Wikileaks

Wikileaks seems to have become the paparazzi of the diplomatic corps, doing for Hillary Clinton’s world what National Enquirer magazine did for Paris Hilton. I tried at first to ignore the Wikileaks media sensation. Wouldn’t you know, it won’t go away. Some gossipy tidbits are fascinating. Many are potentially embarrassing. Some threaten delicate negotiations, or diplomatic relationships that took years to build. Almost all undermine international confidence in “the system.” Most confirm what we already knew, heard or suspected. How secure were they? The money was not actually kept in bank vaults, but the front door to the bank was thought to be really, really strong. What do these Wikileaks mean, who is responsible for them, and who, ultimately, is accountable for their embarrassing disclosure?

RESEARCH

I was mildly surprised that these documents appear to be “real.” According to the respected (and unaffiliated) Wikipedia article:

  • Who is ‘Wikileaks’? Wikileaks has been around since 2006. It describes itself as being an international effort founded in part by Chinese dissidents.
  • Have we ever heard of Wikileaks before? Wikileaks has actually won a number of awards for excellence and public service, including from the Economist, Amnesty International, the UK Media Award, and the New York Daily News.
  • Are these leaks reliable? It would seem Wikileaks actually does “due diligence” on documents they receive. A number of qualified subject matter experts review each document for credibility. These analysts also investigate the background of the leaker, if known.
  • Known Wikileak domains are banned in China. A number of western governments, including Germany and Australia, are working on banning or blocking it.
  • At this writing, I find it appears to have been partially or completely blocked in the United States of America.
  • Wikileaks has exposed assassination plots and governmental corruption. Its role in exposing breaches of law and ethics is viewed by many as an essential, Ellsberg-style public service.
  • I saw less evidence than expected of a specifically anti-US Wikileaks agenda, or an ideological agenda. The Wikileaks agenda seems mainly to be provide public access to sensitive private information, no matter whose toes get stepped on.

The United States is a natural for high Wikileaks visibility. (a) This superpower touches almost everything else in world affairs that it doesn’t already dominate, and (b) its government, which annually spends over US$50Bn on national security, proved incompetent to safeguard its own sensitive internal documents.

I found a useful summary of high-profile Wikileaks at BBC.

If you try to do your own “due diligence” by Googling Wikileaks itself, clicking the found links will get you this message (12-5-2010):

Server not found

Firefox can’t find the server at wikileaks.org.

DAMAGE

From what we are given to understand on the news, there are not many governments, among either our friends or foes, who are not concerned about these leaks, either because of what was said, or because the United States proved incapable of keeping its most private confidences secret. As widely quoted elsewhere, several world leaders have been unflatteringly portrayed in confidential State Department memos. Indisputably, those governments will be more cautious in communicating candidly with the United States, and will be less inclined to take American communiques at face value.

This makes the job of our government and its diplomatic corps all the harder in a troubled world.

There is legitimate concern that sooner or later, a life will be lost, security of soldiers overseas will be compromised, or irreparable damage will be done to peace negotiations and regional stability pacts. If that happens, there is near-uniform expert opinion that civil or criminal lawsuits may accomplish what the censors could not.

CREDIBILITY

Experts who should know do seem to take the documents’ authenticity at face value. While consensus is that the leaked documents seem credible, authenticity of any specific document cannot be ascertained . No government is actually going to come out and admit “yes, we said that.” If fraudulent documents were malevolently “leaked” along with real ones, there is no way for the public or the media to know which are which. The most skeptical evaluation would be that the content is “plausible.” The sheer volume of documents leaked in the latest round argues strongly against a massive forgery. Here again in the following link, BBC provided useful insight into interpreting the document diplomatic header jargon.

SECURITY

The BBC postings would confirm a view that the United States does not protect its sensitive diplomatic document storage with encryption, but rather depends on the concept of hardened secure servers to protect its information. In plain language, we can only imagine this news report: “The money was not actually kept in bank vaults, but the front door to the bank was thought to be really, really strong”.

In July the US Department of State revealed he had access to the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (Siprnet) – a system which allows government and diplomatic information to be shared.

If it is true, as mentioned on the “Charlie Rose” show this week, that a Private in the Pentagon was able to download 1.6 gigabytes of highly classified documents without anybody asking questions or even noticing, something’s seriously wrong with our internal security.

Even if the stolen Wikileak documents had been securely encrypted, it is simply not plausible that any private organization could decode all of them any time within the next decade. Moreover, US intelligence services do have encryption algorithms and technologies so secure that no private organization could decrypt any of them in any amount of time.

