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The Australian-born hacker turned fugitive political activist has launched a crusade predicated on the idea that nearly all information should be free and that confidentiality in government affairs is an affront to the governed. In the process, he has published everything from a video of U.S. troops killing civilians in Iraq to the documents behind the so-called Climategate scandal to Wesley Snipes' tax returns. Assange is nothing if not an equal-opportunity sieve; the possibility that he might possess a 5-gigabyte hard drive belonging to a senior Bank of America official sent the bank's stock price down 3% on Nov. 30. "This organization practices civil obedience," Assange declared in an interview with TIME via Skype from an undisclosed location where he is hiding from authorities seeking to question him about rape allegations he denies. WikiLeaks "tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction," he said.
The Way Things Once Were
The view that Assange is doing the world a favor is not, unsurprisingly, how others view him. While every President in the past 20 years has fought secrecy inflation or said they have all have seen the need for a degree of confidentiality and secrecy in government affairs. "In almost every profession," Hillary Clinton said on Nov. 29, "people rely on confidential communications to do their jobs." But as more things get called secret and more people have access to what is said to be secret and more of them know that WikiLeaks is standing there (well, somewhere) ready to receive those secrets like a slobbery Labrador catching any stick thrown its way, then the question becomes, Can the U.S. government or any government rely on confidential communications to do its business in the way that Clinton would like?
Not long ago, the answer to that question would have been easy: yes. WikiLeaks could not have existed during the Cold War. Back then, sensitive U.S. information was handled with a diligence born of persistent Soviet attempts at espionage, just as Soviet business was conducted with one eye open for those devious American snoops. In Washington, paper copies of secrets were numbered, accounted for at the end of the workday and stored in government-issue safes. Some documents were even watermarked to indicate their origin and author and prevent reproduction (and make their provenance easy to trace if someone was daft enough to try to copy them). Wire transmissions quaint! were limited and, in the case of very sensitive material, traveled only over proprietary networks using encryption technology provided by the mathematicians at the National Security Agency.
Then came the IT revolution. At first, the U.S. government resisted its charms. In the corporate world, the evolution of the Internet and rapid data storage and retrieval made it possible by the late 1980s to find and share information on an unimaginable scale. But in government, agencies distrusted one another and often refused to share. There was a long history of that: President Harry Truman and the CIA never knew, for example, that the FBI and the Army had cracked the Soviet codebooks after World War II. That interagency mutual suspicion continued until the Berlin Wall fell and beyond.
It had real costs too. In 2005, the commission investigating the terrorist attacks of 9/11 found that "poor information sharing was the single greatest failure of our government in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks," as commission co-chair Lee Hamilton put it in public testimony. The FBI, for example, had known that al-Qaeda supporter Zacarias Moussaoui was attempting to learn to fly commercial jets but failed to tell the CIA, even as the agency was desperately trying to figure out the details of an airline plot it knew was coming. In the aftermath of 9/11, intelligence sharing became an imperative.
In its response to the new environment, the State Department created something that went by the unlovely name of Net-Centric Diplomacy database, or NCD. The department stored classified information on the database right up to the top-secret level. Agencies across the government had access to State's information through their own secure networks. The Pentagon's network, created in 1995, was called the Secure Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRNet, and was available to everyone from top officers in the Pentagon to troops in the field helping to track intelligence for their units.
It was one thing and a commendable one, within limits to make it easier to share information. But that development coincided with another one: the generation of more secrets than ever. In 1995, Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12958, which gave just 20 officials, including the President, the power to classify documents as top secret, meaning their disclosure would likely "cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security" of the U.S. But sneakily, the order also allowed those 20 selected officials to delegate their authority to 1,336 others. Nor was that all: according to a 1997 bipartisan congressional report of a committee chaired by the scourge of government secrecy, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, such "derivative" classification authority was eventually handed to some 2 million government officials and a million industry contractors.