How WikiLeaks embarrassed and enraged America, gripped the public and rewrote the rules of diplomacy
Dec 2nd 2010 | from PRINT EDITION
SECRETS are as old as states, and so are enemies’, critics’ and busybodies’ efforts to uncover them. But the impact and scale of the latest disclosures by WikiLeaks, a secretive and autocratic outfit that campaigns for openness, are on a new level. A disillusioned 23-year-old American official, Bradley Manning, downloaded from a supposedly secure government network more than 250,000 diplomatic “cables”: in effect, government e-mails. They ranged from the almost-public to those classified “secret”. He gave them to WikiLeaks, which has provided them to international news outlets, including Germany’s Der Spiegel, El País in Spain and Britain’s Guardian (which, in turn, passed them to the New York Times).
The first slivers started appearing on November 29th. They range (see article) from the explosive to the ho-hum. Diplomats being instructed to act like spies, snooping on Ban Ki-moon and filching the frequent-flyer and credit-card details of other senior UN officials, sounds like a scandal. So is the “shadowy” Russian-speaking intermediary ferrying lavish gifts between Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi. But solemnly recording that the Russian prime minister is the real power in his country, or that the Italian leader enjoys hard partying, or that France’s Nicolas Sarkozy is vain and mercurial, seems a waste of taxpayers’ electrons.
For the most part, the leaks’ content is less important than their source, and the manner of the betrayal. Individually, the disclosures are trivial: some would be barely newsworthy if published legally. But collectively, they are corrosive. America appears humiliatingly unable to keep its own or other people’s secrets. A good example of this is a cable about a firm supposedly involved in breaking arms sanctions on Iran. Marked “secret” and for American eyes only, it contains some spicy details gained from a “well-connected businessman”. To establish that source’s credentials, the cable’s author lists his family connections (Iran), his place of business (Baku), his education (British), and his distinctive sporting career. The name is not given, but could easily be deduced. Next time he is asked to share his expert insights on a matter of huge importance to America’s government, he may be less helpful.
That kind of casual damage to bystanders sits oddly with the founding mission of WikiLeaks, as outlined in 2007: “Our primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their governments and corporations.” Early targets included high-level corruption in Kenya; alleged illegal activities in an offshore operation of the Swiss-based bank Julius Baer; the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay; Scientology’s beliefs and practices; Sarah Palin’s personal e-mail account; the membership list of the far-right British National Party; and a toxic-waste scandal in Africa. Cheekily, WikiLeaks also published classified Pentagon and British military documents about the damage leaks can do to national security.
My leak is your command
Oddly, that material has now disappeared from its website. But the worries were prescient. This year WikiLeaks has focused almost exclusively on American government secrets, using material apparently leaked by Mr Manning.
In April it released footage showing an attack in Iraq in 2007 in which an American helicopter killed two Reuters staff and a dozen bystanders, apparently mistaking camera equipment for weapons. In July it gave media outlets 90,000-plus documents about the war in Afghanistan. These included details of botched operations. Critics said (but have not proved) that they endangered intelligence sources too. The Taliban said that it was cross-referencing the material against its hit-list.
The next leak, in October, was even bigger: nearly 400,000 documents relating to the Iraq war. WikiLeaks said they showed that American and allied forces there had colluded in (or at least not stopped) the torture of Iraqis by the local authorities.
The mass leaks of terse, jargon-ridden fragments of reporting from the battlefield form a mostly confusing mosaic. The diplomatic cables, professionally drafted by ambitious officials eager to display their sharp minds and silver pens, are more compelling and revealing.
It would be an exaggeration to say that diplomacy will never be the same again. Self-interest means that countries will still send and receive private messages. But communication will be more difficult. The trading of opinions, insights and favours necessarily requires shadow, not light. Unofficial contacts such as businessmen, journalists, campaigners and other citizens who talk to American diplomats, out of goodwill or self-interest, will think twice about doing so. Being tarred as an American crony can be lethal.
What is said will be less clear and interesting. Principals will use go-betweens rather than talking directly. Clear private speech will give way to euphemisms suitable for public consumption. (Journalism provides a few: “convivial” for “drunk”; “unconventional” for “mad”.) All that will make communication more difficult.
Officials find it hard to get a grip on this. Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief, claims to be acting responsibly: he wrote to the American embassy in London offering officials a chance to “nominate” details that should be withheld for security or other reasons. They declined. (Officials say that by highlighting particularly damaging bits, they would implicitly concede that other material is harmless.)
