The publication of over 91,000 classified U.S. military documents on Afghanistan by WikiLeaks has, as White House national security adviser Jim Jones said, “put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk.” The documents include raw intelligence reports whose disclosure could not only endanger lives, but risk revealing the methods and means of gathering information vital to success in Afghanistan. WikiLeaks’s founder, Julian Assange, an Australian who has made no secret of his opposition to the war, is unapologetic about the disclosure. He obviously believes it will help the political agenda that he pursues with WikiLeaks.
An army private, Bradley Manning, was already charged in July with passing classified information to WikiLeaks. Former computer hacker Adrian Lamo, who tipped off the Pentagon about Manning’s activities, claims that Manning is almost certainly the source of the latest disclosures. However, Lamo adds that Manning does not have “the technical expertise necessary to communicate this amount of information to the outside world…and I don’t believe he operated without guidance; rather, I think it’s more likely that he was a personal shopper for classified data for the WikiLeaks apparatus.” So Lamo believes that WikiLeaks may have been an active participant in obtaining classified information, not just a receiver of stolen goods.
Besides being dangerous to the lives, safety, and national security of Americans, this type of disclosure of classified military information is a federal crime. If Bradley Manning leaked this information, then he violated 18 U.S.C. § 798, which prohibits the disclosure of classified information. He should be prosecuted and if convicted, sentenced to a long term in prison, not just to punish him for violating this law and putting his own personal interests ahead of the safety and national security concerns of his country, but as a deterrent to others within the military and the government who are tempted to do the same. As this incident shows, this is all too easy to do in the age of the Internet and modern technology that allows one to copy a huge volume of documents almost instantaneously.
Since Assange is not a citizen of this country and does not reside in the United States, it is unclear whether he has enough other contacts for the United States to seek his extradition and prosecution. If, for example, there was email correspondence between Manning (or whoever leaked the 91,000 documents) and Assange or one of his agents at WikiLeaks in which disclosure of classified information was solicited and accepted, and those emails went through a U.S. server, then that might be enough for federal prosecutors to reach Assange. But the Obama administration should not automatically assume that he is unreachable and the Justice Department should look hard at whether it has the ability to prosecute Assange as well as the leaker. If it cannot, then it should use its diplomatic leverage with our ally to see whether Assange can be prosecuted in Australia.
Some may argue that there is too much government information that has been deemed as “classified” by the huge and expansive bureaucracy that exists in our military, our intelligence agencies, and the federal government in general, especially since the attack on 9/11. But the selective exposure of classified information, particularly for political purposes, is dangerous, ill-conceived, and unjustified.