The Leaked Cables: Not the End of the World

December 5th, 2010

By Tom Carter

Like many others, I’ve spent a lot of time lately reading the State Department cables made available through Wikileaks.  The military files released earlier were at least potentially damaging, but the State Department cables are a different matter.

My impressions are that I haven’t seen much “hot” news in the cables.  Nevertheless, the post-9/11 insistence on tearing down the walls between intelligence and security agencies was sadly wrong, steps have to be taken to tighten the security of U.S. government information, and those who steal and publish classified information must face consequences.  Regardless of whether the cables are truly damaging — a debatable point — protecting classified information is a serious issue of national security.

Nothing to see here; move along.

The only way to be surprised by revelations of what U.S. diplomats think of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai would be to know nothing about him at all.  Who didn’t already know that he and his family are corrupt and involved in criminal activity, he’s an unreliable ally, and his mental stability is questionable?  Is it such a surprise to know that American diplomats also knew it and reported it back to Washington?

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev plays Robin to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Batman?  The only thing interesting about that is the superb use of language; the relationship itself is plainly obvious.  It also isn’t news that democracy is dead or dying in Russia, the intelligence services and the mafia exercise significant power, Putin is a Machiavellian player on the world stage, and his Russia is no friend of the U.S.  Why wouldn’t our diplomats know all that and report on it to the State Department?

And the State Department told U.S. diplomats at the UN to collect intelligence information on representatives of other countries and the UN itself?  For the UN and those at the UN to express such outrage over something everyone tries to do rises to the level of cynicism in Captain Renault’s statement to Rick in Casablanca, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that [spying] is going on in here!”

So why have the leaked cables caused such a flap?  Because politicians all over the world love to hurl invective at each other, and catching a colleague with his pants down, especially if it’s the U.S., is a delicious opportunity to pile-on.  The truth is, if nothing really damaging emerges — serious things that most folks didn’t already know — this will fade into memory as an embarrassment but not the end of the world.

Re-build the walls and restrict access.

In the aftermath of 9/11 I was disappointed but not surprised to see politicians, pundits, and more serious observers point the finger at the so-called walls that existed among agencies and organizations that limited sharing of classified information.  Without knowing the facts, as usual, they seemed to believe that if there had been broader access to information 9/11 wouldn’t have happened.  So the politicians went about ordering that the walls be torn down, while at the same time creating a huge new bureaucracy, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  Both were mistakes.

There are two requirements to gain access to classified information.  The first is to have an appropriate security clearance; the second is to have need-to-know.  The need-to-know standard is what’s been most seriously degraded in the panic following 9/11.  If those standards had been followed, someone like Bradley Manning — a very junior and very young soldier with serious personality problems — would never have had access to the vast database where he found the cables because he obviously had no need-to-know.  Without that access, he wouldn’t have been able to steal the cables and pass them to another weirdo, Julian Assange at Wikileaks.

The answer isn’t hard, it won’t cost a lot of money, and no new bureaucracies are involved.  Enforce the requirement for security clearance and strict need-to-know before anyone gains access to classified information.  That won’t guarantee against future losses, but it will go a long way toward ensuring that something like the problem we face now doesn’t happen again.

There are those who have always maintained that too much information is classified, and we’re hearing from them again now.  They generally don’t know what they’re talking about because they don’t know much, if anything, about what information is classified and how classification decisions are made.  In any case, that’s not the problem now; the problem is access and control.

Punish the violators to the maximum extent.

Those who steal and publish classified information are breaking the law, and they must pay the price.  Manning is in custody now and faces a potential sentence of about half a century.  He should get it all, without parole.  Assange, if he’s ever caught and we get our hands on him, should share a cell with Manning.  Then they can spend most of the rest of their lives telling each other what heroes they are.

