The Latest WikiLeaks Thing

Nov 29 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

As those of you who don't live in a cave are no doubt aware, WikiLeaks is in the process of publishing a large number of US State Department cables, and several newspapers which received advanced access to the archives have started publishing articles discussing both the leak in general and specific incidents recorded in the archive.

Predictably, there are varying opinions on the leak. PZ, for example, seems to be more or less happy with the exposure of the sensitive information. Many, but by no means all, of his commenters seem to share his feelings on the incident.

I do not, for many reasons. And that's strange, at least to me, because under many other circumstances I would be an unashamed ally of both WikiLeaks and the accused leaker. In this case, though, the specific actions taken by both leave me feeling little but contempt for them.

Let's start with the soldier who has been accused of leaking the documents - Bradley Manning. Manning is clearly a troubled individual, and if he did even a fraction of what he is accused of, I sincerely hope that his chain of command and the responsible security manager have suffered some sort of repercussions for the incompetence displayed in not identifying the potential issues and not taking adequate steps to prevent the leak in the first place. There are a lot more people in the US Army than just the leaker who bear responsibility for this issue.

Ordinarily, I have a great deal of respect for whistleblowers - and, if I could bring myself to think of this case as an instance of whistleblowing, I would probably have at least some respect for what happened here. But I can't.

Whoever leaked the diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks does not appear to have done so in an attempt to right - or even identify - specific wrongs. There does not appear to have been any attempt to be selective about what material to leak. In fact, it seems clear that the leaker could not plausibly have even personally read all of the material that was leaked. According to WikiLeaks, the diplomatic cables alone contain over 261 million words. Even if the person who downloaded and distributed the material could go through the content at a rate of 1,000 words per minute, it would have taken 6 months of nonstop, 24/7 reading to get through the material.

Grabbing classified material and sending it out for public distribution without even taking the time to read it is not an act of courage. It's a demonstration of mindblowing irresponsibility.

Moving on, let's look at WikiLeaks itself.

I honestly like the idea of there being somewhere that people can go to release information that they feel needs to be made available to the public. However, I don't see how such an effort can be successful in the long haul unless they take steps to at least try to be a reasonably neutral information broker - a clearinghouse that provides the raw data without commentary.

With that in mind, let's look at WikiLeaks' release page for the diplomatic cables:

Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington – the country’s first President – could not tell a lie. If the administrations of his successors lived up to the same principle, today’s document flood would be a mere embarrassment. Instead, the US Government has been warning governments -- even the most corrupt -- around the world about the coming leaks and is bracing itself for the exposures.

That's probably true. It's also probably true that the line between reporting and editorializing is vague, and very difficult to define. But wherever the line is placed, that's going to be on the editorializing side. That, in turn, makes me wonder (even more than my naturally cynical mind already would) if WikiLeaks is publishing absolutely everything they were given, if they're releasing specific material at specific times to reinforce their editorial point, and just generally how much they can be trusted as a source of data.

And then their's WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange. The New York Times has, as part of their coverage of the leak, published an exchange of letters between Assange and the US State Department. Assange asked the State Department to identify and specific instances in the cables where a release would directly endanger someone's life.

That creates a painful dilemma for the US Government. If they accept the offer, they will effectively be condoning the release of any of the classified material that they don't specifically nominate. That will, in turn, create an enormously poor precedent for quite a few different reasons. (It will effectively create a new type of classification for damage control reasons, it will send the impression that it's OK to release the rest of the material, it will put the US in the position of bargaining with Julian Assange on security issues and effectively give Assange room to argue that he's not hurting anything if specific people aren't at immediate risk of loss of life or liberty....) If they decline, they increase the risk to the lives of the affected people.

Rock, hard place.

Unsurprisingly, the US decided to decline Assange's offer. Assange's response to that was, to put it bluntly, a noteworthy display of massive asshattery:

As you know, WikiLeaks has absolutely no desire to put individual persons at significant risk of harm, nor do we wish to harm the national security of the United States.

WikiLeaks have spent significant time and resources redacting the material in our possession to achieve this outcome and sought to cross check our work and that of our traditional media partners with the US government.

I wrote to you explicitly with this in mind in order to offer the US the opportunity to privately nominate specific instances where this may occur. Instead of eliminating the risk you allege to lives and military operations you have rejected our offer for constructive dialogue and chosen a confrontational approach. The response provided by the US State Department overnight was no more than a lawyer's press release, which is confirmed by the fact you have released it to the press (a matter about which I make no complaint).

