The WikiLeaks dissemination of U.S. diplomatic and other candid communications has rekindled debate over how to balance the need to protect sources and sensitive information against the need to ensure timely distribution of information to government officials who need it to protect our people and our interests.
Much progress has been achieved in the years since the 9/11 Commission concluded that inadequate sharing of information among agencies had impeded detection of the Sept. 11, 2001, plot, but achieving those gains has been difficult and there is still a long way to go. Without continuous pressure, many agencies and individuals are still inclined to err on the side of protecting rather than sharing certain types of information. It would be unfortunate -- and dangerous -- if responses to the WikiLeaks problem legitimate such counterproductive instincts and roll back hard-won gains for information sharing.
The disclosures of candid diplomatic reporting are embarrassing to the individuals involved and will make foreign interlocutors less willing to speak frankly with American officials, at least for a while. But frank exchanges and candid commentary are essential to the conduct of diplomacy, and no one should expect that reporting by diplomats of other nations is significantly less candid or critical than the cables released by WikiLeaks. To pretend otherwise is equivalent to feigning shock upon learning that gambling is taking place in a casino.
Overreaction, by individuals and well-meaning oversight bodies, is likely unless there is a concerted effort to prevent it. The theft and unauthorized disclosure of these materials are inexcusable, but media coverage has consistently -- and predictably -- depicted a single, albeit horrendous, incident as indicative of widespread systemic deficiencies and makes it appear that Washington is unable to safeguard any classified information.
That isn't the case. Many agencies have implemented measures to prevent massive downloading of sensitive documents from government computers, including disabling much of the capacity to download and rigorous monitoring of computer use. Something obviously failed in this specific case, but redundant ways to prevent and detect unauthorized removal of sensitive materials exist and are widely used within the U.S. intelligence community.
Media and breathless commentators have described the leaked materials as some of the most sensitive documents produced by the U.S. government. The automatic declassification date on almost all cables belies that assessment, but it is also important to note that the reportedly leaked materials are almost all classified no higher than "Secret." Many are embarrassing and their disclosure is damaging to our diplomacy, but the system that apparently was used to download the materials does not contain "Top Secret" or compartmented (very highly restricted) materials, National Security Agency or CIA message traffic, or even materials that the State Department considers too sensitive for broad distribution within the U.S. government.
This observation is not intended to imply that State Department cables are less sensitive than are intelligence community materials. When the system works, which it does most of the time, materials classified at the same level have comparable sensitivity, regardless of where they originate. Having served in the State Department, we are appalled by the revelations and their impact on our former colleagues and American diplomacy. But when contemplating ways to correct failures that permitted the unauthorized downloads, it is essential to recognize that the magnitude of the damage from the disclosures is limited by the classification of the system from which they were reportedly downloaded and procedures designed to prevent more highly sensitive materials from being posted on that system.
Remedies to fix specific deficiencies must be appropriate to the scale of the problem. It is unnecessary and would be badly misguided to impose restrictions that make it more difficult or less imperative to share information with all U.S. personnel who need it to protect our people and our nation.
Fingar is former deputy director of national intelligence for analysis who now teaches at Stanford University. George is a former national intelligence officer who teaches at the National War College.