This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
G.W. SchulzBack to OpinionG.W. Schulz

Weapons and WikiLeaks

Among the leaked documents are details about the global arms trade that have experts worried.

No one deals more weapons to the rest of the world than we do. During 2008 alone, the United States drummed up an extraordinary $37.8 billion in arms-transfer agreements, largely benefiting key allies in Africa and the Middle East.

But America may also do more than virtually any other country to keep track of its weapons, as well as halt – or at least actively monitor – bad actors and rogue governments seeking to obtain deadly devices.

Details about that global arms trade are emerging in thousands of classified documents unleashed on three major occasions this year by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, including the State Department cables now making daily headlines.

The suddenly available and unregulated information has Matt Schroeder worried. An arms expert at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), Schroeder argues the records could alert illicit weapons traffickers and insurgents to ongoing investigations and surveillance, causing them to sever contact with undercover operatives, destroy critical evidence or move their operations.

“The point is not that this will necessarily happen,” Schroeder said recently. “It illustrates the impossibility of fully heading off the negative consequences of declassification done in this way.”

The trade isn’t worth it, he said. Since so many of the documents amount to field reports written by people who may or may not know what they’re talking about, Schroeder believes they don’t ultimately do much to serve the public interest. For careful analysts anxious to confirm whether a discovered cache involves deadly surface-to-air missiles or simple rocket-propelled grenades, the field reports are largely useless without being verified or vetted.

“If there are documents valuable from a policy perspective, why not focus on those? Why is it necessary to dump 200,000 documents into the public domain, ever? What does this gain other than more notoriety for WikiLeaks?”

It’s no small matter that Schroeder and the nonpartisan group he works for are criticizing WikiLeaks. Manhattan Project scientists who designed the first atomic bombs founded FAS more than half a century ago after coming to the conclusion that their lives would be better spent preventing nuclear warfare.

To that end FAS has fought relentlessly to pry open details about the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons policy and teach the public about how illicit small arms move around the world.

Schroeder points to the reported gunrunner and former Russian military officer Viktor Bout, who today awaits trial in the United States. Bout may never have been stopped if leaked documents tipped him in advance, Schroeder said.

So what undermining information might the WikiLeaks documents actually contain? One report describes a certain north African country supplying Al Qaeda with dozens of air-to-air missiles, which were to be stored in Iran before making their way to Afghanistan. Other documents discuss a rocket-propelled grenade launcher made in Iran and used by the Taliban to shoot down coalition aircraft. There’s an Afghan rebel leader arranging to buy remote-controlled rockets from the North Korean government.

The list goes on, according to a Dec. 6 story from The New York Times.

Disclosures about gunrunning and weapons proliferation aren’t the only concern FAS and other critics have about WikiLeaks, however. It’s the movement for more sunshine in Washington that may be at risk, too.

In addition to Schroeder, FAS is home to one of the clearest voices in Washington on openness – government transparency expert Steven Aftergood, who regularly publishes classified or otherwise restricted materials on his blog, Secrecy News.

With FAS behind him, Aftergood in August obtained and released a scientific advisory board report not available to the public that described the benefits of interrogating subjects without coercion. He has published what amount to catalogs of destruction that describe in significant detail weapons systems used by the Army, from Hellfire missiles to Abrams tanks. FAS is perhaps best known for forcing open hundreds of valuable Congressional Research Service reports packed with official statistics and analysis.

Few people understand just how convoluted and bureaucratic the nation’s rules are for classifying and declassifying government documents. Under the current system, it can take decades for journalists and academics to tell the full story of one president’s foreign diplomatic strategy, a CIA plot to disrupt perceived enemies abroad or an ill-advised military intervention. For that reason many relish what WikiLeaks has done. Why should Americans have to wait to know the truth, in many cases just so political leaders can avoid being embarrassed?

But Aftergood in recent months has published multiple critical assessments of WikiLeaks. He wrote on Nov. 29 that WikiLeaks is widely described as a “whistleblower site,” although its attention is not narrowly focused on corruption or specific revelations that expose how the truth is being abused. Instead, Aftergood concluded, the only thing that unites the three major spills this year from WikiLeaks is the fact that the material is classified.

While it’s unlikely to be touted as a major achievement for Obama, and it’s less likely to attract the attention of mainstream journalists, major reforms of government classification have already begun, moving the United States away from the Cold War shadow it has lived in for decades. And Aftergood attributes these changes to political advocacy rather than a WikiLeaks-style subversion of secrecy.

For the first time ever the United States officially revealed how many nuclear weapons were in its arsenal – 5,113 warheads as of September 2009. It published an unclassified description of the country’s nuclear weapons policy, too – another first. Such information is vital for understanding how to move forward with arms control, Aftergood contends.

A complete dollar figure for how much the country spends on intelligence annually had never been made publicly available by the U.S. government until September – more than $80 billion during the 2010 fiscal year. Senior officials once swore under oath that disclosing the number would damage national security.

Aftergood’s harshest take yet on WikiLeaks appeared over the summer. He referred to earlier leaks from the organization as “a kind of information vandalism” that didn’t appear motivated by justice and integrity in public affairs. WikiLeaks publicized the rites and secret rituals of private organizations like sororities and the Masons. It published the full text of pirated books without permission. It’s unclear if any of the site’s disclosures so far will have the same impact as the photos from Abu Ghraib, which led to investigations, congressional hearings and lawsuits.

Wrote Aftergood:

Much could be forgiven to WikiLeaks if it were true that its activities were succeeding in transforming government information policy in favor of increased openness and accountability – as opposed to merely generating reams of publicity for itself … Which U.S. government programs have been canceled as a result of WikiLeaks’ activities? Which government policies have been revised?

It’s impossible for critics to claim WikiLeaks has made no difference at all. Records the site released in October show that thousands more civilians were killed in Iraq than previously reported, with details available for some of the more brutal cases. That prompted even Aftergood to partly defend the spill.

A conclusion about the site isn’t simple when such essential truths emerge. One thing’s for certain: WikiLeaks has forever altered the debate about official secrecy.

G.W. Schulz joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008 to launch its ongoing homeland security project. Read the project’s blog, Elevated Risk, here.