Another Take on WikiLeakage

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In the wake of the recent flood of US Government documents to WikiLeaks, David Jones C’63 G’64, a retired senior foreign-service officer in the US State Department, offered to write an essay on the matter for the Gazette. Though we had already assigned such a piece to Michael Horowitz, an assistant professor in Penn’s political-science department (see the Jan/Feb issue), we asked Jones if he’d be willing to write it for our blog; he kindly agreed to do so. Here it is.

Equivalent to fecal matter tossed into a punch bowl, the initial splash from the massive WikiLeaks release of US Government documents continues to ripple outward.  On a daily basis, material is published that has a greater or lesser element of the embarrassing.  Although not on the level of the National Enquirer-type material published in the first days (Berlusconi partying until he drops; Qhadaffi accompanied by a pneumatic “nurse”) or snippy characterizations of Sarkozy as a “naked emperor,” there is certainly material that the government would have preferred to remain confidential.

Our spin specialists continue to insist that it really isn’t so bad; that our friends understand; that we know that they make similarly uncomplimentary remarks about our leaders, e.g., the reported remark by Sarkozy that he didn’t believe President Obama was up to the job.  Etc.

Indeed, it could have been worse, both in the classification level of material (no Top Secret or “captioned” material with restricted handling limitations such as “Exclusive Distribution” or “No Distribution”) and the topics addressed (no nuclear designs, code/cryptology, CIA analyses, or war plans).  The data base available to PFC Manning was limited to material classified no higher than “Secret.”  Thus one could conclude it was a disaster, but not a catastrophe.  The definition being that a “disaster” is having your kitchen burn during home remodeling.  A “catastrophe” is when the entire house burns.

Nevertheless, there are real problems and real consequences stemming from the event.

First, there will certainly be greater restriction on sharing information.  Rather than less classification, which has been the declared US Government objective for a decade, there will be more—and tighter restrictions on who sees what.  The caveat “Need to Know” (rather than the individual’s clearance to see classified material) will be more tightly enforced.  The consequence may be the unfortunate return to the pre-9/11 circumstances—when the failure to share intelligence between security agencies and within elements of these agencies may have contributed to missing clues that could have derailed the terrorist attack.

More importantly, WikiLeaks has substantially damaged the basis for diplomacy.  If the essence of science is that the results of experiments must be replicable, the essence of diplomacy is that records must be kept to permit diplomats of the future to review and assess the conclusions of diplomats from the past.  Frequently, negotiations on complex agreements, e.g., free trade, arms control, information sharing, commercial air and seaport access, take years (and multiple administrations) to reach a conclusion.  If leaks reveal US Government positions and scenarios for potential tradeoffs, it obviously reduces US ability to conclude advantageous agreements.

Observers may have noticed that nothing regarding the Middle East Peace Process has been revealed.  Essentially, for years, these negotiations were undertaken by a small, dedicated team virtually without the reporting cable/record keeping/memcon drafting that characterized other negotiations.  Why?  Because the Middle East negotiators feared that such reporting and assessments would be leaked–not by Mr Assange, who didn’t exist as a political force in that era, but by others with “dogs in the fight.”  Thus in balancing the virtues and liabilities of small team/close hold style, this time the virtues won out.  The odds are that more negotiating will be done in that style, emphasizing “not for the system” communications and scrambled/secure voice approach.  Diplomats with total recall memories will be much in demand.

The event also raises the troubling societal/security question regarding why it is the US Government that has been so plagued by massive security breaches.  From the “Pentagon Papers” to Inside the Company:  CIA Diary, we have had massive security breaches (not even mentioning the earlier WikiLeaks releases addressing US Government activity in Iraq/Afghanistan).  There are other democratic, open Western societies that put a high premium on freedom of speech/press–and obviously keep extensive archives of their governments’ confidential activities.  But these do not appear–certainly not in significant quantities–in the local media.    We will be going back to the basics of document and internal security to find systemic causes for these hemorrhages rather than just mopping up the blood afterwards.

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