The strange case of WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange, and the publication of 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables on the WikiLeaks website, has captured public attention at all levels. Assange, reportedly hiding out in Great Britain, is an Australian wanted in Sweden on rape and sexual assault charges, which he asserts are more associated with his massive document dump than with his alleged violations. He has gone so far as to suggest the United States is attempting to assassinate him.
What is going on here and what happens next?
There have been related disclosures of confidential information in the past, but most have been pre-Internet and not so quickly disseminated globally. Some also have been associated with diplomatic cables.
The United States, which had been neutral in World War I, was drawn into that conflict in part because of the public surfacing of a so-called Zimmermann Telegram — a purported German diplomatic cable promising Mexico great concessions if it entered the war on the German side. Most analysts today agree that the Zimmermann Telegram was in fact a clever British fake, which helped turn U.S. opinion in favor of intervening on the French-British side. And readers of World War II histories are aware of the many phony documents and messages employed by all sides to mislead their adversaries during that conflict.
Then there are the multiple examples of U.S. whistleblowers who, after the fact, published information that had been secret at the time they received it.
- Whittaker Chambers, a senior Time magazine editor, wrote a Cold War-era exposé detailing his activities as a Communist Party member and Soviet spy from 1932-7, in which he identified a number of U.S. public officials, including Alger Hiss, as fellow Communist operatives.
- Philip Agee, a Central Intelligence Agency case officer in Latin America from 1957-68, wrote a 1975 book, "Inside the Company," which related alleged CIA activities during his period of service. Afterward he fled to Cuba, where he died two years ago. The book listed a number of overseas CIA agents, at least one of whom was murdered immediately after his role was made public.
- Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon analyst, released an extensive document and cable file regarding Vietnam, dubbed the Pentagon Papers, which in 1971 were published in The New York Times. The papers were influential in turning U.S. opinion against the war.
- Diplomat Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame, a CIA analyst, were at center stage during the second Iraq war after Wilson wrote a New York Times essay disclosing that he had been dispatched to Africa to discover whether yellowcake uranium was being supplied to Iraq and, in fact, had found no evidence that the suspected transfers were taking place. Plame, in turned out, had recommended her husband for the exploratory mission. She, in turn, was publicly identified as a CIA analyst by Bush administration officials.
Their advocates presented the whistleblowers as heroes of their time. The reality, however, was more complicated in each case.
Chambers, it turned out, was a true-believer type who turned from Communism to devout Catholicism. Moreover, he had murky sexual involvements with some of the subjects of his accusations. Agee had been in trouble at the CIA because of a drinking problem, compulsive womanizing among U.S. embassy female personnel, and financial difficulties. Ellsberg had been a Pentagon analyst for many years before he decided to publicly release documents with which he had been working. He, too, had a complex personal life and was a notorious attention seeker.
Wilson and Plame, too, sought public attention. It was well known before Wilson's New York Times piece that Saddam Hussein did not, in fact, possess a nuclear-weapons capability. Plame's alleged "outing" as a CIA staffer was no big deal. She was posted at CIA's Langley headquarters and not overseas. The identities of CIA headquarters staff members are about as secret in Washington, D.C., as the list of taxicab companies in the phone book. The previously obscure Wilson and Plame have parlayed their roles in the matter into a Vanity Fair photo spread, big lecture fees, and even a recent movie glamorizing the episode.
Chambers was a private citizen when he made his disclosures. Agee, Ellsberg, Wilson, and Plame, however, were past or present U.S. government officials who knew they were breaching security rules which they had explicitly accepted as part of their jobs.
Nonetheless, did their disclosures serve the public interest? Chambers' accusations, it turned out, were mainly true. But they fed a McCarthyist surge in the nation's capital, which led to accusations against many who were innocent. Agee's allegations about CIA conduct in Latin America also had substance to them. Although they were not surprising in themselves, they jeopardized the lives and safety of many colleagues Agee left behind in the CIA. Ellsberg and The New York Times did a real public service with his documents. Released in volume, and covering a long period, they disclosed a long pattern of U.S. government mistakes and misjudgments in Vietnam. Wilson and Plame were split-second footnotes in a massive information flow pointing to the same conclusions regarding alleged Iraqi nuclear programs.
Diplomatic cables are a different chapter in the story of confidential information disclosures. Media commentators, in discussing the WikiLeaks matter, have shown a curious ignorance about what these cables are and are not.
Thousands of such cables go to and from Washington, D.C. and U.S. embassies daily. They cover such diverse subjects as milk production in the host country, military capabilities and troop movements, capital flows, conversations with government officials and private citizens, and assessments of foreign-government intentions and objectives. From time to time they also include assessments of foreign leaders' characters and behavior patterns. (Hence Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's joking remark that foreign counterparts had told her, "You should see what our cables say about you.") Yes, outright U.S. spying takes place, just as foreign partners — even our closest allies — spy on us. But much of this is not contained in the daily cable flow.
The current WikiLeaks disclosures include cable excerpts dealing with corruption among Afghan and African leaders and the alpha-male habitudes of Russian leader Valery Putin. No surprises there. Brief embarrassments maybe, but no more.
The potential problems lie elsewhere. Are foreign governments or intelligence services inserting their own mischievous messages (like the notorious Zimmermann Telegram) into the WikiLeaks flow? The next WikiLeaks dump will reportedly deal with financial and economic activity undertaken by private banks and corporations in Western countries. Will the data be real, or calculated misinformation?
Back in the ancient past I served as a Pentagon intelligence analyst and then in U.S. Executive Branch positions where I saw the daily cable flow. But back then the information was distributed in hard copy — in written form, to a closely controlled list of people who were cleared to receive it. Now (and in particular, since the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and the mandate that information be shared widely and electronically) access is wider and easier — and leaks are harder to trace.
I am not among those who view the unauthorized release of information as something which simply should not happen. I recall in particular two instances early in 1965, when as assistant to Vice President Humphrey I read incoming cables which I regarded as particularly wrongheaded. If they had been generally released at the time, they might have been met with more skepticism, and big mistakes could have been avoided.
First, an incoming cable from National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, who was in Vietnam at the time, advocated massive retaliations and strikes against North Vietnam in the wake of small-scale Viet Cong attacks on a U.S. barracks at Pleiku. I wondered, What was Bundy thinking? These were the kinds of skirmishes that happen in this kind of conflict and were no reason to escalate to general war. But that is exactly what happened when, in followup, President Johnson took Bundy's advice and launched massive air attacks against North Vietnam.
Later I saw incoming cables from U.S. Ambassador Tapley Bennett in the Dominican Republic. He warned that a pending coup there could result in establishment in the D.R. of a Castro-allied regime. Bennett was wrong. The contest was between two factions, neither of which had Castro ties. LBJ, however, bought into Bennett's thesis, and U.S. Marines were sent to the Dominican Republic, reestablishing a gunboat-diplomacy tradition that our Latin American partners thought we had abandoned.
The WikiLeaks documents are not in this category. The dump is so massive, and so undifferentiated, that it could only have been undertaken for destructive purposes. The same will be true if other countries' documents, or private financial/economic information, come flooding onto the Internet.
Who knows what Assange's motives may be? They may involve nothing more than his personal desire for celebrity. In any case, there is today no equivalent of the New York Times editorial board which, in 1971, considered the matter long and thoroughly before deciding to publish the Pentagon Papers. For good or ill, the WikiLeaks information is coming in gushers, with no telling whether it is true, false, or in-between.