Why are we not encrypting our diplomatic communiques? When is the United States government going to step up to the plate and admit its own culpability in the leaks of highly sensitive documents?

TRADE GOSSIP

Thinking for a minute back to all the experience you may ever have had in any private-sector employment, there has never been a time when employees and management did not privately vent dissatisfaction with corporate direction, about their work assignments, or about the people they work with. There’s no reason to believe it’s any different in public employment sectors, from Post Office to State Department.

High-visibility leaks in the current round of media attention are mostly high-profile trade gossip, candid and often unflattering opinion personally expressed or vented by field professionals in what they wrongly believed to be a secure venue.

As such, though we may assume a high probability that most if not all of these documents are authentic, they do NOT represent the official position of the United States government, nor of any other government.

An interesting and frequently observed aspect of this gossip is that so much of it represents what we read and discuss through our public media anyway. The unkind remark about French Premier Nicolas Sarkozy being “hyperactive” is probably nothing you can’t find in Le Monde. The charge that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is running a “virtual mafia state” is certainty an exaggeration, but organized crime in Russia had been subject to media attention for two decades.

Is there anyone (in or out of government) who isn’t concerned about the criminally insane family bosses (“Dear Leader“) heading the dangerously unstable North Korea and its uranium centrifuge program? What’s the real scoop about the security of Pakistani nuclear material? How seriously should we take world threat posed by religious Iranian ideologues who are also trying to build viable nuclear weapons?

Sarah Palin’s emails were subject to an earlier Wikileak. She is calling for hunting down the Wikileaks founder “just like al-Qaeda and Taliban”, according to The Telegraph. I would suggest this speaks volumes for both the overall quality of the Wikileak program, and the seriousness with which we should take Sarah Palin. We would be more interested in the question, “What is Vladimir Putin going to do about Palin?”

PROFESSIONALITY

It’s not unprofessional to wish for a better work environment, a higher standard of reciprocity from others with whom we must deal, nor to engage in constructive criticism with the goal of finding a better way to do business. What IS almost universally unprofessional, is getting caught.

While I agree with the view that Wikileaked wise-cracks about foreign dignitaries are often amusing, and occasionally spot-on, we have a right to NOT spend billions for unprofessional behavior such as personal diatribe and dis-respectfulness. We hold our high-level representatives and officials to standards at least as high as enforced against the rank-and-file worker-bee levels. In private industry, corporate email is secured and micro-managed down to the keystroke level. Unprofessional conduct is justifiably dealt with severely. We should expect no less at the government level.

HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM

Populist demagogues like the Palin creature may cry for swift and terrible retribution, but I would be greatly surprised if there were anything in Palin’s e-mails worthy of a moment’s notice or raised eyebrow. Traditional conservatives would be more likely to argue that such leaks cause incalculable damage to US efforts to repair strained relationships with its allies. Traditionalists would be right, but not necessarily quite in the way they anticipated.

Liberals may be more inclined to praise Wikileaks for the public-service aspect of its whistle-blowing. A look at its expose record [see Wikipedia link, top of page] includes leaks on Guantanamo, Climategate, Nuclear accident in Iran, and Toxic dumping in Africa, to mention only a few.

Many of us may well agree here that wrongs and irregularities cannot be corrected until they attain public levels of visibility. We may well value American glasnost — openness and disclosure. Having said all that, in private enterprise there remains a compelling need for protection of business and trade secrets. Within inner government circles, there is a national interest in maintaining controlled, near-black-box secrecy. No coach announces the team’s strategy for the next play to the audience in the bleachers. No general blabs the insertion point of the invasion before D Day. Where national security’s concerned, the need for secrecy may necessarily override a generalized desire for openness. While we must never forget the great historical dangers of lack of government accountability and civilian oversight, no nation can conduct vital affairs of state in the press.

ACCOUNTABILITY

In the case of US national security, ultimate responsibility for safeguarding governmental and diplomatic communications lies with the government, not with Sarah Palin or Wikileaks. We expect our government to hold itself accountable, clean up its act, and explain to us and the world what has been done to ensure this cannot happen again.

CONCLUSIONS

For my money, the Wikileaks flap is overblown. It’s attracting international media attention for all the wrong reasons. As for apologies, well, Hillary Clinton is paid to worry about national damage control, while at the same time learning what they are saying about us.

What is NOT overblown is (to me) the much more interesting and unexamined question of incredibly lax US security in a highly sensitive area where communications security really counts.

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