WikiLeaks and the psychology of leaking

August 2, 2010

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.

Was leaking the Afghan war documents in the public’s best interest? Click here to take our poll.

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.


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This opinion piece is a thinly veiled attack on Wikileaks and their source, framing their actions as narcissistic psychopathology. Mr Sulkowicz fails to note the obvious point that the whistleblower who leaked these documents is as yet unknown, and as far as can be told Pfc Manning also intended to remain anonymous. Surely any sort of narcissistic “high” obtained from the media attention would be nullified by the complete anonymity, paranoia, and fear in which the whistleblower is forced to exist. Anyone familiar with Julian Assange’s habits knows he darts in and out of the limelight, hopping from city to city around the globe, as demanded by what his website publishes. Following Manning’s arrest he went into complete hiding for more than two weeks, fearful of retaliation from the Pentagon. This is not the pattern of someone who craves media attention, and if Mr Sulkowicz had actually taken time to analyze his subject before pronouncing judgments on his behavior he would conclude likewise.

Posted by sudpralad | Report as abusive

Dr. Sulkowicz,

Is duplicity acceptable?

If our elected representatives were forthright, we wouldn’t need to dig for the truth or wait for years until it is revealed, invariably too late to make amends to those who suffered. But your analysis was very informative.

Posted by Warburton | Report as abusive

It sickens me that there is so much more discussion going on about the fact of the leaking than there is of the facts which were leaked.


Posted by Thalya | Report as abusive

Thank you Kerry S! War is ugly. No surprise there. I hate the death… all of it. The death of Afghans and the troops. Hate all of it.

But, what I also can’t take is the age of narcissism that we seem to be living in.

Congratulations Wikileaks …… you have now had your 15 minutes of fame. Gross.

Posted by cmwig | Report as abusive

An act of incredible self-indulgence, believing he has the high moral ground because he prefers peace to war. Preferfing peace to war – what a concept – which I’d thought of that. I assume by releasing documents he intends to accelerate an end to the conflict by undermining the activities of coalition forces. More lkely than not this will only prolong the conflict. But if the ‘leaks’ did accomplished this under these circumstances the Taliban would certainly return and as before subjugate the population to reprisals and the heartless apparatus of their rule. Where then is the moral high ground? Meanwhile, he has already increasingly exposed Afghan population to reprisals from the Taliban by providing information about civilian cooperation and endangered lives other than his own. In effect, he is guilty of aiding and abetting the enemy, endangering our soldiers, and furthering the suffering of the people of Afghanistan. If he really wanted to help perhaps he could join an aid organization in Afghanistan and chip in to better the lot of the Afghan people.

Posted by Redford | Report as abusive


thats not what it is about at all. we live in a time of incredible corruption. our government makes all kinds of plans and wars and just uses whatever excuses to keep the masses behind them…..the media by and large sucks up to the authority of the corporations/government. so YES we need wikileaks to get the information out there available. besides its nice to see mullen and gates all muddled and crying blood on hands like little children. that’s not fair!

Posted by barkinbob | Report as abusive

QUOTE: 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.”

“Enemies of open society” from someone whos single purpose is to keep secrets from society? What rule of law? What rights of what individuals? PLEASE be specific as to what EXACT document(s)are being referenced.

Posted by JJWest | Report as abusive

Wikileaks is playing Russian roulette, and I will gladly spin the revolver, aim , and pull the trigger.

Posted by noway | Report as abusive

and I thought TMZ was the lowest…

Posted by centermassmedia | Report as abusive

To better understand Mr. Assange actions it would be advisable to pay attention to his numerous presentations available on-line including extensive piece published by Australian centre left broadsheet The Age on 22 of May 2010.
Julian cams as a deeply narcissistic, hugely megalomaniac, insecure, delusional, alternative child of alternative upbringing in alternative environment.
Child predestined to change the world and quite willing to accept any “collateral” damage when doing so.
Bringing down governments, prime ministers, bankers and “squashing like bugs” any opposition is truly impressive even if only illusionary achievement of delusional mind of Mr. Assagne.
He can be very dangerous as he is likely to be used by anybody with any agenda.
Publishing “leaked” e-mails from Climate Research Institute was a huge blow to the collective effort to win public support for “climate action” and his latest stunt can cost lives of peoples he insist on representing and can help those who want to oppress them.
He, like leaders of religious cults prey on blind faith and ignorance of his audience, qualities which free his followers from the effort of independent inquiry and provide them with clear, simple answers for complex questions and a bliss of moral and intellectual superiority.
Mr. Assange seems to have expensive lifestyle and lives off a secret investment which nature he will not discuss; maybe he should, just for the sake of reasons he advocates.

Posted by marecki | Report as abusive

“Leakers”? These people are providing news – and the ‘media’ is providing gossip – this column being a reasonably good example…except Kerry J. Sulkowicz, M.D. has provided no further information about the mental state of Lindsay Lohan – so this is not even a very good article by modern ‘media’ standards. The real news is on the street – it used to be provided by the media but the media has turned to pop psychologists to ‘understand’ the reasoning behind talking about the things we need to know in order to make informed decisions in a free society.

Posted by cranston | Report as abusive

It seems not only presumptuous but foolhardy to think narcissism had something to do with Pfc. Bradley Manning’s leaking classified data. This entire thought process presumes he wanted to be caught or at the very least identified. Is there any evidence for this? Reading over his conversations with Adrian Lamo it’s evident he was wrestling with a very real moral dilemma.

