The War on Secrecy (3)

By Massimo Calabresi
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.
(Courtesy: Time)