By Hamilton Bean
WTF—that’s the acronym of the CIA’s aptly named WikiLeaks Task Force created last month to investigate the impact of WikiLeaks’ remarkable disclosures. The obscure whistleblower website (established in 2006) rocketed to the headlines of newspapers around the world in April 2010 when it posted classified video footage of a controversial U.S. Apache helicopter strike in Iraq in which two Reuters journalists were killed. Within months, the website had posted 76,900 documents related to the war in Afghanistan (“Afghan War Diary”), nearly 400,000 documents concerning the war in Iraq (“Iraq War Logs”), and began releasing a cache of more than 250,000 documents from the U.S. State Department. The alleged leaker, U.S. Army intelligence officer Bradley Manning, was charged on May 29, 2010 with unlawfully downloading classified information onto a personal computer; he is expected to face a court-martial this year. The eventual fate of WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, remains less clear; legal and political ambiguities complicate the U.S. government’s options to prosecute him.
Shifting plot lines, heroes, and villains make this case too complex to capture fully in this brief blog post, but one thing is certain: WikiLeaks underscores how twenty-first century national security stakeholders confront a complex environment characterized by new and unfamiliar technological artifacts and practices, competing cultural and institutional values, and changing assumptions about secrecy. How officials, policymakers, and citizens have grappled with this new environment is the subject of my forthcoming book: No More Secrets: Open Source Information and the Reshaping of U.S. Intelligence (Praeger, 5/2011). For officials, open source information is “publicly available information that anyone can lawfully obtain by request, purchase, or observation.” Open source intelligence, by contrast, is defined as being “produced from publically available information that is collected, exploited, and disseminated in a timely manner to an appropriate audience for the purpose of addressing a specific intelligence requirement.”
While WikiLeaks’ disclosures were not assembled from publicly available information, they nevertheless illustrate the same paradox that characterizes the open source debate; namely, the blurring conceptions of “intelligence” and “information.” The objective of the Director of National Intelligence’s Open Source Center (established in 2005) is to “redefine ‘open source’ as one of the 21st Century’s most important sources of intelligence.” WikiLeaks turns that objective on its head by making intelligence an important source of public information. In the process, WikiLeaks threatens to destabilize conventional notions of intelligence, as well as institutional secrecy, diplomacy, authority, expertise, and control, which leads to the following questions: What are the distinctions between information and intelligence, and how are these distinctions constructed and enforced? What national security information can (and should) be shared with the public? And how are recent technological developments altering the relationship between citizens and their government? These are among the questions that WikiLeaks’ supporters want audiences to consider; No More Secrets illustrates that these are also questions that the leaders of the U.S. intelligence community can no longer ignore.
Hamilton Bean is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado Denver. From 2001 to 2005, he served in management positions for a Washington, DC-based open source contractor that supported organizations within the U.S. intelligence community. Since 2005, he has been affiliated with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), a Center of Excellence of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. His research intersects the fields of organizational communication and national security and appears in Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Intelligence and National Security, and International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence.