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Technology Lessons from the Wikileaks Saga

Credit: Wikileaks

There's already debate about whether Wikileaks's release of 92,000 classified documents on the war in Afghanistan was more of a milestone in the annals of national security and the press than the 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers, the U.S. government's classified report on the Vietnam War. It's clear enough, though, that today's technological landscape severely limits the government's range of options to fight back against such leaks, but also provides a range of tools to protect against future ones.

Confronted with the release of classified documents on the Wikileaks Website—followed by nearly as many news reports on the phenomenon—the U.S. government's reaction was calculatedly mild. Government officials appear to have concluded that there was no way to put the genie back in the bottle. Instead of raging against the storm, the government emphasized its displeasure while suggesting there wasn't much to see there—the documents didn't say much that the public didn't already know. And for the many military field reports contained within, the Pentagon intimated that the reports weren't taken as containing instant, literal truth at the time they were lodged.

In the Pentagon Papers case, the executive branch was not as resigned—and the newspapers effectuating the leak, while fiercely defending their rights to do it, understood that the courts had a role in resolving the conflict. An injunction was briefly issued preventing the Times from publishing more, and the Times respected the order, implicitly allowing that it was for the U.S. government—in the form of the judiciary—to decide what counted as secrets so grave that they could not be published. (Of course, during that period the Washington Post took up the mantle of publishing from the Pentagon Papers, and was then drawn into the litigation.)

From Technology Review
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