WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (pictured) reportedly is so paranoid that his precise whereabouts are a closely guarded secret, and he moves around a lot to keep it that way. That's a bit ironic, considering that he's not only a crusader for open government, but is facing possible prosecution under the Espionage Act for disseminating classified diplomatic cables. However, for all the excitement in the media about his latest massive document dump, the leaked material hasn't revealed anything new.
"By definition, it's damaging to American national security interests," says John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org in an interview, adding that the size of the leak was unprecedented. But, he notes: "I haven't learned anything that I didn't already know. I have not heard any startling revelations."
Dan Goure of the Lexington Group was even more scathing, writing on its Early Warning blog: "The initial tranche of cables reminds me of the old expression that what is new is not interesting and what is interesting is not new. One can only hope that somewhere in the mass of additional material that WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, threatens to inflict on the world there is something of real interest."
Indeed, as The New York Times noted, much of the material has already been reported about years ago, and the claims made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the potential damage to national security were exaggerated.
Setting Back the Cause of Declassifying Old Secrets
So why is the media chasing this story so hard? Probably because of the volume of the purloined material. WikiLeaks says it plans to release 251,287 cables leaked from 251 embassies around the world, diplomatic correspondence that many suspect were stolen by Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is in custody.
Some of these documents, such as those related to the ouster and arrest of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega in 1989 should have been released years ago, according to Tom Blanton, head of the nonprofit National Security Archive, who is critical of WikiLeaks's methods. Ditto for a 1972 missive about an arms sale to the government of the Shah of Iran, and a document pertaining to the release of Nelson Mandela from jail in 1990. It remains unclear why WikiLeaks released such ancient history, but it does underscore the argument that many of secrets that the federal government keeps really should be released to the public. It's called over-classification and it's been a problem that activists have complained about for decades. In October, President Obama signed legislation to crack down on the practice.
"Yes, there has been a push toward declassification for some time, but this has focused on records that are 25 years old and older," says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, in an email. "WikiLeaks may end up having negative consequences for transparency if it inhibits the recording or the transmission of diplomatic communications."
Indeed, advocates of open government say they are concerned that WikiLeaks may be setting their cause back years. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called it a "reckless and dangerous" action. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin went further, accusing Assange of being an "anti-American operative with blood on his hands." The U.S. military something similar in June after the site revealed the names of Afghan informants, a revelation that caught the attention of the Taliban. For its part, WikiLeaks denies that any individual has been harmed by any of the information that it has released.
Coming Soon: Scoops on Unethical Banks and BP
In an interview with Forbes magazine, Assange is quoted as saying that his group's next big "megaleak" would be about a large bank. Of course, Assange was coy about the details such as the financial institution's name or the subject of the document dump.
"All I can say is it's clear there were unethical practices, but it's too early to suggest there's criminality. We have to be careful about applying criminal labels to people until we're very sure," Assange is quoted as saying. He added that WikiLeaks has many documents related to energy company BP (BP) but has not released then yet because he isn't sure if they are "especially unique."
The fact that Assange is being so circumspect -- for him -- may underscore the enormous legal hurdles he is facing. The U.S. Department of Justice reportedly is conducting a criminal investigation, as is the government in his native Australia. Assange faces unrelated charges for sexual assault in Sweden, which he has vehemently denied. If Assange's next move is to tangle with a big Wall Street firm such as Goldman Sachs Group (GS), he'd better have his facts straight or else he could wind up in costly litigation.
Or, like this recent leak appears to be, it could be a dud.