Lessons of the Wikileakileaks: Both Funny and Sad

Assange's organization is learning an important lesson about the value of secrecy -- even for a mission of transparency

Foust Sep 1p.jpg


Karma, as they say, is a killer:

More than 250,000 secret U.S. diplomatic cables are now available in full and unfiltered online, exposing scores of U.S. diplomatic sources and informants that were meant to be protected often for their own safety, according to the website WikiLeaks.

But this is not an official WikiLeaks release. Rather, what appears to be a string of errors has lead to both the raw file and the password that unlocks that file to be released into the public domain, without WikiLeaks control.

As tempting as it is to say things like "I told you so," or to simply laugh at how the radical transparency group's own hubris and amateurism had backfired, there is a more serious aspect to this latest leak-of-leaks. 

For one, Wikileaks' inability to manage its own information security in many ways mirrors the U.S. government's own challenges: it relied on discretion, on the reliability of people, and in many ways on luck. Even as I laugh at the organization dedicated to leaks complaining about someone else leaking their information, I'm struck by just how challenging it is to keep information confidential. Now that it has tasted a bit of its own medicine, it will be interesting to see how Wikileaks tries to cope with information leakage.

The loser in all of this, as it has been since Wikileaks began releasing its stolen classified data, is not the U.S. government but the process of diplomacy and statecraft. When they first released the Afghan War Logs, Wikileaks revealed a key area where they demonstrated their inherent untrustworthiness in safeguarding sensitive information: they had no idea what was actually sensitive. I wrote at the time:

The military is rightly accused of overclassifying material, but in this case we have some idea of why: even with the names removed from these reports, you know where they happened (many still have place names). You know when they happened. And you know an Afghan was speaking to a U.S. soldier or intelligence agent. If you have times, locations and half the participants, you don't need names to identify who was involved in a conversation -- with some very basic detective work, you can find out (and it's much easier to do in Afghanistan, which loves gossip).

If I were a Taliban operative with access to a computer -- and lots of them have access to computers -- I'd start searching the WikiLeaks data for incident reports near my area of operation to see if I recognized anyone. And then I'd kill whomever I could identify. Those deaths would be directly attributable to WikiLeaks.

In the year or so since the initial release of raw Afghan incident reports, the U.S. military has been loathe to admit any negative consequences. There are many reasons for this: by the data's very nature, any "blowback" in the form of botched operations or murdered Afghan informants would be classified, so publicizing them would defeat the purpose of keeping them secret to begin with. Furthermore, it is in their interest to never admit that such leaks damage them in anything other than general way -- otherwise, they would offer anyone who might want to hurt the government's ability to function a blueprint for how to do so.

The most direct effect of the Wikileaks was its sloppy handling of information that, whatever the pretense of transparency activists, should remain confidential and out of the public. Last December, my friend Chris Albon explained for The Atlantic how improperly handling this information can have dire consequences:

To their supporters, WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange are heroes of the democratic cause. Assange himself has claimed that his organization promotes democracy by strengthening the media. But in Zimbabwe, Assange's pursuit of this noble goal has provided a tyrant with the ammunition to wound, and perhaps kill, any chance for multiparty democracy. Earlier this month, Assange claimed that "not a single person, as far as anyone is aware, has been harmed" by Wikileaks' practices. This is no longer true, if it ever was.

The Zimbabwe cable Albon discusses was reviewed and vetted both by Wikileaks and The Guardian newspaper as a part of their "harm minimization" process. It was clearly inadequate. The latest leak, however, contains no such attempts at harm minimization. The new tranche available online contains no redactions, which places diplomatic sources, informants, methods, and communications even more directly at risk than any previous risk from accidental exposure. This latest leak is the purest distillation of Wikileaks' campaign to destroy the system of international diplomacy.

For the U.S. government, these leaks have dire consequences. Away from the preening about transparency and how unfair it is for the government to do some things in private while the public doesn't get to read about it in real time, secrecy is actually essential for organizations to function. Wikileaks describes the password leaked to the public as "top secret," and acts offended that violating its own right to secrecy can have dire consequences.

The U.S. government classified documents because of what they reveal about the way the government functions and gathers data: how it listens to conversations, who tells them their information, and so on. Revealing that, as Wikileaks continues to do (regardless of their claims to do so inadvertently), puts those sources at risk not just of exposure, but of violent reprisal, even death.

But beyond the direct harm to sources and methods, this leak continues to directly harm the very goal of transparency Wikileaks claims to support. Within the government, Wikileaks has prompted a reestablishment of the "stovepipes," or bureaucratic walls between agencies, that many claim kept the September 11 attacks from being prevented. The government's response to information theft has been to more tightly safeguard information so that the risk of leaks are minimized; as a result, it is much harder for analysts to gather information and contextualize it in a timely and responsible way. Wikileaks is directly responsible for making the intelligence community less responsive and less aware of the world, and thus bears responsibility for the negative consequences that are sure to follow.

So while I do indeed laugh at Wikileaks' astoundingly irresponsible handling of classified data, I also shake my head in sadness at what the results will be. From the very start of their leaking campaign, it has been a disaster for the safety of people in the war zones, a disaster for the process of international diplomacy (including the ambassador to Libya right before we bombed their country), and for responsible government. This latest leak is, sadly, just par for the course.

Presented by

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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