WikiLeaks and the psychology of leaking
The following is a guest post by Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who is the managing principal of Boswell Group LLC. He advises business and political leaders on the dynamics of authority and governance, leadership transitions, and psychological due diligence. The opinions expressed are his own.
With the publication last week of WikiLeaks’ trove of classified documents on the Afghanistan war, the focus has been on the devastating picture they provide of the war. But a critical piece of the puzzle is not being addressed: what are the motivations of the leakers?
According to WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, the documents reveal “the more pervasive levels of violence” and “the general squalor of war.” Sadly, that’s no surprise.
What’s not so obvious is why people leak confidential material. We have yet to hear from Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who was arrested on charges of leaking a video of an American helicopter attack in Iraq to WikiLeaks, and who is suspected of leaking all the other material. According to WikiLeaks, its goal is to reveal “unethical behavior” by governments and corporations through “principled leaking.”
Undoubtedly, the belief that you are doing something good drives many to leak documents. The WikiLeaks website cites the famous Supreme Court decision that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” Only the most paranoid and controlling would disagree. There is certainly no shortage of deceptive behavior in business and government, and WikiLeaks is far from the only organization devoted to exposing it.
But we aren’t always fully aware of what makes us do the things we do. So should we accept the explanations of their actions at face value? Separate from any effect, good or bad, that these revelations have on the situation in Afghanistan and in Washington, leaking is a narcissistic act. The attention bestowed on the leaker can at times overshadow the value of the news that has been leaked. Pfc Manning has gone from a position of obscurity to the center of a national storm.
Leaking also represents a rebellion against authority, not all of which is as benevolent as those who idealize leakers may believe. Steven Aftergood, head of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, attacked WikiLeaks as “among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals.” And Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the leaks are a serious security breach that might “endanger lives.”
WikiLeaks evokes the Pentagon papers, but are the Afghanistan papers analogous to the Pentagon ones? Bradley Manning is no Daniel Ellsberg. Perhaps this can only be known retrospectively, but Ellsberg’s leaking of material on the conduct of the Vietnam War probably did contribute to an earlier end to that conflict. So, while Assange may identify emotionally with 1960’s-style radicals, his organization’s handiwork may not always achieve progressive results.
It now appears that WikiLeak’s leaks may make it harder for President Obama to bring the war in Afghanistan to closure. “While I’m concerned about the disclosure of sensitive information from the battlefield that could potentially jeopardize individuals or operations,” Obama noted, “the fact is these documents don’t reveal any issues that haven’t already informed our public debate on Afghanistan.”
The three blue chip media outlets that were the prime beneficiaries of WikiLeaks’ secret sources — The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel – all apparently felt that the benefits of publishing the information outweighed other considerations, including potential damage to the war effort. As the Times put it in a sidebar, “…there are times when the information is of significant public interest, and this is one of those times.”
The information may be of significant interest, but it may also be one of those times when an individual’s interest in seeking fame and recognition got in the way of the public’s – and our soldiers’ – interest.