More on Wikileaks 4

One of our readers, Fernando Montenegro, disagrees with the (conjectural) conclusion to our post Thanks to Wikileaks? immediately below, and usefully points out:

– [as CEM, another commenter mentions], the context around the information is valuable as well [as the information itself].  [CEM writes that we do not understand the seriousness of the Wikileaks release of classified documents and information. “There does not have to be a direct leaking of names to expose agents and sources. And often, the information alone can be innocuous. However, the content and context of the data alone can provide clues to counter agents and governments as to the identities of agents and sources that can place them in grave danger.”]

– it is IMPOSSIBLE for an organization (a family unit, a company, a government) to formulate positions for any negotiation with another party without some measure of privacy. What WikiLeaks did is steal that privacy.

– Sure, government must be accountable, but that is why there is a Senate Intelligence committee, secret FISA courts, etc… WikiLeaks can’t be the judge, jury and executioner of determining what gets released.

– The “misguided foreign policies” are the responsibility of the political leadership, but there’s no hope that any leader can craft good policies without accurate information. One consequence of the leak is that not only foreign services will be more careful in their discussion with the US, but that individuals will be more guarded in what they write.

– While I think that Palin/Huckabee/… need to tone down a LOT, I think all those involved in the theft and illegal disclosure of sensitive information should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

We are grateful for this. We hoped that readers would give their opinions. We accept the good sense of the arguments, and make only two points in reply:

Suppliers of information to foreign powers must assess the risk for themselves.

When it comes to families and companies, we agree with Fernando. We see governments, however, as a different kettle of fish. We can best explain our view by discussing what others are saying about the WikiLeaks operation.

Caroline Glick starts off her column on the subject, here at Townhall, by strongly condemning the leak:

Make no mistake about it, the ongoing WikiLeaks operation against the US is an act of war. It is not merely a criminal offense to publish hundreds of thousands of classified US government documents with malice aforethought. It is an act of sabotage.

And she deplores “the impotent US response to it”.

Yet this is what the documents tell her:

The leaked documents themselves expose a profound irony. To wit: The US is unwilling to lift a finger to defend itself against an act of information warfare which exposed to the world that the US is unwilling to lift a finger to protect itself and its allies from the most profound military threats endangering international security today.

In spite of the unanimity of the US’s closest Arab allies that Iran’s nuclear installations must be destroyed militarily – a unanimity confirmed by the documents revealed by WikiLeaks – the US has refused to take action. Instead it clings to a dual strategy of sanctions and engagement that everyone recognizes has failed repeatedly and has no chance of future success.

In spite of proof that North Korea is transferring advanced ballistic missiles to Iran through China, again confirmed by the illegally released documents, the US continues to push a policy of engagement based on a belief that there is value to China’s vote for sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council. It continues to push a policy predicated on its unfounded faith that China is interested in restraining North Korea.

In spite of the fact that US leaders including Gates recognize that Turkey is not a credible ally and that its leaders are radical Islamists, as documented in the classified documents, the US has agreed to sell Turkey a hundred F-35s. The US continues to support Turkish membership in the EU and of course embraces Turkey as a major NATO ally.

The publication of the US’s true feelings about Turkey has not made a dent in its leaders’ unwillingness to contend with reality. …

The documents show … that China is breaching … sanctions against Iran

And at the same time as asking: “Why is [the US ] allowing WikiLeaks to destroy its international reputation, credibility and ability to conduct international relations and military operations?”, she also asks: “And why has it refused to contend with the dangers it faces from the likes of Iran and North Korea, Turkey, Venezuela and the rest of the members of the axis of evil that even State Department officers recognize are colluding to undermine and destroy US superpower status?”

In these instances, it is extremely important information that has been leaked, both the new and the confirmatory; information that Americans should know. In sum, Glick’s article provides good arguments for the document leak rather than against it.

Charles Krauthammer, in the Washington Post here, also deplores the leaking of the documents and the weakness of the US government’s response to it. He wants the leakers to be severely punished. “Throw the WikiBook at  them” his column is titled.

He gives these reasons:

First, quite specific damage to our war-fighting capacity. Take just one revelation among hundreds: The Yemeni president and deputy prime minister are quoted as saying that they’re letting the United States bomb al-Qaeda in their country, while claiming that the bombing is the government’s doing. Well, that cover is pretty well blown. And given the unpopularity of the Sanaa government’s tenuous cooperation with us in the war against al-Qaeda, this will undoubtedly limit our freedom of action against its Yemeni branch, identified by the CIA as the most urgent terrorist threat to U.S. security.

That’s one lesson that could be drawn from the revelation about the lie. We draw another. Why should the Yemeni government be allowed to lie about the bombing? Why shouldn’t the US pursue al-Qaeda wherever they’re hiding?*

Second, we’ve suffered a major blow to our ability to collect information. Talking candidly to a U.S. diplomat can now earn you headlines around the world, reprisals at home, or worse. Success in the war on terror depends on being trusted with other countries’ secrets. Who’s going to trust us now?

