This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

WikiLeaks hurts the cause of transparency

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.


  • Clint David Samuel

    The assertion that Wikileaks hurts transparency is ridiculous. I am not accusing the author of shilling for the defense contractor community. But the notion that a leak wouldn’t happen in his industry is hubris. The idea that an “intelligence community” knows how to run itself is an oxymoron. If opacity is their only response to public scrutiny, then there is little evidence that “the community” were ever going to be transparent about anything anyway. Personally, I prefer independent redaction to that done by bureaucrats under FOIA. Assange is saving the taxpayer money by privatizing this function in a secretive and bloated intelligence bureaucracy. I don’t really care that he is self-appointed as all official appointments since Watergate have failed to provide the necessary declassification.

  • Guest 5

    This is the usual hubris in the US about transparency of government freedom of speech etc.
    The basic problem is that all US government agencies leak horrendously often in a damaginfg way when they should not, for pure political objectives or short lived stardom of a particular Representative or Senator.
    The real problem in America is the xenophobic level of concern about national security and 16 for gods sake separate intelligence agencies and security organisations Like Homeland Security CIA NSA, DOD, Pentagon , FBI counter terrorism section, etc etc.
    How naive can you get to believe you can interface/ cross cordinate make sure all 16 elements are on the same page about everything and not have leaks of things that should not be .16 Independent separate organisations will and do have different rules on what’s secret eyes only etc and as often stated operating on different Computer systems and security systems/rules.
    The trick is to reduce the 16 down to 3/4
    CIA foreign spying/intelligence, FBI Domestic spying/intelligence ,Homeland security to deal with Infrastructure protection based on CIA FBI information.
    Departmentalise and use the cell technique in each agency as do real spies and terrorists to ensure openness where its needed, not otherwise.
    The NSA to act as overseer of all the above and each agency by law to have to exchange data to the NSA who thru the the DNI which originally is all encrypted ( lesson Wiki leaks teaches)
    a) Classify the information into categories with common labels for each agency with defined rules say 5 year sensitive, 10 year sensitive, Confidential = restricted access to unencrypted data for 25 years, secret 35 years, and Top secret 40 years. National security level items, access only to President and each heads of above, as needed ,often homeland or FBI need not be involved.
    That get’s rid of so many oversight committees and unnecessary leaks and does nothing to damage transparency because anything else is open conversation that can be released today to all and sundry including diplomatic cables. If its less than 5 year sensitive against pre defined agreed rules for all agencies
    Basic outline lots of technical issues to resolve including codes rules and levels of access and what oversight committes are told divided into revealable, confidential = shut up for now, and Secret , leaking secret or anything above is treason against the state especially if the information is relating to a country in which war is being fought.
    Guest 5.

  • Pwnnwb

    What a shite article – wikileaks did nothing but reveal the truth about US diplomacy. If the truth makes some politicians look bad then they are simply bad politicians! Too bad for them…

    Long live wikileaks!

  • Colonel Neville

    Ah, I see for the three logical fallacy sodden commentors, no harsh reality trumps their left ideological moral vanity. Thus a slow cultural and security suicide awaits us all. No, really. Colonel Robert Neville blogspot com.

  • Movie catalog

    movie film – catalog. New DVD

  • Fred12

    Transparency hurts the cause of transparency by triggering the abusers of secrecy to convulse. This is merely a temporary setback. Transparency will win once the sustained convulsions reach their natural conclusion.

  • Dora

    who is to say that the wikileaks tempest in a teapot isn’t another absurd diversion for an illiterate populace enthralled by and enamoured of demagogues & shucksters. there is a sucker born every minute- pt barnum

  • David

    I think this article made some compelling arguments. While I support WikiLeaks when it releases evidence that crimes have been covered up, as in the case of the “collateral murder” video, these cables are mostly just ordinary secret communications of the kind you would expect diplomats to make. I am not aware of any wrongdoing exposed by these cables, so in what way does this transparency help us? It is educational, at least–through these cables we get to learn a little more about how the world works–but if this causes the US government to grow even more paranoid and secretive, and if it harms the prospect of democracy in Zimbabwe, then it is hard to support the decision to release the cables.