We don’t have an Official Secrets Act like those of the U.K. and other countries.  The biggest difference is that there are few if any restrictions on what the press can publish in the U.S.  If they can get their hands on classified information, they usually publish it — with great self-satisfaction.  When they do decide not to publish classified information, they make the decision based on what they decide might harm the country.  Sometimes, despite entreaties from the highest levels of government, arrogant editors and publishers decide that they know best and publish anyway.

I completely understand the First Amendment arguments, but I wouldn’t be averse to restricting the excessive power of the press in cases like this.  That’s not likely to happen, and we’ll continue to be at the mercy of our betters in the Fourth Estate.  What we can do, however, is consistently enforce our laws to the fullest and at the farthest we can reach.  That might at least give people like Manning and Assange reason think before they act.

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6 Responses to “The Leaked Cables: Not the End of the World”

  1. Dan Miller |


    I agree for the most part. However, I find disconcerting the probable impact on future communications between our diplomats and those of other countries. Will a diplomat from, for example, China still communicate with a diplomat from the United States about Korea with any remaining confidence that what he says will be held in whatever confidence he had previously anticipated rather than become publicly available later on the internet at the whim of a disgruntled blogger? That seems unlikely; such disclosures could conceivably endanger both his own sources and his own diplomatic future unless his disclosures were intended to provide false information or were at least intentionally made with the encouragement of his superiors because thought beneficial to his own country. Assuming either, would the disclosed information have any value at all to the United States?

    What steps can be taken to restore such confidence? If appropriate steps with U.S. security procedures are taken as we have been publicly assured that they will, will it be necessary to disclose their precise nature to the diplomat from China, or will he simply accept a bare representation that all is once again well? I don’t know any diplomats, but acceptance of such bare representations would indicate a higher degree of naivete than they are generally said to have.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Dan, what you say regarding possible loss of confidence and the need to restore it is important. But from what I’ve seen in the past, I think this will blow over a little quicker than some may think. Diplomats and politicians will still have to do business with each other, and the U.S. will still be the biggest player at the table. This is no doubt embarrassing and frustrating for a lot of people, depending on who got gored. On the other hand, some things that most informed observers already knew have come to light, and that’s probably good. The best example might be in the Middle East, where Arab governments that lie to their people about Israel and the Palestinians and their attitude toward Iran have been exposed. Uncomfortable for them, but maybe good for us in the long run.

    Der Spiegel has published an excellent analysis. Among many other things, they note that some people see the disclosures in the cables as a disaster, while others don’t think there’s much new in what we’ve seen. I fall into the latter category.

    Most of the cables that Wikileaks received are unclassified, from what I’ve read, and therefore are probably unimportant. While only a small percentage of the cables have been made public so far, I suspect that the juicy stuff has been released first. However, more important things could come later, and some of the redacted information — e.g., names — might be revealed. In those circumstances, I might change my mind about the level of damage involved. But for now, I still don’t think this is the end of the world.

  3. Tom Carter |

    Julian Assange wrote an op-ed article published yesterday by The Australian. Interesting.

  4. Dan Miller |

    Here is an article about some of the consequences for diplomatic communications of WikiLeaks disclosures which can be more harmful than any of the substantive disclosures themselves.

  5. Tom Carter |

    Interesting article, Dan. I still don’t think this is the end of the world, although much more damaging information might be released by WikiLeaks in the future. Some diplomats may lose their jobs, but it won’t end or probably even damage their careers. The things they said in cables were for the most part already known, and everyone in politics and foreign affairs knows that this is what diplomats do.

    As to the other part of the article, I think we should give Hugo Chavez what he wants. Send Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, or Noam Chomsky to Venezuela as the U.S. ambassador. We should also consider Michael Moore. Chavez would gain a new in-country friend, and we would be spared the burden of having them in the U.S. Maybe a couple of years in Chavez’s Venezuela would educate them on the reality of life in a left-wing dictatorship. Assuming they’re educable, of course.

  6. Dan Miller |

    Tom, let me fix it for you:

    Send Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, or Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky to Venezuela as the co-U.S. ambassadors.

    Why do things by fourths?

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