This seems to us an empty argument. If other countries want the US to know something, they will impart that information. Nations never did and never will trust each other. They’d be ill-advised to do so. When they have common interests they co-operate. The occasional leaking of documents will make no difference to that.

Third, this makes us look bad, very bad.

If he means the leaking itself makes the US look bad, it’s an irrelevant judgment because it wasn’t by its own will that it happened. (Though it should guard its secrets better, and no one should ever expect internet secrecy.) If he means what the documents reveal, that they make American diplomats, the State Department, the Obama administration look bad, it’s because they are bad, and it’s good for the American public to have the proof of it.

Whether or not foreign governments trust the US matters far less than how far US citizens trust their own government. They should be able to trust it, of course, yet it would be naive of them to do so. In the same issue with Krauthammer’s column, the Washington Post reports on a release by  the government itself of documents about its illegal spying on US citizens. We are no fans of the ACLU, and we think that likely terrorists (who they are we’ll leave to our reader’s suspicions) should be constantly surveyed, but we quote this as a reminder that governments can and do abuse their powers, sometimes with justification, sometimes without:

The federal government has repeatedly violated legal limits governing the surveillance of U.S. citizens, according to previously secret internal documents obtained through a court battle by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In releasing 900 pages of documents, U.S. government agencies refused to say how many Americans’ telephone, e-mail or other communications have been intercepted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – or FISA – Amendments Act of 2008, or to discuss any specific abuses, the ACLU said. Most of the documents were heavily redacted.

We think that state secrecy is justifiable when it is concerned with preserving the country’s power and protecting its citizens. (Whatever goes on in a war should be kept as secret as possible. Mrs Thatcher knew this when she made war on Argentina over the Falklands. She allowed only one daily report, a brief boring bulletin delivered in lugubrious tones by a spokesman who earned the name Mogadon Man. No embedding of journalists. No press photographers. No announcing a date when the forces would start withdrawing. She fought the war to win it, and she did.)

What emerges from the WikiLeaks documents, as Caroline Glick makes plain, is that the Obama government is not intent on preserving the power of the US and protecting its citizens.

That is what is shameful. If only the law extended to punishing those guilty of this betrayal. Their inaction against America’s enemies, their covert connivance with them – these are acts of sabotage deserving condign punishment.

*

Footnote:

*Furthermore, there is something deeply immoral, as well as counter-productive, in the persistent policy of the West to allow Arabs to lie. It has become a bad habit. The British have done it for a hundred years. When the Australians liberated Damascus from the Turks in 1918, the British ordered them to withdraw and allow their own pet Arab army (the con-man T.E.Lawrence’s well-bribed little outfit) to march in and claim the victory as their own. That distortion was one of many that wove so tangled a web of deceit and pretense that it still keeps Middle East policy in knots from which Britain cannot extricate itself even if it wanted to – which it doesn’t. The US State Department – its policy towards the Arabs always too affected by the nefarious British Foreign Office – is imitating this indulgence and will achieve no better results.

  • Anonymous

    Jillian, thank you for the prominence you gave my comments and for the opportunity to debate the topic. I appreciate the effort that went into your comments and I’ll try to articulate as best as I can… On to your points:

    > Suppliers of information to foreign powers must assess the risk for themselves.

    Yes, that is exactly what is happening right now, all over the world, to the detriment of not only this administration, but also to the state as well.

    Up until now, there was a notion that the national intelligence apparatus – State Department, CIA, NSA, others – was able to acquire, disseminate and process sensitive information with a level of competence befitting not only a state, but a powerful one. The severe mishandling of sensitive information – from the lax controls on the intranets that allowed someone to download this much information without being caught to the failure to aggressively pursue and prosecute those responsible for divulging it – means that foreign individuals will be a lot more careful about what they say to US representatives and that US representatives themselves will be more careful with what they put to paper/email. The end result is more obscurity, which is EXACTLY what the country does NOT need when trying to craft international policy.

    > In these instances, it is extremely important information that has been leaked, both the new and the confirmatory; information that Americans should know. In sum, Glick’s article provides good arguments for the document leak rather than against it.

    Just because the cables leaked point to a world view that agrees with our beliefs (mine too!) – including one that the administration is weak – it doesn’t make their release acceptable.

    Imagine the following scenario: What if the cables had revealed an imminent secret plan to bomb Iran with the cooperation of other Arab states and that, after learning of this, the Iranian secret services was able to cause enough instability in said countries that led to very unpleasant “regime change”? Would you be supportive of the leak then?

    I think there is plenty of blame to go around:
    – Whoever designed and operates the intranets should be held accountable for their negligence.
    – The individual who actually downloaded the information should be charged with treason/espionage.
    – The enablers who got the information out should be charged with accessory to espionage or whatever other charge is relevant for the unauthorized, malicious disclosure of classified information.

    Anyone who thinks Assange/WikiLeaks committed “treason” doesn’t understand that they are not US citizens, so the charge does not apply. They *did* however disseminate the information and should be held accountable for that.

    > Charles Krauthammer, in the Washington Post here, also deplores the leaking of the documents and the weakness of the US government’s response to it. He wants the leakers to be severely punished. “Throw the WikiBook at them” his column is titled.

