The recent release of over 80,000* classified documents by the website WikiLeaks represents what is very likely the largest and most damaging public disclosure of protected information to the public in the history of espionage. The potential damage caused by this release will be incalculable in terms of lives lost, opportunities scuttled, and public perspective manipulated.
I know people who will cheer this compromise and who will shake their fists in an defiant “take that” toward their much reviled Bush administration straw man. They will claim that this release is a great triumph for truth over tyranny, and some will reveal their ignorance by going so far as to make wild claims that these documents prove we should abandon Afghanistan.
So blooms the age of the non-state actor.
The non-state actor is a force that, I believe, has heretofore been underestimated and almost ignored by governments and citizens until very recently. Now, the power of unifying forces like the internet and other forms of nearly instantaneous mass communication have given potency to individuals and groups and causes that were once limited to protests and terrorism.
Now it is possible for people of similar mindset and ideology to unite across political, geographical, and cultural barriers to drive forward agendas that were almost unthinkable a decade ago. These groups of unified ideologues can wield power disproportionate to their size and scope, threatening the well-being of millions while being few in number themselves.
In this WiliLeaks release, we see such power in action. Clearly, the website’s founder, Julian Assange, and his compatriots want something very similar to what al Qaeda and the Taliban want: to harm the United States and its ability to operate on the international stage enough that it allows them to advance their agendas unchecked. I do not claim that Assange or any of his fellows sympathize with al Qaeda, but in them they have found the convenient alliance of an enemy of an enemy.
And they have succeeded at their goal of damaging the ability of the United States to conduct military, political, and civil operations in Afghanistan and the nations surrounding it. They have successfully encumbered US operations there, have exposed foreign personnel to additional risk, and have handed new initiative to their allies.
In doing so, they have placed everyone who does not believe in their agenda at risk, regardless of ones polity or beliefs. They have emboldened those who seek to force their ideologies on others and have revealed new, powerful tools for the enforcement of their goals.
Yet far too few people will see this threat for what it is. Most will be oblivious to what has happened, some will simply ignore it, and a tragic few will cheer it and support more events like it. In all those reactions, we see the potential for the failure of the state and the hands of the non-state, a danger that almost no one is ready to face.
*Editors note: There seems to be some disagreement online about exactly how many documents WikiLeaks released. Some of this seems to be due to how the information is being classified as documents due to the nature of the communications involved. WikiLeaks claims 91,000, the Guardian (who published many of the documents) claims more than 90,000, but earlier reports, now redacted or corrected claimed a lower number. We can safely say it was a lot.