  • Jay

    From the NYT article Foust cites: “While the White House said it anticipated WikiLeaks would make public “several hundred thousand” cables Sunday night, the organization posted only 220 released and redacted by The Times and several European publications.”

    Sounds pretty responsible to me…

    What has every government and corporation totally terrified is the possibility of it’s employees safely and anonymously blowing the whistle on unethical behavior. Let’s pray Wikileaks is just the beginning of a wave of such sites!

  • Someone

    Well, all I see repeated here is what Assange claims his aims are. Nothing new to me.

  • John Mulligan

    Oh, my god. “information thieves”??? you mean, ‘whistleblowers’? You’re starting from the position that the government has sole proprietary rights to any information it waves its classification wand over. What’s your proposed mechanism for “responsible” reporting here? Munificent declassification by the pharisees and polite FOIA requests from the peasants?

    But I’ll just stick to the logical fallacy here and leave the factual errors and ideological biases aside.
    1) It is true that one can’t achieve apodictic proof of a negative, but one can make a case as to why reasonable certainty is attainable based on circumstances making it extraordinarily unlikely that contradictory proof would not come to light. In this instance, in which we have the US gov’t looking for any dirt it can pin to WL, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that we probably would have heard and will hear about any retribution that could be traced back to these leaks.
    2) WL is not, actually, asserting a negative proposition here. They’re asking hacks like you for proof, which you don’t have, of damage done (the more accurate analogy, then, is someone saying, “are you sure that not wearing a seatbelt is dangerous? do you have any NTSB data on that?” to which you reply, “pull your head out of the sand!!”) You are the one making an unverifiable claim, here, namely, that harm will be caused–nothing wrong with this, so long as you mark it as a hypothetical, but you’ve taken as a given your conclusions.

    you start with these objectionable but not logically fallacious propositions
    a) if sources outed by WL are killed, WL has blood on its hands
    b) if WL has blood on its hands, it’s a reckless and despicable organization

    and then give us this gem
    c) because we all know that WL is a reckless and despicable organization, its leaks either have led or will lead to the deaths of innocents.

    **That’s called affirming the consequent.**

    You made a prediction that these leaks are going to get people killed. Now forgive the rest of us while we wait to see if that prediction actually plays out the way you’ve said, rather than taking your oracular assertions as gospel truth.

  • M upstate

    A “whistleblower” exposes a wrong. Unless one takes the position that all US diplomacy is wrong, this is not whistleblowing, but a concerted effort to undermine it by removing the secrecy that could make it effective.

  • Guest 5

    Lest we forget in all this ” transparency” debate and to me it is irrelevant whether its Wikileaks or the soldier accused of downloading it and passing it on.
    We are at war in Iraq, Afghanistan and again the the ethereal terrorists which have well known labels like Al Qaeda etc. Lest we forget, our Military are fighting and dying daily.
    Personally I do not want any so called ” transparency” that even remotely puts at risk one life be they soldier, spy, informant, collaborator, embassy worker etc.
    Nor do I want the kind of information ( ” transparency” media demand in the US) that effectively tells the Taliban and Al Qaeda or insurgents in Iraq our military, social or economic, or anti insurgency strategic thinking.
    In WWII the UK had a National PR campaign for all to abide by:
    To those who support transparency at any cost or price as some appear to do on the basis of “this is a hypothesis” ( i.e that someone died) I believe I can make a pretty good case for the hypothesis, especially in Afghanistan.
    Not having access to secret military or Diplomatic data does not impede freedom of speech, it simply cannot be proved until after the event thru normal transparency revelations under the System of FOIA who got it right first.
    The bigger issue is that the whole of the US government and politics Leaks like a sieve anyway and much of wikileaks was no surprise.
    The flaw of his organisation and approach is it’s not him ( Assange) being transparent it is some person with access passing ( maybe for personal grievance reason or money payment) it on. On that basis to me he ( Assange) is guilty of conspiracy to pervert justice ( secrecy acts) because the leaker in this case under military law has committed an offence not protected by Freedom of speech.
    Guest 5.