SALT LAKE CITY — The disclosures by WikiLeaks of more than 250,000 classified documents are exacting a heavier toll on international U.S. intelligence operations than the media is reporting, warns former University of Utah law professor and retired federal appellate judge Michael McConnell.
A nationally acclaimed constitutional law scholar, from 1987-90 McConnell served on the President's Intelligence Oversight Board, a three-person panel that reported directly to first President Ronald Reagan and then President George H.W. Bush on the efficiency of America's foreign intelligence operations.
"Based on my experience, I think the damage from the recent WikiLeaks affair has been underestimated," McConnell said Thursday. "The government can only make things worse by talking about how bad it is. They can't really say; they have to be kind of closed-mouth about it."
Although many of the WikiLeaks revelations may not appear to be overly damaging at first glance, McConnell believes U.S. interests will invariably suffer as a direct result of intelligence sources becoming compromised.
"I think a lot of people look at it and say, 'Oh wow, what do we know now that we didn't know before?' " he said. "But sources in particular — when (American adversaries) know who's been talking to us, who's been cooperating with us — it's going to make a successful peacekeeping role in places like Afghanistan and Iraq just so much more difficult.
"Something I became aware of by having the highest level of security clearance you can have is how damaging leaks can be even when the immediate subject matter does not seem to be that important but because of what the enemy can learn about methods and sources. Even seemingly innocuous information can be very damaging."
McConnell, 55, worked as a professor at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law from 1997-2009. He joined the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002 after being nominated by President George W. Bush. Following seven years teaching part time at the U. and serving on the 10th Circuit bench, McConnell resigned both positions last year to become director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center. He is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board.