Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

9 Most Infamous Information Leaks of All Time

Julian Assange is having quite the year. WikiLeaks had already garnered more public notoriety than ever thanks to its April 2010 release of a video showing U.S. forces in Iraq firing on civilians and reporters, but its leak of diplomatic cables in November really took things to a new level. He’s being called a hero by some groups even as others denounce his tactics and raise questions about his sex life. Yet his actions are only the latest in a series of global events designed to shake the foundations of our perception and call governments to action. Information leaks, intentional or not, have been at the root of some of the most contentious moments in history, from papers that reveal the truth about war to information breaches that have jeopardized our online identities. Whether nobly intentioned or maliciously plotted, these leaks have changed the course of history.

  1. The Pentagon Papers: One of the most shocking revelations in a time already loaded with secrecy, lies, and innuendo, the Pentagon Papers blew the doors off the Vietnam War when they hit the front page of The New York Times in June 1971. Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst working for the RAND Corporation, had obtained access to a study titled "United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense," which traced American involvement in the region and demonstrated that the Johnson administration (and others) had repeatedly and systematically lied about the causes and effects of the conflict in Vietnam. He copied the study and provided portions to the Times. Senator Mike Gravel entered more than 4,000 pages of the report into the record of his subcommittee, ensuring that they would be protected and thereby available for public consumption and discussion. The study was a devastating blow to any politician foolish enough to keep singing the praises of the Vietnam War.
  2. Iraq War Logs: One of the many information dumps on this list propagated by WikiLeaks, the October 2010 publication of what would be called the Iraq War Logs highlighted the real civilian cost of the war. The leaked info came from Army field reports written between 2004 and 2009 that recorded the number of dead civilians as 66,081 out of 109,000 total. As a result, the Iraq Body Count Project corrected (up) its tabulation of total deaths from the war. The logs confirmed a number of events that had only been partially reported before, including the fact that some American troops were classifying civilian deaths as enemies, including a pair of journalists killed in a friendly fire incident in July 2007. The leak remains the biggest in U.S. history.
  3. Downing Street Memo: The publication of the Downing Street Memo in 2005 was a definite PR problem for the Bush administration. The memo included notes of a July 2002 meeting of British government officials discussing the impending Iraq War, specifically the fact that the United States’ actions to remove Saddam Hussein were being propped up with shaky intelligence and that his ties to terrorism weren’t as strong as they were being publicly portrayed. The minutes of the memo highlighted that Hussein possessed fewer weapons of mass destruction than Libya, Iran, or North Korea.
  4. Operation Mincemeat: The fascinating thing about Operation Mincemeat is that it was a deliberately planned leak that was part of the Allied effort during World War II. The effort was part of the larger Operation Barclay, a plan designed to cover the invasion of Sicily, Mincemeat was crafted to convince German commanders that Allied troops were headed to Greece and Sardinia instead. Allied forces pulled this off by leaking phony "top secret" documents to the Germans, which were placed on a corpse that was pushed to wash up on the beaches of Spain. When the body was found, the Germans removed the papers and copied what they thought were accurate invasion plans before returning the papers to the body as a show of good faith when returning the body to the British. The operation worked so well that future breaches of actual intelligence were ignored by Germans who assumed they were deceptions.
  5. Afghan War Diary: Wikileaks published these substantial logs in July 2010 by leaking them to media including The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel. The entire bulk of the data comprised more than 91,000 documents, though only 75,000 were released to the public. The logs cover the almost six-year period between January 2004 and December 2009, and they revealed to the public that the Afghan War was a lot rougher and more deadly than they had likely imagined. They also detailed the ways that the Pakistani intelligence agency and Iran were working with the Taliban. The logs also reported the previously unmentioned deaths of hundreds of civilians who were killed by coalition forces. A host of friendly fire incidents came to light, as well. Basically, it was another horrible blow to public perception of a long and confusing war, and though it lacked the sculpted punch of, say, a documentary, it was still a body blow to the government.
  6. Bush-Aznar Memo: The Bush-Aznar Memo, which was published in 2007, covered a 2003 conversation between President George W. Bush and Spanish prime minister Jose Aznar in which Bush spoke about the looming war with Iraq and his plans to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The leak wasn’t a sea change in public perception, but it did highlight certain ways in which U.S. policy and what the U.S. public was told were two radically different things.
  7. The Gawker Leak: Gawker chief and generally rough person Nick Denton has been at the forefront of the blogging world since the blogging world took shape. In December 2010, though, his empire suffered its biggest blow when a group of hackers operating under the title of Gnosis breached the security of his family of sites, published the source code for Gawker’s content management system, and revealed details about more than 1 million commenters included almost 200,000 encrypted passwords. (Some of which were weak and unsafe in the first place.) The leak was a devastating one for Gawker, which had to install a banner on all of its sites that informed users of the breach and helped them reset their security. The leak wasn’t a helpful or interesting one, just a cruel prank.
  8. Sarah Palin’s E-Mail: The members of Anonymous are not ones to sit idly by when given the chance to mess with a public official they dislike. (Though if their own information ever leaked, they’d probably throw a fit.) In the fall of 2008, a tangential member of the group hacked into the e-mail account of GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and published the password on 4chan, a public forum you should never, ever visit. A few hours later, the account was locked down by Yahoo, but the damage was done, and private e-mails were leaked to the public. Nothing earth-shaking was revealed; no cover-ups, conspiracies, or state secrets. Just campaign e-mails published with the sole intent of embarrassing the sender. It was one of the highest-profile leaks of all time, yet mostly pointless.
  9. Climategate: It’s fitting that a list that kicked off with a leak that occured under Nixon’s watch would end with one of the many "-gate"-labeled controversies that have sprung up since. In the fall of 2009, hackers servers used by the Climatic Research Unit and copied thousands of documents and e-mails that related to climate change studied between 1996 and 2009. The leaked info made it appear as if scientists had colluded to fight the publication and dissemination of opinions that would argue against global warming, and though a subsequent investigation found that there had been no malpractice, the event was hardly a blow for those who argued for environmental protection and economic change. The data were taken out of context and used to fuel both sides of the fight over global warming, which didn’t help anyone but those interested in seeing a fight instead of a victory. The political fallout was terrible, even if the truth was that nothing much had happened. Such is the power of the well-timed leak.