Behind the Obama team’s toughened stance toward leakers, say experts on both sides, are three key developments. One is the advent of mass leaks of classified information, made possible by digital technology. Another is better tools for tracking down those who leak. And the third is an overheated political environment that, coupled with overclassification of documents as secret, makes it difficult for the administration to use a softer touch.
Before the Digital Age, leakers could get their hands on a classified document or two. Now, it’s possible to store thousands of documents on a tiny thumb-drive or a CD, making a single leak much more damaging than in the past.
“When you have so much more access to communications and information, it makes it so much easier to leak,” says James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank.
That became blazingly apparent in April 2010, when WikiLeaks published leaked video footage of a 2007 air strike showing Iraqi journalists in Baghdad killed by a US military helicopter. Next, WikiLeaks – fed by Manning – published more than 76,000 classified US documents about the war in Afghanistan and many more that it called the “Iraq War Logs.” In all, Manning leaked more than 700,000 documents and other material, including some 250,000 diplomatic cables. A 2010 Pentagon report concluded that initial leaks, including the “war logs,” did not compromise intelligence sources or methods. But it did say the disclosures might damage US security in the future.
“WikiLeaks was such a shock to the Obama administration that it triggered an intense reaction and determination to squelch future leaks,” Mr. Aftergood says. “Security officials were determined to prevent a breach of that scale from occurring again. Part of that was a new zero tolerance policy toward leakers.”
The crackdown apparently comes from the very top.