Pentagon Official Addresses WikiLeaks, Social Media

WASHINGTON, April 18, 2011 — The Wik­iLeaks episode under­scores the need for laws and poli­cies that address the unin­tend­ed con­se­quences of “tech­nol­o­gy at the inter­sec­tion of nation­al secu­ri­ty,” the Pentagon’s lead com­mu­ni­ca­tor said yes­ter­day.
Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense for Pub­lic Affairs Dou­glas B. Wil­son told inter­view­er Vago Mura­di­an on “This Week in Defense News” he’s not sure how the Defense Depart­ment might have han­dled the Wik­iLeaks sit­u­a­tion dif­fer­ent­ly. group post­ed more than 90,000 doc­u­ments, many that detailed field reports from Afghanistan as well as Pakistan’s rela­tion­ships with the Tal­iban.

“I think the most sig­nif­i­cant les­son to come out of this is that tech­nol­o­gy — and par­tic­u­lar­ly tech­nol­o­gy at the inter­sec­tion of nation­al secu­ri­ty — has out­paced the pol­i­cy and the law nec­es­sary to address the unin­tend­ed con­se­quences,” Wil­son said.

Wil­son called Wik­iLeaks an exam­ple of how “arro­gance and naiveté have deter­mined and had neg­a­tive con­se­quences for nation­al secu­ri­ty.”

“Clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion is clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion, and releas­ing that infor­ma­tion is ille­gal,” he said. “But I think that we have a lot to do in gov­ern­ment to under­stand that we need to be focus­ing much more on pol­i­cy and much more on the laws that we need to think about to address what have been very unin­tend­ed con­se­quences of tech­no­log­i­cal advance.”

Even as social media rev­o­lu­tion­izes infor­ma­tion-shar­ing, the Defense Department’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions strat­e­gy boils down to the respon­si­bil­i­ty of being trans­par­ent and time­ly with­out jeop­ar­diz­ing the safe­ty and pri­va­cy of ser­vice mem­bers and their fam­i­lies, Wil­son said

“The issues that we face every day at the Pen­ta­gon involve two fac­tors,” he said. “One, how do you deal with the press and pub­lic open­ly, cred­i­bly, in a time­ly man­ner and hon­est­ly?

How do you pro­vide facts and the truth, by the same token under­stand­ing that we’re respon­si­ble for our men and women in uni­form who are in harm’s way in many places? How do you make sure that there is not unin­tend­ed con­se­quences of infor­ma­tion which can put them fur­ther in harm’s way and affect their safe­ty and the pri­va­cy of their fam­i­lies? “Those are the issues that frame every­thing that we do,” Wil­son said.

These endur­ing prin­ci­ples apply regard­less of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions for­mat, and whether it’s through tra­di­tion­al or evolv­ing media, he said.

Wil­son said he rec­og­nizes how the advent of social media rev­o­lu­tion­ized the way peo­ple around the world — includ­ing those in the Defense Depart­ment — com­mu­ni­cate.

Social media “pro­vides instan­ta­neous, real-time abil­i­ty to reach broad num­bers of peo­ple and to com­mu­ni­cate quick­ly and effec­tive­ly,” he said. “When every­body is equipped with the social media tools, it’s a very effec­tive means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”

Wil­son not­ed the use of social media as an orga­niz­ing and mes­sag­ing tool in the Mid­dle East in recent months.

“We’ve seen that in terms of sec­tors of soci­eties in the Arab world which had not had that kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tions across those sec­tors before being able to mobi­lize very quick­ly,” he said.

Unlike in that past, where a finite num­ber of elites around the world defined mes­sages, social media pro­vide a voice to any­one, regard­less of what they have to say and whether they are friend or foe.

“You can have reli­gious extrem­ists from Flori­da to Yemen say things and do things that are going to have inter­na­tion­al impact,” Wil­son said.

That makes it an imper­a­tive, he said, for com­mu­ni­ca­tors at the Defense Depart­ment — and across gov­ern­ment as a whole — to be able to explain poli­cies in ways that peo­ple find cred­i­ble.

Twit­ter, Face­book and oth­er social media, Wil­son said, are among the many com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools that DOD employs, includ­ing print and broad­cast media, the Inter­net and per­son­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Social media “is not an end in itself. It is a tool of com­mu­ni­ca­tions,” Wil­son said. “It’s a way to com­mu­ni­cate, and you need to under­stand the strengths and weak­ness­es of each of the tools of com­mu­ni­ca­tions in order to be effec­tive … I don’t believe that there is any panacea in com­mu­ni­ca­tions.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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