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Blame the establishment

October 22, 2010

Wikileaks is primed for another massive dump of classified documents into the open Internet. In the quest to take down the U.S. military establishment (trust me, it will take more than a rapist with a greasy hairdo to undo our intelligence infrastructure) Wikileaks is supposedly set to once again dump thousands of classified documents onto the web, and reporters and federal government employees are already being warned to ignore the contents.

Foreign Policy Magazine aptly points out in a story this week the question that comes with every Wikileaks info dump – is the issue the classified documents or the fact that intelligence officials overzealously classify too much information in the first place? This is one of my favorite media twists on a story, the all-too-easy “blame the establishment” argument. Nevermind that classified information should never be able to make it into the public sector, or that if it does we should have individuals responsible enough to keep it classified, in order to protect our deployed troops and those putting their lives on the line. No, no, let’s just blame the Pentagon. It always has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

Steven Aftergood’s Foreign Policy piece does make a number of very valid points. I’ve said before that we need to take a deep look into our intelligence infrastructure – not just how we classify documents but how we hire personnel, and who has access to sensitive information in the first place. A big barrier to our efficiency is the massive growth that has taken place over the past decade, and we do need to take steps to fix it. The overclassificiation of documents is just one step in an overhaul that it’s clearly time for.

Many have looked to President Obama’s “open government” initiative as a key move forward toward the kind of government transparency we need to make government processes more visible to the American public. But as anyone who’s worked in government knows it will take more than buzzwords and a web page to create change in government. What it will take is government leaders who step up to the plate and demand accountability from within their departments and who can get all of those in the information domain – from intelligence, to IT, to legal, to public affairs – sitting down at the same table and implementing solutions together.

We don’t just need to create a culture where the default, when security is not a factor, is open, we need to empower a workforce to support that. I think sometimes we fail to release information out of sheer laziness. Most military communication is not self-explanatory – it requires professionals to interpret it and give it the context necessary to be used by the media and consumed by the American public. If we commit to creating a more transparent information exchange as many are suggesting, we are creating new obligations for those with the responsibility to interpret it.

I do think our government, over the past severa years, has made positive steps toward engaging in a conversation with the American public. The military’s use of social media is just one example of how seemingly closed doors organizations are increasingly interested in Tweeting, Facebooking and blogging their way into a more open dialogue. We’re not yet where we need to be, but the culture change that it will take requires more than executive orders and policies, it needs people with the energy to move it forward – and that will take time. Time worth taking when it comes to our national security.

It’s easy to blame the establishment (and gosh darn fun), but I’m not willing to let Wikileaks off of the hook that easy. There is no excuse for taking war-time communications and intelligence, in a time of war, and releasing it to friends and enemies alike. It’s not just our intelligence industry that needs an overhaul, it’s also a society and a media infrastructure that seems all too supportive of taking classified documents and releasing them into the public square.

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