I understand that the United States government would prefer not to have the information that will be published in the public domain and is not in favour of openness. That said, either there is a risk or there is not. You have chosen to respond in a manner which leads me to conclude that the supposed risks are entirely fanciful and you are instead concerned to suppress evidence of human rights abuse and other criminal behaviour. We will now proceed to release the material subject to our checks and the checks of our media partners unless you get back to me, as you promised in the call with our lawyers last Friday.

Pompous Pilate might want to wash his hands by declaring that the risks are "entirely fanciful", but it's not that simple.

There's information in quite a few of the even small number of cables I've looked at that cannot honestly be said to put anyone's life at immediate harm, or create a clear and present danger to US security, but which are still very much able providing information to unfriendly nations that could easily hurt us in the future.

Let's take one example - cable 09ABUDHABI192.

This is a cable sent to Washington from the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi in late February of last year. That particular cable relayed a request that the US deploy 5 Patriot Missile batteries to the UAE as soon as possible, and until the UAE's on-order batteries are ready. Iranian intelligence has probably read that cable by now, and is now aware of a number of things that they may or may not have already known - including the fact that the UAE was worried enough about Iran retaliating against them in the event of an Israeli air strike against Iran to request more anti-missile support from the US, some of the circumstances that the UAE military thinks would spark an Israeli strike against Iran, and some of the limitations that the UAE thinks their own intelligence service has when it comes to predicting Iranian actions.

None of that would appear to put any specific individual at risk. It doesn't create a smoking-gun type hole in our defenses. But it does help Iran learn what we know about their nuclear efforts, and what specific concerns other countries in the region have. It also tells the UAE that if they don't want the world to know their intelligence limitations, they maybe shouldn't discuss them with the US.

Now multiply that by 200,000.

Each of the individual cables might not amount to much, but that doesn't mean that they're harmless - especially when there is an en-mass release like this. Arguing that no one of them inflicts a gaping wound glosses over the fact that 1,000 little cuts can still kill.

6 responses so far

  • None of these "leaks" are the slightest bit of surprise or news to the governments of our allies or enemies. The only import of these leaks is that they reveal to the non-elites of the western democracies that everything their governments tell them about international diplomacy is a complete total lie.

  • Pop W'grass says:

    "It doesn’t create a smoking-gun type hole in our defenses. But it does help Iran learn what we know about their nuclear efforts, and what specific concerns other countries in the region have."

    Admittedly Iran may not be a pleasant place for the last 40 years but so far, from what I have read, they would appear to be victims of a concerted effort to colour our views of Persia. When the Amir of Qatar uses stereotypes to classify all Iranians it's not surprising that you too should have this view.

    I assume you have access to a far larger selection of these documents so I refer you back to the first sentence I quoted from you. Anthropology 101 tells us that we need to have "them" to define ourselves. I only hope that these documents help to redefine the US to North Americans.

  • muteKi says:

    Perhaps the greatest irony is that I suspect very, VERY little reporting will actually be done here on any major news outlet about the actual content of these releases. The most I've heard so far is that they range the gamut from "sensitive" to "embarrassing".

    I'm almost certainly not going to be bothering to read any of them directly.

    I suspect the leaks will do very little to inform people of much of anything as a result, and as a couple commenters on PZ's blog seemed to have implied, this is a pretty shitty starting point for actually getting citizenry informed when there are so many things they're not informed about.

    I am curious about how this will affect relations with the rest of the world. If stuff like this keeps happening, would we be less likely to receive cooperation from other countries, on account of the fact that they simply can't hold us in confidence any longer? I honestly have no idea because I'm in no way involved.

  • skeptifem says:

    I don't understand why you think whistleblowing has to be in response to a wrong that you approve of- keeping this kind of stuff away from the public, a public that pays for this stuff to be done, is wrong. Its lying on a massive scale. Isn't that enough of a wrong for you? These are the kinds of wrongs that make it possible for the US to get into wars with the consent of the public. its a BFD.

  • I am hoping that the people that mattered (foreign governments) already knew about all of this stuff. Otherwise, this amounts to nothing more than an exercise in arrogance and irresponsibility.

  • James Sweet says:

    I'm more or less with you on this, though a little more sympathetic towards the leakers (not hugely, though). That said, I feel like the biggest problem is the reaction of pundits and politicians -- disappointingly, on both side of the aisle this time -- baying for blood, saying all sorts of ridiculous things about treason (Assange is not an American citizen, how could it be treason?) or calling for assassination or what-have-you. Honestly, the most productive response from the gov't and from the political class would be, "We consider this leak to be highly illegal and we will be investigating the individuals responsible. However, we are confident that the information they contain shows the United States has behaved overwhelmingly in accord with internationally accepted standards of diplomacy, and we consider it to be a non-issue." I mean, most of the hot air is being created by the political class in the US, not by Assange.