Wednesday, December 15, 2010


can't keep a SecretIn the last couple of weeks, Wikileaks has been making quite a ruckus, by publishing on its Internet website and to five prestigious newspapers classified diplomatic cables, communications between the State Department and 274 overseas embassies and missions.

Washington's reaction at the breach of security has been  extraordinary. Politicians were calling for the extradition and trial of Assange, the co-founder of Wikilleaks, on espionage charges. Pundits on FoxNews, never known for its calm rational delivery, were calling for a "hit" or a treason trial for Julian Assange. (Assange is, by the way, an Australian citizen and the idea of treason in outside of his own country  is laughable.) By the end of the week, even attention-seeking Sarah Palin and professed Christian and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee jumped on the lynching party bandwagon.

Just when you thought it couldn't get much worse, the situation escalated out of control with a massive cyber-attack on Wikileaks. Attorney General Eric Holder was reported to have contacted companies and warned about conducting business with organizations engaged in "criminal activity" despite the fact, neither Wikileaks nor Assange had been charged- much less, found guilty.

Businesses like MasterCard, Amazon and Paypal canceled their contracts with the organization. This, in turn, provoked a group of hackers, known as Anon, to launch a wave of cyber-attacks, causing the shutdown of the companies' websites.  To top it off, an international warrant had been issued for Assange on some questionable sexual assault charges in Sweden.

It was a humiliating spectacle all around, especially from an administration that had once promised to offer a new approach and a new openness. Assange now sits in a British jail, denied bail and facing potential extradition to Sweden for questioning on those charges with the possibility of a further extradition to stand trial on espionage charges in the United States. Prior to his arrest, Assange slyly hijacked a quote by a young Rupert Murdoch from 1958, ”In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win.”

With few notable exceptions, most of the released cables from Wikileaks (as far as the ones I have read)  have been of a fairly predictable sort, dispatches of supposedly inside information for those "on the ground" from all over the world. Meeting with an African leader, details about the drug trade in Afghanistan, or brief sketches of some of world leaders. Over all, however, one searches in vain for anything in the way of "dirt" or anything seriously stunning.

When politicians and government officials- in response to the leaks- speak of damage to national security and a risk to our vital interests, I really wonder what I am somehow missing. Undoubtedly there must be examples, but I still haven't found much in the way of shattering news. Are they embarrassing? Yes, a little perhaps, but I feel sure that most nations, were their private dispatches revealed to the world, would feel a tad humiliated. However after a random perusal of the cables, I have to admit to feeling disappointed, even to the point of wondering what all the fuss has been about.

While I have come to believe that if one looks at the leaked cables with indifferent eye, there are few surprises. Admittedly, I was surprised- and then annoyed at being surprised- about the excessive coziness of corporations and their ability to influence American foreign policy in, say, Nigeria or Russia. I was horrified at the Collateral Murder video, and hope to see an investigation of the matter by the Pentagon. But all in all, so far, the biggest surprise is probably the lack of any jolts and shocks. I had imagined far worse.

Yes, it's true that the Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey may have had his ego bruised slightly from some of the unflattering descriptions he read of himself in the dispatches. Of course, what with politics as they are in Turkey, one would presume he has heard much worse being said about him. And the opposition party came off hardly much better. It is also important to keep in mind that just because a State Department official relates some bit of tiddle-taddle or some roving gossip, that shouldn't make it any more accurate than, say, two fairly well-informed neighbors chatting at a coffee house. After all, when one is eavesdropping- which we are in effect doing when we read these cables- we really shouldn't be surprised if we hear something that offends our sensibilities. That could have been the reason they were considered private correspondence in the first place.

There are reasons why nations, as well as people, are not as wholly open and direct with one another and there is especially a value to, at least, some degree of secrecy when conducting complicated and difficult diplomacy.

And yet, it occurs to me that prosecution of the leakers will soon hit a snag in logic. The key source of these leaks of nearly the 250, 000 cables appears, if reports are true, to have been a Private First Class Bradley Manning. Not a debonair Russian agent or a deeply embedded mole inside the State Department.

According to a Guardian in the UK, it has been estimated that "more than 3 million US government personnel and soldiers, many extremely junior, are cleared to have potential access to this material, even though the cables contain the identities of foreign informants, often sensitive contacts in dictatorial regimes. "

Another Guardian article states "A diplomatic dispatch marked Sipdis [meaning that the information is appropriate for release to the U.S. government inter-agency community. ] is automatically downloaded on to its embassy's classified website. From there it can be accessed not only by anyone in the state department, but also by anyone in the US military who has a computer connected to Siprnet [the official government computer network]. Millions of US soldiers and officials have "secret" security clearance."

Millions? And to think, Benjamin Franklin once said, Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

But what about millions of people? With that kind of access, how secret can a secret be?

Thus, it begs the question, how can documents of such importance, documents that, in light of the leaks, are now considered to be of critical value to national security, have been kept under such unsecured conditions. Either the information in the documents was vital and was to be kept compartmentalized, or the documents were not of great importance and open to many. Until the cables were leaked they were deemed as classified or secret yet were treated in a manner that was anything but secure. This fact points to some real problem with argument of state secrecy.

This implicated soldier was not some specially trained hacker who found some incredibly complicated means of accessing the information. “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labeled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing.." he explained.

Given all the hysteria, this hardly sounds like top secret or even restricted information at all. So perhaps, instead of asking how a low level soldier was able so easily able to access confidential information perhaps the more important question is how did so much of this information receive this designation in the first place.

Perhaps to answer this question more completely, we have to look beyond the series of events of the last few weeks. I started out by asking how the policy for classifying official documents might have changed in light of the terrorist attacks of September 2001. What I learned was rather surprising and I'd like to share this with you in my next post.

1 comment:

  1. I am also somewhat shocked at not being shocked by all this. I searched for big revelations but couldn't find any. Bit disappointed really. So much fuss is being made about this that you wonder what the REAL secrets are.


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