Speaking before a small crowd of students in the Stauffer Science Hall, USC professor and former CIA intelligence officer Maura Godinez spoke about the issue of intelligence leaks, specifically in relation to Chelsea Manning — formerly known as Bradley Manning — who was convicted after releasing classified documents to the website WikiLeaks.
The event was sponsored by the International Relations Undergraduate Association and the Center for Excellence in Teaching’s Undergraduate Fellows.
“The CET wanted to do a speaker series because our goal is to increase collaboration between students and faculty and facilitate learning inside and outside the classroom,” said Nick Kosturos, a junior majoring in international relations and an undergraduate fellow in CET. “When we were approached by the IRUA with this opportunity, we agreed to provide funding and hope this will become the first of a faculty speaker series.”
The event, “Manning: Soldier, Hacktivist, Leaker, Spy,” focused on the role of secrecy in government and under what, if any, circumstances leaking information is appropriate. Godinez began her talk by asking the audience to think about the definition of secrecy by considering some ethical case studies, such as publishing the names of those diagnosed with herpes simplex to prevent transmission of the disease. A theme she reiterated throughout the talk was the need to balance the desire of the leaker to expose wrongdoing with the interest of national security.
“No matter what good a leaker may achieve, there is always, in the national security realm, some loss, and we must weigh that damage against the good the leaker hoped to effect,” Godinez said.
Godinez also said that the threats arising from the leaking of information of any kind are real because foreign intelligence and terrorist organizations do not discriminate by source when gathering information about targets and, as a case officer, she personally utilized open source resources to build profiles of targets of interest.
“These are learning organizations,” she said. ”They would not exist if they did not learn about us and modify their behavior to respond.”
In addition, even if intelligence agencies are made aware of the scope and content of a leak, replacing a leaked technological system, for example, can cost billions of dollars in lost research and development.
She said that due to the complicated nature of security oversight, civil society has a large role to play in defining the appropriate role of secrecy. Godinez mentioned that traditionally, the legislative and judicial branches have exercised limited authority over the executive in matters of state secrecy because Congress is “made up of adversarial parties” and judges “don’t have depth or breadth of knowledge” in national security matters, so the personal virtues of the executive branch and the media play a significant role in regulating state secrecy.
“There is an understanding among the intelligence community that information will come to the public eventually, and that serves as a check,” she said.
Godinez also said the issue of leakers and whistleblowers was particularly complicated because of the need to separate the personal motivations of the leaker with the common interest of the country. She said that intelligence officials who have sworn oaths to secrecy cannot divulge information simply because their personal values have been violated; they would instead have to resign.
If there is egregious wrongdoing and normal channels of redress have failed, Godinez said, then a truly altruistic leaker would expose the wrongdoing while taking steps to prevent a disproportionate threat to national security.
During the discussion period, students weighed in on the actions of Manning, including the leaking of a video of U.S. Marines in a helicopter, war logs from the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the release of hundreds of thousands of state department cables.
“I didn’t know about the helicopter video and that was disturbing,” said Adela Jones, a junior majoring in interdisciplinary studies. “I was really surprised and really glad of the expertise of the students, and I was really glad that students were getting into it and thinking comprehensively about the issues.”
Godinez said that it was important for citizens to debate these issues and provide guidelines for intelligence and military officials, as failing to discuss meant “abrogating” one’s right to pass judgement.
“I think it’s good food for thought because we’re the next generation of voters and this is something to keep in the back of our mind to maybe pressure our elected officials about,” Jones said.