Jack Goldsmith has a bone to pick with Bill Keller’s bitchy meditation on WikiLeaks, and a few to break:

Keller is right that the Wikileaks phenomenon was overblown. Bradley’s Manning’s leaks of hundreds of thousands of classified documents and related information were the result of the government’s unbelievably lax digital security system. Assange’s enterprise for receiving and distributing the information depended on this “push” model of leaking that the government has moved aggressively to prevent.

But it does not follow that the government is more secretive than ever. Yes, the government is bigger than ever. Yes, it classifies more information than ever. And yes, it is pursuing leakers more aggressively than ever. But the government by many other measures is losing the war against leaks. The size of the secrecy bureaucracy makes secrets harder than ever to keep. So too do modern information technologies, which enables journalists and non-journalists around the globe to watch, collaborate, and report on “secret” USG activity like never before. They can also use massive databases and search capabilities to uncover government action, as they did, for example, in uncovering the CIA’s “secret” prisons. We read about intimate details of covert actions and other classified programs on the front pages of newspapers so often that we have become inured to the fact that this information is not supposed to be in the public realm.

But c’mon. This is not a fair fight. Just because one fights a war incompetently doesn’t mean the war is off.

Obama’s most-transparent-administration-ever is pursuing cases against leakers with vigor. (For purposes of this post, I’m going to eschew the phrase “whistleblowers,” since it’s a value-laden term and I have no desire to stack the rhetorical deck here.) Its powers of classification and prosecution far outweigh the ability of wily journalists to ferret out information against the government’s will. Yes, we can get government officials to leak to us, but there’s a chill factor here. I have had sleepless nights about whether publishing information would get my sources locked up.

Jack might object: well, did that deter you from publishing? And the answer, ultimately, was no. But most leaks are not ThinThread or the CIA black sites. It’s minor stuff. There’s a reason why much of the accumulated weight of the WikiLeaks disclosures struck some observers as underwhelming: despite the sheer volume of the stuff, the individual documents were often accounts of the mundane. Most of what the government wants kept secret — legitimately and dubiously — remains secret.

Jack is right that there are technical vulnerabilities to government information systems that WikiLeaks recently exposed. But those are glitches in a broader picture of blocked access. I await Jack’s forthcoming book about all this, and I wonder if his view of a government sieve might change if he did my job for a couple weeks.

Photo: Flickr/Andymangold