Leaks and National Security

U.S. Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) was just on the Today Show discussing the leak of tens of thousands of military documents that have revealed at least a couple very serious coverups in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan:

U.S. military documents released by WikiLeaks show that a U.S. Special Forces unit in Afghanistan assigned to hunt down terrorists also was responsible for the deaths of civilians, Afghan police officers and, in one particularly bloody raid, seven children while they attended school.

The unit is called Task Force 373. It’s assigned to kill so-called “high value” targets or detain them without trial, often in night operations. The 373 follows a hit list of sorts, according to The New York Times and The Guardian newspaper in England. (WikiLeaks gave The New York Times, The Guardian and German magazine Der Spiegel early access to the documents before posting them.)

I can understand why national security may be implicated in the release of documents the government would rather keep secret, but Kit Bond (with the help of Meredith Vieira) seemed to cast the potential effect of the leak as binary: The leak will either have no impact on national security or the leak will damage national security.

From the perspective of military officials charged with keeping secrets secret, this may be a reasonable perspective. After all, the measurables of the task of preventing leaks is the number and size of leaks. But Kit Bond is a U.S. Senator, not a military official charged with preventing leaks. His task isn’t to just plug the hole and move on.

Without this leak, would Kit Bond – vice chairman of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence – ever have known known about U.S. Special Forces killing these children, other civilians and Afghan police? If not, then it becomes hard to conclude that the effects of a security leak will be merely binary. Even if Bond and his fellow committee members already knew about the coverups, the public leak of those bothersome truths about the military may well force changes that will improve national security. The leak may make those kinds of changes politically feasible or even necessary.

None of these effects make the leaker a hero, but it’s just foolish to conclude that the impact of the leak on U.S. security must fall somewhere along the spectrum between negligible and negative.