    That’s the kind of pun-dit headline that I like… 🙂

    > That’s one lesson that could be drawn from the revelation about the lie. We draw another. Why should the Yemeni government be allowed to lie about the bombing? Why shouldn’t the US pursue al-Qaeda wherever they’re hiding?*

    Because every government in the world – including the US – has to balance its foreign policy with considerations of domestic politics as well. It is very likely that many of these government secretly collaborate with the US because they understand the benefit of doing so, but are not in a position to declare this openly internally because of domestic considerations. This is just the reality of politics.

    > This seems to us an empty argument. If other countries want the US to know something, they will impart that information. Nations never did and never will trust each other. They’d be ill-advised to do so. When they have common interests they co-operate. The leaking of documents will make no difference.

    Quite the contrary. Keep in mind that the “official” version that any government puts out will be massaged/modified to suit its interests. Individuals within those government may have access to the “real” information and may choose to pass it along to US officials if it suits their own personal interests. The leak and the feckless response to it shows individuals that they cannot rely on the US to keep the information private. For their own safety, they may choose to withhold it…

    >If he means the leaking itself makes the US look bad, it’s an irrelevant judgment because it wasn’t by its own will that it happened. If he means what the documents reveal, that they make American diplomats, the State Department, the Obama administration look bad, it’s because they are bad, and it’s good for the American public to have the proof of it.

    Between your comment above and the speech by Ron Paul asking for “a Wikileaks for the Federal Reserve”, I think there is a dangerous mixing up happening here:
    – On one hand, we have individuals asking for more openness from the government in several areas. We can all agree is a good thing. We must find a way to do it securely. The best we seem to have come up so far is to oversight from Congress, who are after all the people’s elected representatives.
    – On the other hand, we an organization just blasting away virtually unfiltered information for the entire world to see.

    I think there is a distinction between the domestic need for openness and the external face that a country presents. WikiLeaks seems to disagree.

    > We think that state secrecy is justifiable when it is concerned with preserving the country’s power and protecting its citizens.

    So I would welcome you in joining me in justifying the secrecy that the State Department is entitled to have to present accurate information back to Washington on several tactical and strategic dealings that the US is involved in.

    >(Whatever goes on in a war should be kept as secret as possible. Mrs Thatcher knew this when she made war on Argentina over the Falklands. She allowed only one daily report, a brief boring bulletin delivered in lugubrious tones by a spokesman who earned the name ”Mogadon Man”. No embedding of journalists. No press photographers. No announcing a date when the forces would start withdrawing. She fought the war to win it, and she did.)

    And what would Baroness Thatcher make of WikiLeaks? Personally, I like think she would exile them to the Falklands… with no winter clothes! 🙂

    I’m all for having a foreign policy that protects US interests and make real progress on key issues around the world. Because of this belief, I think that the release of cables by WikiLeaks constituted an act of aggression against the United States that should be dealt with accordingly.

    Again, respectfully,
    Fernando

    • Jillian Becker

      Thank you, Fernando, for the time, trouble, and thought you have put into your comments.

      Your arguments are persuasive. You make a very good case.

      Only I would ask you this: Hasn’t at least some good come out of this particular (however reprehensible) document theft and publication? Such as –

      May it not compel diplomats and secret services to guard their secrets better?

      Do not millions more people now know that this administration is ignoring the best advice it gets and closing its eyes to political realities because it is committed to an ideology that is – more plainly than ever – anti-American?

      To notice these possible benefits is not to excuse the crime or the malice of the operation, nor to suggest that it ever be repeated, but only to urge that important lessons can and should be learnt from the calamity.

      • Fernando Montenegro

        Hello again.

        Once again, thanks for the discussion. On to your points:

        > Only I would ask you this: Hasn’t at least some good come out of this particular (however reprehensible) document theft and publication?

        I think that the fact that the leak revealed things that are “interesting” is irrelevant to determine the legality, that much is clear. I am very worried with what I see as the prevailing sense of “the end justifies the means” approach that is being used to exonerate WikiLeaks by so many in both traditional and new media.

        While we can argue the “good” outcomes, we can just as easily argue the “bad” ones:
        – the ineptitude of the state apparatus to protect information proactively (running things securely) as well as reactively (preventing/punishing the leak) means less access to accurate information in the future.
        – the same ineptitude erodes the deterrence for future leaks.
        – working arrangements between the US and others – such as Yemen – have been damaged, meaning further hindrance to actions on the multi-faceted conflict with Al-Qaida. If nothing else, the efforts that have been spent to clean up the mess adds up to millions of dollars wasted and lots of attention being diverted from the task at hand.
        – last but not least, the whole incident obscures the need for maintaining and improving a working “whistleblower” framework.

        Can we learn lessons from this? Yes, we certainly can. But we also learned lessons from 9/11 without applauding/condoning it…

        Respectfully,
        Fernando

        PS: I noticed several typos in my previous response. My apologies to you and your readers.

        • Jillian Becker

          All very good points.

          I’m thinking about them

          We’ll have more to say on this subject.

          Typos don’t matter in the least. It was quite clear what you meant.

          Thank you again, Fernando.