Mr Assange replied from an Olympian height. “You have chosen to respond in a manner which leads me to conclude that the supposed risks are entirely fanciful and you are instead concerned to suppress evidence of human-rights abuse and other criminal behaviour.” The editor of the New York Times says he cut some names and other details after talking to officials.
Negotiating with WikiLeaks is hard. But so is punishing it. Mr Assange sees his “megaleaks” as part of a global war against corporate and government misdeeds (loosely defined as anything between hypocrisy and war crimes). That messianic mission attracts cult-like support, from idealists to America-bashers, including conspiracy nuts and those for whom using cryptography to outwit authority is an end in itself.
The result is an elusive virtual foe, with many friends but no headquarters to raid or property to seize. WikiLeaks gets by on an annual $200,000, though it pleads poverty (that may account for the disappearance of some previously leaked documents; another explanation may be Mr Assange’s shambolic and headstrong management style). Its strongest point is its data, swirling round the internet in heavily encrypted (and largely invisible) form, and stored under legal regimes that protect journalists, whistle-blowers and anything that resembles them.
WikiLeaks’ most vulnerable point is people. Mr Manning faces a court martial and 52 years in jail if convicted. Mr Assange is in hiding, possibly in Dubai or near London. The authorities in his native Australia have denounced him and say he may face criminal charges if he returns. He is now on Interpol’s most-wanted list. After a recent stay in Sweden he faces several charges of sexual assault, which he denies. Sweden has now put out an arrest warrant for him. His supporters scent a set-up. Sceptics point out that Swedish justice (crime novels aside) is not generally known for scheming ferocity, or for the permanent silencing of America’s foes.
Clearly, anyone who protects WikiLeaks or Mr Assange (Ecuador has offered him unconditional asylum) faces American wrath. After its servers came under heavy cyber-attack this week, it rented space from Amazon. But the online retailer promptly chucked it off, making the WikiLeaks sites mostly, if temporarily, unavailable. The White House wants criminal sanctions to stop Mr Assange, and changes in the law if necessary. Some Republicans want Mr Assange killed; others want him tried as a spy. Mrs Clinton said the government was “taking aggressive steps to hold responsible those who stole this information”. (Wags say that, on the contrary, it is WikiLeaks that is holding her to account.)
One way or another, America may be able to swat WikiLeaks. This week’s cyber-attacks were a start. But those will be just one battle in a long war. Preventing the publication of the cache of cables looks hopeless. Journalists are relishing the chance to print, with clear sourcing, the sort of thing they are normally told only in off-the-record briefings. That will keep America on the defensive for weeks and maybe months, as intimate and damaging details of its diplomacy dribble out into the public domain. The Guardian’s David Leigh says the revelations have “barely started”. Officials can fulminate or brazen it out, arguing by turns that the material involved is trivial or deeply damaging. But WikiLeaks and its media allies control completely the timing, quality and quantity of information released.
In the longer term the odds are stacked against secrecy, particularly in countries that practise openness in other areas. One reason is that though individual jurisdictions often prevent a specific libel, privacy breach or copyright infringement, a story with a global reach will get out somewhere. Short of imposing Chinese-style firewalls and censorship, free countries cannot consistently stop their citizens finding out what their enemies tell them, including tales of the shadowy, sordid or sensational deeds done in their names.
Purloining secret documents is an old business. But technology has hugely increased the ease and potential quantity of theft and the ubiquity of publication. Thirty years ago, stealing a single classified document meant using a miniature camera; passing it on required a dead letter box. Now a spy, traitor or whistle-blower can put gigabytes of data on a fingernail-sized card and pass them on anonymously, irretrievably and all but instantly.
Compounding that vulnerability is America’s need to share colossal amounts of data across a sprawling government machine. Critics flayed officials for their failure to do that before September 11th 2001: they had enough information to foil the attackers, but did not piece it together. But the solution to that problem created another: access to the network by hundreds of thousands of people. Some 900,000 have “secret” clearance, including Bradley Manning. He downloaded the data onto a CD, which he brought to work in order, purportedly, to listen to music by Lady Gaga. America says it has now tightened the rules on downloading material onto portable storage media, to make such a breach impossible in future. Officials insist that other networks, for top-secret, military and intelligence material, are intact. You could forgive people for doubting that.
If WikiLeaks’ aim is to change the world, it has probably succeeded in part. As Mr Manning bragged:
Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public…Everywhere there’s a US post, there’s a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed…It’s beautiful, and horrifying.