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In May, Manning told his hacker friend that he had downloaded data to a Lady Gagalabeled CD and that he had given to WikiLeaks a video from Afghanistan, a classified Army document on the security threat of WikiLeaks and 260,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. The hacker turned him in, and Administration officials say Manning is the only suspect in the cables case. His lawyer did not return calls requesting comment. In late May, the U.S. military arrested Manning. But that was much too late. By then, WikiLeaks had the cables.
Assange can talk big he gave TIME a lecture on the Founding Fathers and may have something of a martyr complex. But he has shown himself an exceptionally talented showman. Frustrated that prior postings received little attention, he has arranged embargoed access to his more spectacular recent releases for the New York Times, the Guardian in Britain, Der Spiegel in Germany, El País in Spain and Le Monde in France. His release in April of a 2007 video from Iraq shocked Americans. Of his latest effort, which he says is producing a new, original story every two minutes, he tells TIME: "The media scrutiny and the reaction from government are so tremendous that it actually eclipses our ability to understand it."
The WikiLeaks founder mixes radicalism with a heavy dose of autodidactic erudition. When asked about Britain's hard-line Official Secrets Act, which once punished the disclosure of virtually anything that one ever saw inside a British government office, including the state of the cheese sandwiches, Assange wrote, "The dead hand of feudalism still rests on every British shoulder; we plan to remove it." When asked by TIME how he justified his actions, he launched into a discourse on the "revolutionary movement" that produced the U.S. Constitution and opined that the "Espionage Act is widely viewed to be overbroad, and that is perhaps one of the reasons it has never been properly tested in the Supreme Court."
Some day he may test the assertion in person, as the U.S. government's benign neglect has given way to real hostility. Congressman Pete King has called for WikiLeaks' designation as a terrorist organization. On Nov. 29, Attorney General Eric Holder said Justice is investigating the matter. But even if he could be caught, prosecuting Assange would be hard, and Administration officials say that for now the probe is primarily focused on Manning. "There's not a lot of precedent there," says one. "And then there's the First Amendment question of whether [WikiLeaks] is a media outlet."
Fixing the System
In one way, President Obama agrees with Assange: he too thinks there should be fewer secrets. On his first full day in office, Jan. 21, 2009, Obama issued a memo to agencies instructing them to embrace openness and transparency. He then launched an interagency review of classification that produced a Dec. 29, 2009, Executive Order requiring the millions of "derivative" classifiers to receive regular training in what actually needs classification or lose their clearance. The order also required agencies to bring in outside experts to review classification guidance. Perhaps most important, Obama's order forced those who classify information to identify themselves on the documents they create. The main obstacle to classification reform has been the Defense Department, which one senior Administration official describes as "hostile" to the effort, because of a reflexive belief that secrecy protects the troops. To push back, Obama in July ordered all agencies to issue regulations implementing his December 2009 order by the end of this year. The Pentagon has produced a draft.
None of that makes Obama and Assange allies. Quite the opposite. Obama is finding that rebuilding the credibility of government generally is difficult; shoring up the credibility behind government secrecy is even harder. Assange isn't making his job easier. The massive cable leak, says Clinton, "puts people's lives in danger, threatens national security and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems." The leak has also led the U.S. to tighten, not loosen, its security protocols. After consulting with the White House in the run-up to the WikiLeaks dump, State temporarily cut the link between its NCD database and SIPRNet. CentCom has reimposed its restrictions on using removable media, is newly requiring that a second person approve the download of classified information to an unsecure device and is installing software designed to detect suspicious handling of secrets.
Whether all that will work is an open question. "The world is moving irreversibly in the direction of openness, and those who learn to operate with fewer secrets will ultimately have the advantage over those who futilely cling to a past in which millions of secrets can be protected," says a former intelligence-community official. From the perspective of the U.S. government, which has just seen the unauthorized release of 11,000 secret documents, it may be hard to imagine what that world would look like. But at least one senior government official seems comfortable with where things are headed. Defense Secretary Robert Gates no stranger to real secrets, since he served as CIA chief and Deputy National Security Adviser under President George H. W. Bush shrugged off the seriousness of the cable dump Nov. 30. Said Gates: "Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest."
Not everybody is that nonchalant, which is why the President's real goal is to find a balance between keeping secret what should be secret, making transparent what should be transparent and doing it all in such a way as to augment the effective conduct of government. Potter Stewart had a go at defining such a balance in his Pentagon papers opinion in 1971. "The hallmark of a truly effective internal security system," the Justice said, "would be the maximum possible disclosure, recognizing that secrecy can best be preserved only when credibility is truly maintained." Wise words, from the heart of the American establishment. Words that Assange admiringly cites on the WikiLeaks website.