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WikiLeaks disclosures are a 'tragedy'

By Michael V. Hayden, Special to CNN
  • Former CIA head Hayden: Innocents will die as result of WikiLeaks disclosures
  • He says documents released due to "corrupted view of inherent evils of modern state"
  • Documents will enlighten enemies about U.S. military's methods, he says
  • Hayden: Why would people in Afghanistan risk cooperating with American forces?

Editor's note: Gen. Michael V. Hayden was appointed by President George W. Bush as CIA director in 2006 and served until February 2009. He also was director of the National Security Agency and held senior staff positions at the Pentagon.

(CNN) -- In a 1997 light-hearted comedy, "Excess Baggage," Benicio del Toro (an inadvertent kidnapper) asks Alicia Silverstone (the unintended kidnap victim), "How stupid do you think I am?" Silverstone classically deadpans her response, "How stupid is there?"

I thought of this scene often this past week as I watched WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange attempt to explain and then justify his dumping of some 75,000 classified U.S. intelligence documents into the public domain.

It was hard to suppress a laugh as he attempted to justify the release of documents based on their content when most of us in the actual business of secrets know that reports are more often classified because of their source, not their content.

Suppress a laugh. Except that this isn't a comedy. It's a tragedy. And innocents will die.

First of all, let's look at the "up" side of this release. These documents "prove" that war is grittier when viewed by an infantryman than by a policymaker; that Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, is a difficult partner; that in war innocent civilians sometimes die; and that the Taliban has been growing in strength over the past several years. Not quite "stop the presses" kind of revelations.

Video: WikiLeaks founder fights back
Video: White House responds to WikiLeaks

Now the downsides. According to multiple press accounts, despite WikiLeaks' claim that it had redacted source-identifying information from the military's intelligence reports, it apparently did a half-baked job and real names of real people are being exposed.

Beyond that, even when you effectively mask source-identifying data, the enemy knows who did or who did not know about the historic operation or meeting or rendezvous now being made public in a leaked American document.

I can already see the Taliban or al Qaeda dialogue: "Brother, in whose house did we hold that meeting in 2007?"

WikiLeaks, as part of its self-justification, contends that much of this information is dated, none of it more recent that seven months ago. Let me remind readers that we send young Americans in harm's way (and frequently are forced to kill our adversaries) in order to retrieve this kind of information on al Qaeda and the Taliban.

This data dump is the moral and cyber equivalent of capturing an al Qaeda hard drive, a treasure trove of historical knowledge that enlightens and informs current operations. With this release, the enemy now knows about us that which we struggle so hard to learn about him: What we do well and what we do less well, where our thinking is strong and where it is not, where our analysis is incisive and where we have blind spots.

I used to give the graduation address to CIA case officers as they completed their operational training. At every ceremony I would remind them that they would be taking the fate of their future sources into their hands, that in a powerful moral sense, they would be responsible for the well-being of their sources and, very often, their source's families. Without that implied "contract," why would anyone provide information to us?

This isn't a comedy. It's a tragedy. And innocents will die.
--Michael V. Hayden

What potential sources in Afghanistan will now believe that America can protect them?

Why would anyone in that troubled land bet his family's well-being and future on such a well-intentioned but obviously porous partner, whatever hope or vision for the future this potential source might harbor.

And we will never know who will now not come forward, who will not provide us with life-saving information, who will decide he cannot opt for a common effort against a common enemy. But we can be certain that the cost will be great.

And foreign intelligence services, with whom we have established productive and legitimate partnerships, will ask, "Can I trust the Americans to keep anything secret?"

On top of last summer's voluntary disclosure by the administration of CIA covert actions in America's previous interrogation program (over the objection of the current CIA director and seven of his predecessors), what liaison service in the world will now accept any assurances that we can protect their secrets? Or protect their identity? Or be consistent in our policy?

Finally, I can only imagine what adversary intelligence services worldwide are doing with these documents. If I were the chief of Russia's FSB or China's PLA-2, I would be gathering all of my English-speaking officers and directing them to read all 75,000 documents to learn where the Americans are strong, weak, vulnerable, formidable, to be avoided and to be challenged.

And all of this because of some corrupted view of the inherent evils of the modern state, a pseudo-romantic attachment to the absolute value of transparency, a casual indifference to inevitable consequences and a neurotic attachment to one individual's self importance. Rarely have we seen such a dangerous combination of arrogance and incompetence.

Perhaps we should ask heaven to help us, because our intelligence services will surely be less able to do so.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael V. Hayden.