Providence | 1.24.17
By Alan W. Dowd
In scripture, the oath represents the heart of a man. It is his word,
his bond, his promise, his commitment. It is his essence. We see the
power of the oath in Abraham’s relationship with God, in the promises
God made to His people, in the fractured brotherhood of Jacob and Esau,
in Joseph’s commitment to his dying father, in Pharaoh’s response to Joseph, in the way Moses and Joshua led their people, in the friendship between David and Jonathan, in the distress of King Herod, and in the denials of Peter.
As a soldier in the U.S. Army, Bradley Manning took an oath. He broke it when he decided to download thousands of classified documents—including
secret commando operations targeting al Qaeda in Pakistan, undisclosed
joint U.S.-allied operations in Afghanistan, an effort by the Bush and
Obama administrations to remove highly enriched uranium from Pakistan,
discussions between Washington and Seoul about Korean reunification,
inducements offered to various governments to secretly accept Guantanamo
detainees, revelations that Beijing had hacked into Google’s operations
in China, secret understandings between the U.S. and its allies in the
Middle East about targeting terror groups, debriefing evaluations of
Guantanamo detainees, battlefield footage, intelligence-gathering
operations, internal State Department cables, secret cables between U.S.
and foreign diplomats—and hand them over to WikiLeaks, whose founder
openly admits that he wants to “bring down many administrations that
rely on concealing reality, including the U.S. administration.”
Manning seemed to share the anarchist beliefs of WikiLeaks, boasting before being caught about his role in spreading “worldwide anarchy in
CSV format,” a reference to the kind of files he surrendered to Julian
Assange. Manning braggingly—and erroneously—called his crime “the
largest data spillage in American history.” In fact, what Manning
perpetrated was the purposeful, premeditated publication of stolen
national-security secrets. This was not a leak or a spill. He knew as
much because he pled guilty to several counts of espionage-related
But President Barack Obama, in the eleventh hour of his
administration, commuted Manning’s sentence. He did so over the
objections of his secretary of defense and intelligence officials. He
did so despite what his first secretary of state said of Manning’s
crimes: It was Hillary Clinton who called Manning’s handover of secret
diplomatic cables “an attack on America’s foreign policy interests” that
“puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security and
undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared
But on this issue—as on pulling back from Afghanistan and withdrawing
from Iraq and leading from behind in Libya and erasing red lines in
Syria and everything else—Obama knew best.
For his part, the deeply confused and naïve Manning said he was
motivated by the notion that “the world would be a better place if
states would not make secret deals with each other.” What a silly
notion. In fact, we all know from personal experience that secrecy often
serves an important purpose. For instance, if Assange and Manning—both
of whom have had their share of legal troubles—really believed secrecy
was so bad, why wouldn’t they post their consultations with counsel on
YouTube or share their defense strategies with the world on WikiLeaks?
The answer is the very same reason why nation-states keep some things
secret. It is often secrecy—not transparency—that protects us and keeps
the world from spinning out of control.
The Assanges and Mannings of the world will never accept it, but
shadows and secrets are necessary to conduct diplomacy and carry out the
sort of national-security strategy that deters and limits wars. That’s
one of the sad ironies of Assange’s WikiLeaks. By exposing secret
decisions and actions that relate to foreign policy and national
security, he thinks he is promoting peace. But in truth, his handiwork
is doing the very opposite: It has a chilling effect on the very sorts
of exchanges that avert war or limit its effects.
History shows us the benefit of shadows.
Could Teddy Roosevelt have prevented a war over Venezuela, or ended a
war between Russia and Japan, without diplomatic ambiguities and
Could the Allies have orchestrated their Calais deception before
D-Day or bludgeoned Hitler’s war machine in a WikiLeaks era, with every
conversation and casualty exposed to the world?
Could Franklin D. Roosevelt have launched the Manhattan Project, or
Truman used its fruits to end World War II, without the shadow of
Could John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev have negotiated a way around
World War III if there were no shadows for back-channel diplomacy?
Could Reagan have won the Cold War without launching—from the
shadows—his economic, intelligence, and technological assaults against
the Soviet state?
To be sure, we know about these episodes today—and can learn from
them—because secret records, cables, and diaries have been declassified.
But if they had been revealed in real-time—or if the principals thought
what they were saying, doing, and promising would be exposed in short
order—history would be very different.
In short, some things need to be classified. And it’s not Bradley
Manning’s or Julian Assange’s or Edward Snowden’s responsibility or
right to determine what to declassify. That’s a job for Congress.
Implicit in a representative system like that of the United States is
the notion that the people delegate certain aspects of governing to
their representatives. One of the many things we delegate to our
representatives is determining what should be kept secret about our
foreign policy and national security, what should not, and how and when
to go about declassifying that information.
Tellingly, this war on secrecy waged by Manning, Assange, Snowden,
and their fellow travelers is one-sided. They’ve aired the military
strategy, diplomatic planning, and dirty laundry of America and its
allies—but not that of America’s enemies. There is no Iranian, North
Korean, Taliban, ISIS, or al Qaeda equivalent to WikiLeaks. And whereas
much of the Western world tolerates and some even applaud people like
Assange and Manning, the Russian and Chinese governments simply erase
people who expose their secrets.
In other words, WikiLeaks, whether unintentionally or purposely, puts
the United States and its allies at a disadvantage. Some will say this
has always been true of democratic governments vis-à-vis their
authoritarian foes. But timing is everything. And WikiLeaks is shrinking
the amount of time between policy formation, policy execution, and
public airing—and thus shrinking the shadows where American foreign and
defense policy can work.