The Costs of a Broken Oath

By Alan W. Dowd
, 9.6.18

After years of flouting not just the laws of Britain, Sweden and the United States—but the very foundation of the law—WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange finds himself cornered. The Ecuadoran Embassy in Britain, which has offered the fugitive Assange safe refuge for seven years, is tired of Assange’s behavior and tired of the international opprobrium it has weathered for harboring him. When Ecuador’s government finally has had enough and throws him out, the British will arrest Assange for refusing to surrender to a warrant in Sweden. That arrest will likely clear the way for extradition to the U.S., where a host of entities—among them, congressional committees, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the Justice Department and CIA—will be very interested in talking with Assange. Those talks are certain to begin with Assange taking some sort of oath.

The practice of taking an oath—pledging one’s word and even inviting some sort of divine punishment for breaking that word—dates back thousands of years. 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 and Pharaoh’s response to Joseph, in the friendship between David and Jonathan, in the distress of King Herod, and in the denials of Peter.

Alas, the oath means very little to the postmodern, anarchist Assange. Sadly, it’s increasingly obvious that the oath means very little to a number of people Americans have entrusted with secrets and other sensitive information in recent years.

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 details of secret commando operations targeting al Qaeda in Pakistan, undisclosed 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 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, gun-camera footage, intelligence-gathering operations, internal State Department memos, secret cables between U.S. and foreign diplomats—and hand them over to Assange.

“I listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga,” Manning bragged in a text message, “while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” “Spillage” suggests it was all an accident. In fact, what Manning did was intentional, premeditated and criminal. All told, Manning stole and leaked more than 700,000 classified videos, battlefield reports and diplomatic cables because, in his expert determination, “It belongs in the public domain.”

Likewise, the oddly-named Reality Winner, a former Air Force language specialist and then NSA contractor, took an oath to protect the sensitive information entrusted to her but leaked top-secret U.S. government reports on Russian cyberattacks.

Then there’s the case of Edward Snowden, who may not have taken an oath in a technical sense when he worked as a subcontractor to the CIA and NSA. However, anyone who works as a federal subcontractor on defense and intelligence matters—and, like Snowden, is given a top-secret clearance—pledges in writing not to share, transmit or otherwise misuse the materials and information to which they are given access. No matter. Snowden, working as an IT-security subcontractor to the NSA and CIA, exposed a secret metadata-surveillance program to the press. He claims he did so as an act of conscience and public service. Tellingly, rather than exposing the program as a whistleblower and working through the American system of justice, as people of real courage and conscience have done for decades, he fled and sought asylum in Russia of all places. Doubtless, Moscow has learned much from its American guest.

“Snowden and his defenders claim that he is a whistleblower, but he isn’t,” House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff concludes. “Those who engage in civil disobedience are willing to stay and face the consequences.”

Adds DNI Dan Coats: “The IC [Intelligence Community] offers avenues for whistleblowers and protections for those individuals to report concerns without fear of reprisal. And there are other legal options available outside of those channels, including notifying the congressional intelligence committees.”

The commonsense comments of Coats and Schiff—and the actions of Manning, Snowden and Winner—underscore that these leakers are not interested in righting wrongs or building a more perfect union. Rather, they want to undermine and perhaps even topple the United States. It pays to recall that Assange openly admits that his goal is to “bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality, including the U.S. administration.” Manning shares these anarchist beliefs, boasting about his role in spreading “worldwide anarchy in CSV format,” a reference to the kind of files he shared with WikiLeaks.

Taken together, these hacks, thefts and leaks “have resulted in a major threat to our national security,” according to Coats. “They endanger the men and women of the Intelligence Community, the Armed Services and those who serve overseas. They give our adversaries knowledge of our activities. They impede our ability to share information with allies…[and] endanger the safety and security of Americans.”

Coats is not alone in his grim assessment. Former DNI James Clapper described Snowden’s crimes as the most “massive and damaging theft of intelligence in our history,” causing “profound damage” to the country. Because of Snowden, according to Clapper, “The nation is less safe and its people less secure.” 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo describes WikiLeaks as a “hostile intelligence service that recruits spies, rewards people who steal legitimate secrets and uses that information to subvert Western democracies,” adding that Assange’s enterprise “has encouraged its followers to find jobs at CIA in order to obtain intelligence.”

Pompeo’s assessment reminds us why President Barack Obama’s decision to commute Manning’s sentence was and is so distressing. It pays to recall that Obama’s own secretary of defense opposed releasing Manning, and his own secretary of state called Manning’s actions “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 problems.” But on this issue, as on so many others—putting a timetable on the mission in Afghanistan, withdrawing from Iraq, leading from behind in Libya, drawing and then erasing red lines in Syria—Obama knew best.


The deeply troubled 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. Secrecy often serves an important and necessary function, as Assange and Manning—both of whom have had their share of legal troubles—know from personal experience. If they 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 states keep some things secret. It is often secrecy—not transparency—that protects us and keeps the world from spinning out of control, into the chaos and anarchy Manning and Assange so desire.

The Assanges, Snowdens and Mannings of the world will never accept it, but shadows and secrets are necessary to conduct diplomacy, execute intelligence operations, and carry out the sort of national-security strategy that deters and prevents war. That’s one of the sad ironies of WikiLeaks. By exposing secret decisions and actions that relate to intelligence, diplomacy and national security, Assange 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, programs and operations that avert war or limit its effects.

History shows us the benefit of shadows and secrets.

Could Teddy Roosevelt have prevented a war over Venezuela, or ended a war between Russia and Japan, without diplomatic ambiguities and shadows?

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 Roosevelt have launched the Manhattan Project, or Harry Truman used its fruits to end World War II, without the shadow of secrecy?

Could John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev have negotiated a way around World War III if there were no shadows for back-channel diplomacy?

Could Ronald Reagan have won the Cold War without launching—from the shadows—his economic, intelligence and technological assaults against the Soviet state?

Could the Bush and Obama administrations have conducted cyberoperations that stunted Iran’s outlaw nuclear program in the light of day?

To be sure, we know about these episodes today—and can learn from them—because secret records, cables and operations 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. For example, the deal that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis—the removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba in exchange for the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey several months later—was contingent upon the deal remaining secret. Khrushchev and Kennedy gave their word.

In short, some things need to be classified, and it’s not Bradley Manning’s, 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 ours is the notion that the people delegate certain aspects of governing to their representatives. One of the things is determining what should be kept secret about our foreign policy, intelligence operations and national defense, what should not, and how and when to go about declassifying that information.

Democracy’s Disadvantage

Tellingly, this war on secrecy waged by Manning, Assange, Snowden, Winner and their fellow travelers is one-sided. They’ve aired the military strategy, diplomatic planning, intelligence sources and methods, and dirty laundry of America and its allies—but not that of America’s enemies. There’s 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, Snowden and Manning, the Russian and Chinese governments simply erase people who try to expose their secrets.

In other words, WikiLeaks puts the United States and its allies at an enormous disadvantage. Some will say this has always been true of democratic governments vis-à-vis their authoritarian foes. But timing is everything. And this generation of cyber-leakers is shrinking the amount of time between policy formation, policy execution and public airing—and thus shrinking the shadows where U.S. intelligence operations, foreign policy and military strategy can work.

Of course, that’s Assange’s goal. He doesn’t want U.S. diplomacy, intelligence or defense to work. He wants them—and America itself—to fail.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. Follow him on Twitter @alanwdowd.