The defenders of the WikiLeaks disclosure champion the benefits of transparency: providing the public with the unfiltered information that informs the government's decisions in Afghanistan. Yet the leak threatens another type of transparency, one that has critical impact on the ground: information sharing between departments of government. This information security disaster provides ammo to those officials who doubt the value of information sharing and use the name of security to defend closed policies.
While the Pentagon is still investigating the source of the leaks, media outlets are speculating that they originated on interagency information sharing portals. Wired writes that PFC Bradley Manning, who is already charged with leaking classified documents to a blogger and is under investigation for the Afghanistan leakage, obtained 150,000 State Department cables through a program known as Net-Centric Diplomacy. CBS News is now suggesting that this latest batch of documents may have come from Intellipedia.
It may seem hard to believe, but the type of open sharing of information between government agencies on platforms like Intellipedia is a relatively new phenomenon. The public may gripe that too many documents are classified Secret, but even within government, issues around "need to know" and fear by some officials that sharing information outside their department will lead them to lose control of it has lead to closed information policies. Intellipedia is a small example of the movement to break down knowledge barriers and share information between government agencies (and beyond) in order to effect better outcomes in the field.
The public wants to know more about the decision making behind Afghanistan and WikiLeaks provides a rare direct from the field account (I've griped before that the field reporting from Afghanistan is dominated by contractors rather than Soldiers and Marines due to DoD policies). Some people may argue that WikiLeaks has provided value in this way, but we should consider the collateral damage.
The public also wants their government leaders and those in the field to have the best information available, whether that comes from State, Defense, Commerce, or elsewhere. In this case, a Department of Defense employee may have leaked Department of State classified cables that he was able to access online thanks to open policies. Information security officers across government are probably thinking twice about new initatives to share information both with each other and with non-traditional partners like trusted NGOs and foreign partners. A really bad outcome from today's WikiLeaks news would be a step backwards in inter- and intra-governmental transparency. Our success in Afghanistan depends on open information sharing.