Secret Sharers: In an age of leaks, forgeries, and Internet hoaxes, archivists must guard our information while keeping hackers at bay
August 27, 2012
On November 1, 2010, Julian Assange, the elusive head of the organization WikiLeaks, stormed into the London offices of The Guardian to confront the newspaper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger. For months, WikiLeaks had been exclusively supplying The Guardian, The New York Times, and Germany’s Der Spiegel with hundreds of thousands of leaked classified dispatches from the fronts of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Editors from the three publications had been allowed to sift through the documents, assess their authenticity and veracity, then publish stories based on the material (though not before WikiLeaks dumped the documents on its website). The arrangement represented a sensational news coup, the ultimate exercise of the power of a free press. But over the course of several months, Assange’s relationship with the editors became strained. He was especially furious with the Times (in part because the paper ran an unflattering front-page story on Assange), so much so that when he provided The Guardian in October with another massive collection of documents—250,000 diplomatic cables between the U.S. State Department and its embassies—Assange demanded that the information not be shared with the Times. He had other grievances as well. And when he arrived at Rusbridger’s office in November, he had worked himself into a rage.
During the contentious eight-hour meeting that ensued, Rusbridger—along with Georg Mascolo, the editor of Der Spiegel, and Times editor Bill Keller, who had joined the conversation by telephone—expressed the journalists’ own frustrations, namely that WikiLeaks activists were sharing data files with a widening circle of outlets, resulting in a series of rogue leaks that violated the terms of the agreement. Each side accused the other of illegally appropriating what was perceived to be exclusive property. Tempers flared, threats were made, wine was poured to calm everyone down. In the end, however, the journalists and Assange recognized the irony of accusing each other of theft. As Mascolo pointed out, allof the documents had originally been obtained illegally.
The group was confronting a question that archivists face every day: Who controls information? Archivists, trained to open some government records and embargo others, are simultaneously charged with providing access to information and protecting confidentiality. From an archivist’s perspective, the larger question that arose during the WikiLeaks episode, quite apart from who got to publish what, was whether anybody was ethically justified in publishing the document cache at all. Perhaps not surprisingly, responses among archivists spanned the spectrum of public opinion. Many said that information just wants to be free, and that all efforts at censorship are doomed by the ease with which secrets can be posted these days. Others feared the disruptive consequences, intended or otherwise, of revealing confidential communications and even welcomed a counterattack by governments to take back control of information and protect it with firewalls and enhanced security. Indeed, over time, my own opinion has oscillated from the libertarian to the protectionist, ultimately coming to rest somewhere in the middle.
Reality, as is often the case, lies somewhere in this messy middle ground. What is beyond argument, however, is that when the sort of private, candid communications that were at the heart of the WikiLeaks documents are exposed to the cold, critical observation of outsiders, the context is often lost. Inside quips—comparing Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev to Batman and Robin, to name one instance—can be hurtful when laid open to the world. Gallows humor that helps soldiers get through the mayhem of war can sound cruel in the morning newspapers.
In my 27 years as an archivist, I have been appalled, for example, at the callous comments I’ve encountered in the memos of foreign aid workers, and I have had to remind myself that the huge personal risks they were taking said more than their sometimes thoughtless words. No government wants to reveal such casual comments to the world until they have aged into harmlessness, and no government wants its internal debates exposed to the public during wartime, potentially weakening confidence and swaying opinion. What price is there to pay if covert operations are revealed, even if the higher cause of democracy demands openness? As Stanford University’s facility security officer from 1996 to 2005, a position that granted me a top-secret security clearance, I read numerous classified documents that were best left to mellow and age before their eventual release.
Leaks are nothing new; only the technology has changed. Nineteenth-century peace activists greeted the advent of telegrams with euphoria, welcoming a new age of information without borders and the possibility of greater understanding between countries. The telegraph expanded the potential of the free press, and newspapers flourished as a result. It wasn’t long, however, before telegrams were selectively leaked to trigger war. In 1870 Otto von Bismarck released a rather mundane diplomatic cable, subtly edited to insult the French. The so-called Ems Telegram did not include any new information, but it provoked the map-altering Franco-Prussian War on Bismarck’s timetable. In 1917 the British intercepted and deciphered the Zimmermann Telegram, an encrypted message sent by German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexicans proposing a military alliance against the United States. The British carefully timed the telegram’s release to anger the American public and pave the way for American entry into World War I.
Stolen text on microfilm led to the unearthing of state secrets during World War II, played a role in nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, and figured in some iconic, if inadvertently comic, espionage tales. A hollow coin collected by aBrooklyn Eagle delivery boy in 1953 turned out to contain a coded message that led to the arrest of the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. And it was a hollowed-out pumpkin where Time editor Whittaker Chambers hid undeveloped film: photographs of classified State Department documents used to convict Alger Hiss of perjury.
Radio was also instrumental in the Cold War, as leaks smuggled out of Communist countries were broadcast back to those same countries on shortwave sets. The Vietnam era saw the Xerox machine come to the fore, but no technological tool can compare to the Internet, which has allowed leaked information to be publicized on a scale both vast and unprecedented.
Was WikiLeaks the spark that lit the revolution in Tunisia that spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria, and beyond? For some time to come, historians will weigh the evidence, but the leaks were definitely a factor, helping unleash popular uprisings that have threatened and toppled regimes. Without a doubt, the Internet has made the work of traditional record-keeping much more hazardous than ever before. Websites pop up and close down, security gets tightened, hackers become ever more nimble and sly. As a consequence, the Internet will remain, like a fault line, unpredictable when it comes to the world of archival information. Those who ply their trade in its vicinity will have to tread cautiously.
Many democratic countries adhere to the 30-year rule when determining when to declassify government records and transfer them to archives—30 years being an accepted period for the passions of a particular historical moment to have dissipated. Only then can historians and journalists readily eavesdrop on the minutiae of internal governmental transactions, essentially studying the past by reading other people’s mail.
In the United States, excessive secrecy has more often than not been the norm. “Top Secret” stamps, for example, restricted scholarly access to volumes of mimeographed World War II directives for far longer than 30 years. Even after the war, the U. S. government continued to stamp routine memos and cables “Confidential” and “Secret,” providing no end date to the restrictions. Over several decades, these documents piled up in office storage closets, in the basements of retired government officials, and in public and private repositories—mountains of paper still technically off-limits…