The Wikileaked embassy cables have been viewed as either the foreign policy equivalent of TMZ or as the ruination of the entire international system. Both stances are wrongheaded. There was never any danger of these cables fundamentally changing the international system, however grandiose the dreams of Julian Assange. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates recently said that every other government on the planet knows the U.S. government “leaks like a sieve.” And much like the previous two tranches of secret documents, these cables do not fundamentally alter anyone’s perceptions or understandings of U.S. foreign policy. If anything, they make specific U.S. diplomats, like Anne Patterson, the former ambassador to Pakistan, appear as heroic sages and elder statesmen.
The real issue to consider with the “Cablegate” leaks is what comes next. (Full disclosure: I work for a defense contractor, but these views are mine alone). With the possible exception of Saudi Arabia’s bloodlust toward Iran, the big stories in Cablegate are interesting but not terribly compelling. Informed readers and analysts had already theorized almost everything they highlight, so while there is now official confirmation of many pieces of conventional wisdom, the big picture hasn’t changed noticeably. So what is the big deal?
The details still matter
I made this same argument when Wikileaks first released its Afghanistan archive in July. Though they don’t change the big picture, these documents can be terribly dangerous in individual circumstances. The New York Times reported that many of the cables “name diplomats’ confidential sources, from foreign legislators and military officers to human rights activists and journalists,” with warnings to please protect their identities. These informants face retribution — potentially violent retribution — if they are exposed. It is why documents are marked secret in the first place: to protect the identity of sources.
And embassy cables contain more than that. When I was deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, the U.S. embassy in Kabul would put out warnings in its cables about changes to its security procedures in case we ever needed to visit. If details like those are in these cables, then every embassy that has recently described its security procedures is potentially at risk. A number of American embassies and consulates have been targeted for violence in recent years in surprising places like Serbia, Turkey and Greece, in addition to the usual suspects like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is unconscionable to expose such information, but once again we’re left with solemn assurances from information thieves and the good judgment of journalists not to expose it.
There is a common assertion about all three document releases that in the immediate aftermath no one got killed, so there shouldn’t be so much concern about the newest round of leaks. But this is silly — one cannot prove a negative. The Taliban recently repeated that they will take action against any informers they can identify from the leaked documents. To say there is no risk from such disclosure is deeply irresponsible, like refusing to wear your seat belt because you have never been in an accident. It is simply too risky.
The intelligence community will falter
Over the summer, I predicted that one of the major consequences of Wikileaks would be the damage to how the intelligence community (IC) operates. Despite numerous studies recommending change, the IC as a whole is still routinely criticized for not “connecting the dots” sufficiently quickly or rigorously to stop every single attempt to execute a terrorist attack. To connect the dots, you need to be able to see the dots. But in the wake of Wikileaks’ reckless exposures of U.S. secrets, agencies are responding by clamping down on access — the precise opposite of enabling the connecting of dots.
On Monday, the State Department announced it was withdrawing its Net Centric Diplomacy database from the SIPRNET, the secret network the cables were originally stolen from. Analysts deployed to other countries, as I was in Afghanistan, rely on embassy cables to report on civilian, political and economic issues (topics that do not normally make it into military reporting channels, which are concerned with issues like tactics and operations). Analysts deployed to other countries very often only have SIPRNET access. While understandable, State’s Wikileaks-induced withdrawal from the secret network will adversely affect the intelligence community’s ability to collect and understand information. It is a reversal of all the progress toward openness and discoverability the intelligence community had made since 2001.
Similarly, this is going to affect the nature of the cables themselves. A tremendous value in diplomatic reporting is its frankness — an unvarnished, unromantic view of a foreign leader, a process or a specific area. The built-in cynicism of many diplomats is actually quite refreshing to read, especially when compared to how they discuss the same issues and people publicly. That is now under threat. It is a good bet that at least a few relationships — say, with a key ally like Turkey — will become badly stressed because of the disclosure of these cables. In the process, some ambassadors will likely be recalled — what they’ve said about their counterparts is just too embarrassing for them to remain in their posts.
Being forced to fire an ambassador for doing her job is bad enough. But everyone should worry that future ambassadors and diplomats will tightly censor the content of their assessments back to Washington. That is not only a net loss for the United States — something many cheering the cables’ release seem to celebrate — but it makes horrible breakdowns in communication between agencies, like the run up to the Iraq War, more likely.
This hurts the cause of transparency
The natural reaction to theft is paranoia about security. If a thief breaks into your home because you left a window unlocked, it is natural to become paranoid about locking every single entrance to your home as a result. In a very real way, Wikileaks has participated in the theft of classified data. As a result, we can expect the U.S. government to respond by increasing the security around its data, regardless of classification.
The State Department’s withdrawal of NCD from SIPRNET is only one example of how this will function. It is not unreasonable to think that new pieces of analysis or intelligence will be classified at ever-higher levels — over the top-secret networks that are much harder to leak into the public. But classifying information more aggressively so fewer people can read it is the opposite of transparency! Even information that is perfectly unclassified will probably be transmitted over the higher-security networks now — the danger of exposing them to leaking is simply too great.
Most of the diplomatic cables in this latest tranche were scheduled to be declassified automatically by 2035 (built into the secret classification system is a time limit). History was not at risk of these cables remaining classified, but if the government responds by classifying information at higher levels, then it could be for everything moving forward.
There’s no doubt that these cables are fascinating to read for a variety of reasons. But the risks and challenges they pose — not to the international system or the nature of diplomacy but to whether America can function as its citizens demand — are so great it’s difficult to argue that, on balance, these will be a net good. This year has seen Wikileaks do incalculable harm to America. It may soldier on, as Secretary Gates says (we are nothing if not resilient), but the government’s ability to function is going to be damaged because of them.