This article reeks of propaganda, or at the very least is built on ill supported reasoning. Lets discuss whether the material should have been public knowledge and therefore open to debate. Doing this might provide a better context to judge the character of the people making the decision to leak this information and those who as facilitators then published it to the public at large (i.e. The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel).

Posted by xtraeme | Report as abusive

the only reason the government keeps things secret is because they are doing things that are wrong. Media in lock-step with the government and corporations IS fascism. Reuters is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Our government is committing crimes, and the way they avoid the wrath of the people and prosecution is by marking things, illegal things, secret. The next step is to take away the freedom of the internet, already underway.

Posted by danielCC | Report as abusive

The premiss of this and other critiques of Wikileaks is just wrong. It is the US military that has created this situation and is responsible for any problems that lead from it. What seems to have been lost here is that the US military has an obligation to report, with some accuracy, to the people that pay and support them. War effort? There were never any press releases like “Smooth Sailing at Anzio” or “D-Day, Cake Walk: Same Thing”. Was the whole truth told. No, of course not. But neither was it acceptable to lie over and over again on a daily basis about even the smallest details. That is the story Wikileaks is reporting and it is an important one.
It shows the complete disconnect between the US military leaders and the people that they serve and serve for them.
What was the motivation for leaking? Everything.
It started in Vietnam, but now has become the only way the military knows how to function. And it is why the US military will never win another war. Generals don’t win wars, people do.
People who know what is at stake and what it might cost them and others. Not people who have been BS’ed into a situation that it just a PR persons fantasy.

Posted by shimmy | Report as abusive


As a psychiatrist, I suggest that readers take Dr. Kerry Sulkowicz’s views on the “psychology of leaking” with a large grain of NaCl. Why?

Dr. Sulkowicz speaks from a “psychodynamic” point of view derived from the original Freudian theories of psychoanalysis. These theories long have become archaic because they are unscientific. They are unscientific because they neither can be proven nor disproven. Unfortunately, most of psychiatry and clinical psychology still cling to them, explicitly or implicitly.

As Dr. Sulkowicz’s analysis demonstrates, psychoanalysis and its psychodynamic derivatives are mentalistic. Without going into technical details [I refer those interested to the recent novel, Inescapable Consequences (], mentalistic models confuse independent variables with dependent ones. They posit unproven, hypothetical factors of causation such as “motivation” instead of pursuing empirical studies based upon documented, scientific principles such as the Law of Effect (Thorndike, 1911). Furthermore, they fail to follow the scientific guidelines of specificity, objectivity, and accountability.

The modern alternative is behavioral science from the rapidly-developing, biobehavioral orientation. Applying mentalistic models to human behavior, personal or societal, only leads us astray.

I myself have no idea what factors caused Julian Assange to publish supposedly secret documents. I never have met the man, let alone spent time evaluating him psychiatrically. I doubt that Dr. Sulkowicz has either. The piece reminds me of the way our psychiatric colleagues smeared Barry Goldwater in 1964 with unsubstantiated, psychopathological labels amounting to psychopathological libels. We psychiatrists can do better. We must do better. We owe as much to society.

Posted by Moss_GR | Report as abusive

“It sickens me that there is so much more discussion going on about the fact of the leaking than there is of the facts which were leaked.”

Perhaps because there wasn’t much in the documents? The only big headline from all of them was the Pakistan-Taliban link, but that has been in the news for years. Most of the documents were radio chatter of daily events.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

Whenever one cannot argues the facts the debate must change to argue the debators – turning the exposure of ‘unpleasant details’ of the war into ad hominem attacks is really ugly. I think that this ‘campaign’ is on at all proves just how seriously we should be examining all that these documents are telling us about what American expeditionary forces are doing overseas. Americans HAVE a right to know – it’s their money paying for it! Keeping secrets and using that line to keep the public un/misinformed is the antithesis of what America is supposed to be, and I think a large part of that has to be on the shoulders of media who have generally given up on trying to challenge govt and it’s action. Instead they wait for spoon fed stories on this or that which distract from larger issues and reduce debate either to extremist corners or out of sight all together.

Posted by CDNrebel | Report as abusive

I don’t believe that we can assume that people who leak to Wikileaks are seeking some form of fame. The reason being a hallmark of Wikileaks is the lengths it goes to to protect it’s informants, encrypting their indentities.

As for Wikileaks itself the breadth of the subject matter it covers should be ample proof that it’s main goal is simply total disclosure.

Aside from that I think that it is difficult to assess the “good” that Wikileaks does. The information provided can cause real harm, and knowing the information it provides may not increase our quality of life in a tangible way. What it does however is provide balance in the culture of information. I think it is pretty obvious that the scales of information availability are skewed heavily toward secrecy in many areas of our lives. While Wikileaks methods and results may be suspect in a era of secrecy a organization like Wikileaks does provide a service that helps balance the culture that exists.

Posted by ERhoades | Report as abusive

[…] In recent years, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and other social media platforms have become the virtual places where human interaction occurs, with discussions on topics from auto repair to international politics.  Psychoanalysts are joining the conversation.  One of the more widely known psychoanalyst-bloggers is Dr. Gail Saltz, who discusses health, sex, and relationships, not only on the Today Show, but also on her own blog, Anderson Cooper’s AC360, and her Facebook page.  Kerry Sulkowicz, MD, employs his psychoanalytic expertise in the service of advising Fortune 500 companies and blogs at […]

Posted by Psychoanalysts in Social Media: Overcoming Resistances | Cleveland Psychoanalytic Center | Report as abusive