Sifting Through the Fallout from Wikileaks

The ongoing release of U.S. diplomatic communications by the Wikileaks organization is “embarrassing” and “awkward,” said Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates yesterday, but its consequences for U.S. foreign policy are likely to be “fairly modest.”

“I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on.  I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets… Other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another.”

Coming from the Secretary of Defense, that measured statement should help to deflate some of the more extreme reactions to the Wikileaks action.

The Obama Administration should “use all legal means necessary to shut down Wikileaks before it can do more damage by releasing additional cables,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman on November 28.

Wikileaks leader Julian Assange should be designated an enemy combatant, suggested Rep. Steve King (R-IA) on the House floor yesterday.  Then he could be “moved over to a place offshore of the United States outside of the jurisdiction of the Federal courts…, and adjudicated under a military tribunal in a fashion that was designed by this Congress and directed by this Congress. That’s what I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to do.”

Such fantastic notions probably cannot survive the judgment of the U.S. Secretary of Defense that what is at stake is “embarrassment” and “awkwardness,” not the defense of the realm.

That does not mean that the policy consequences of the latest Wikileaks release will be insignificant.  Information sharing within the government is already being curtailed, and avenues of public disclosure may be adversely affected by the Wikileaks controversy. In a November 28 email message to reporters, the Pentagon spelled out several security measures that have already been implemented to restrict and monitor the dissemination of classification information in DoD networks.

“Bottom line: It is now much more difficult for a determined actor to get access to and move information outside of authorized channels,” wrote Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.

Meanwhile, the Office of Management and Budget ordered (pdf) each agency that handles classified information to perform a security review of its procedures and to reinforce the traditional “need to know” requirements that strictly limit individual access to classified information.

“Any failure by agencies to safeguard classified information pursuant to relevant laws, including but not limited to Executive Order 13526, Classified National Security Information (December 29, 2009), is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” the OMB memo stated.

The possibility of prosecuting Wikileaks as a criminal enterprise is reportedly under consideration, and has been publicly urged by some members of Congress and others.  The feasibility of such a prosecution is uncertain, and nothing quite like it has been attempted before.  The most “promising” legal avenue of attack against Wikileaks would seem to be a charge of conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act (under 18 USC 793g), based on the allegation that Wikileaks encouraged and collaborated with others in violating the terms of the Act.  But these are dangerous legal waters, fraught with undesirable consequences for other publishers of controversial information.

No Responses to “Sifting Through the Fallout from Wikileaks”

  1. Philip Henika December 2, 2010 at 12:59 PM #

    The statement here that the consequences of the Wikileaks may be assessed as “fairly modest” is validated to a certain extent by Nancy Youseff’s article at McClathcy: “.. American officials in recent days have warned repeatedly that the release of documents by WikiLeaks could put people’s lives in danger. But despite similar warnings ahead of the previous two massive releases of classified U.S. intelligence reports by the website, U.S. officials concede that they have no evidence to date that the documents led to anyone’s death…”

    Also, there apparently has been efforts by Wikileaks to correct some past criticism re: release of secret documents. For example, and correct me if I am wrong, the 100,000 Wikileaks re: the Afghanistan War were unsourced, not redacted and were even unread before their release. However, for the 250,000 recent Wikileaks document, there was a source named, redactions were evident and I don’t know if they were all read before release.

  2. Diomedes December 3, 2010 at 5:17 AM #

    Hi Philip — yes, the implications for global diplomacy do seem relatively mild. Rather than containing earth-shattering secrets, the cables (as I’ve read them, so far) are quite subjective reflections by embassy and consulate personnel on the idiosyncrasies of world leaders. For that reason they will continue to embarrass the US government rather than put people’s lives at risk; and embarrassment is hardly a viable justification for the ‘termination’ of Assange, as Tom Flanagan proposed the other day.

  3. CADster December 4, 2010 at 6:30 PM #

    funny… the US government is steadily curtailing our freedoms of privacy, yet are all up in arms when something like this happens. whats good for the goose is also good for the gander.
    praise to wiki-leaks !!!! keep the embarrassments coming !!!

  4. mortimerzilch December 4, 2010 at 6:52 PM #

    CADster’s remark is enough to put him (or her?) on a gov’t list of possible hostile agents. This whole business reminds me of Freudian psychology: the revelation of the nasty things in the subconscious. Once they get revealed they become part of the landscape, and other, more bizarre Machiavellian machinations get secreted even further away into the depths. What if the Mossad’s or CIA’s secret meetings were taped? whoah boy would that get ugly or what? Personally, I believe we should all walk in God’s light as far as we are possibly able – and that goes for governments too.


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