't help. That's just an old practice.

But the good news is that, although you can't eliminate the Bradley Mannings, they won't be common. Not everyone who is disgruntled is willing to risk a long jail sentence and professional and personal ruin.

And one more point worth mentioning: Although the U.S. executive branch and Congress are responding aggressively to WikiLeaks, there have been no such actions against the traditional media outlets that are driving WikiLeaks' Cablegate dump.

Whatever one might think of Assange's legal travails, the WikiLeaks operation is apparently proceeding in the manner of traditionally protected and legitimate journalism. To argue for an end to WikiLeaks seems, therefore, to repudiate a core value of democracy.

About the Author

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org.

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