April 13, 2023
ONLY DEATH AND taxes are certain in life, Ben Franklin wrote in 1789, though he could have done us a favor by also noting that we can count on our government to make exaggerated claims about the unauthorized publication of classified documents.
Like clockwork, after a set of secret national security documents burst into public view last week, the Washington Post reported a “high level of panic” at the upper echelons of the Department of Defense, with officials “stunned” and “infuriated.” According to Politico, one Pentagon aide even said he was “sick to [his] stomach” over the alleged betrayal. The Department of Justice opened a criminal investigation, while John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesperson, warned, “This is information that has no business in the public domain. It is not intended for public consumption, and it should not be out there.”
The intelligence documents appear to have entered the public domain in an unusual way — someone began sharing them, starting late last year, on an obscure Discord server called Thug Shaker Central. While several hundred documents were shared there, according to the Post, about 100 later spilled into a Discord chatroom affiliated with a YouTuber named wow_mao. Most of those relate to the war in Ukraine — though some cover the Middle East and Africa — and they reached a broader public when they spread onto Telegram and Twitter last week, drawing the attention of journalists and the U.S. government.
It is traditional for the government to exaggerate the alleged harms of classified information becoming public, and this appears to be happening again. It first occurred in a big way back in 1971 with the Pentagon Papers, which the government sought to have squelched by the Supreme Court. But the court ruled in favor of the media’s right to publish the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War, and the release of the Pentagon Papers is widely regarded as an essential act of transparency that revealed the hidden truth of America’s conduct in Vietnam.
More recently, the releases of classified information by Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency, and Chelsea Manning, an Army intelligence analyst, were treated by the government as catastrophes that jeopardized human lives. This did not turn out to be true. Documents released by Snowden revealed that the government was engaged in unconstitutional spying on Americans, while information that Manning provided to WikiLeaks showed that U.S. forces killed journalists and civilians in Iraq and lied about it afterward. Despite the government’s dire warnings, subsequent reviews showed that no deaths could be linked to the disclosures by Manning and WikiLeaks. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even called the government’s rhetoric about those leaks “significantly overwrought.”
What’s somewhat unique about the new documents is that they are quite fresh — some appear to have been written and distributed inside the government as recently as February and contain time-sensitive information about battlefield developments in Ukraine. While transparency experts told The Intercept that some intelligence of this sort might justify the protection of the classification system for a short while, other documents from the leak are either banal or of genuine public interest — in other words, their publication causes no harm or some good.
On the totally boring side, one of the documents contains a section titled “Worldwide: 5G Services May Pose Satellite Interference Risk” and explains that “the expansion of 5G services worldwide is increasing the risk of satellite interference that would disrupt commercial and military communications.” This information is widely known in the public sphere and has been extensively discussed for years, but its classification marking is “S//NF,” which means it is secret and should not be shared with foreign nationals (NF is short for “NOFORN”).
Another document lists the number of U.S. and NATO soldiers in Ukraine. These numbers are sensitive and interesting because the U.S. and its allies have been coy about their military footprints in Ukraine — and even whether they are in the country at all. The numbers are relatively small, according to the document: The U.S. has 14 special operations soldiers in Ukraine and a total of 100 military personnel. Publication of the document appears to be clearly in the public interest by clarifying the size of U.S. and NATO forces in a country that is at war with Russia.
Several documents that have received significant media attention reveal that the U.S. government was surveilling private communications of officials in the Israeli and South Korean governments, both close U.S. allies. While those disclosures have proved embarrassing, it is an open secret that friendly governments spy on each other. The awkward conversations that are now taking place between Washington, Tel Aviv, and Seoul will soon be overtaken by other matters.
Sky Not Falling
It’s not just the government that hypes the allegedly negative consequences of leaks; the media can play an unhelpful role too.
“The journalists covering this story probably know there is a massive overclassification problem, and they almost certainly know that any time there is a leak of any magnitude, the government goes on TV and claims that national security will be forever damaged,” noted Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “Almost inevitably, we find out later that [government officials] were exaggerating. … I can’t even name a time in which there was a leak to the news media in which the government’s damage claims absolutely bore out. You can go all the way back to the Pentagon Papers.”
Yet the government’s claims are weakly challenged, if at all. Timm pointed to a 16-paragraph New York Times story about the likely damage from the new leaks, noting that it wasn’t until paragraph 14 that a crucial fact was mentioned: “In the past, U.S. officials have overstated the damage from leaks.” The media coverage has been so overwrought that a former CIA official, John Sipher, felt obliged to tell everyone to calm down. “The sky is not falling,” he wrote on Twitter, responding to a somewhat alarmist editorial in the Washington Post. “Our most sensitive collection doesn’t make it into documents like this.”
What’s often overlooked is that the real problem isn’t what’s leaked, but what’s classified. Almost every news story about the latest disclosures has noted that the Pentagon and other government agencies will now put tighter lids on secret documents, even though, as historian Matthew Connelly points out in his new book, “The Declassification Engine,” the government already puts way too much material behind its moat. “One way to look at it is to be more discriminating in what needs to be kept secret,” Connelly told The Intercept. “If [government officials] weren’t trying to protect hundreds of millions of records, some dating back to the 1940s, they might be able to protect information that could really get people killed.”
In fact, the human harm caused by unauthorized leaks is almost always inflicted by the government itself in the form of egregious prosecutions of leakers. Although Snowden, Manning, and, more recently, Reality Winner, revealed secrets that the public had a right to know, the government charged all of them under the draconian Espionage Act. While Snowden sought safety in Russia, Manning served seven years in prison (she was originally sentenced to 35 years), and Winner was sentenced to more than five years for leaking just a single document that revealed Russian interference in U.S. voting systems.