12/5/2010: Update at the end of the post
12/5/2010: Update 2 at the end of the post
A number of you have asked my opinion regarding the whole Wikileaks thing.
OK, here it is: Very Interesting.
Thanks for coming and drive safely.
You’re still here, huh?
I can’t say that surprises me, somehow I didn’t think you’d buy that answer.
But it’s true, I think the situation is very interesting.
However, the reason I find it interesting is not for any of the reasons I’ve seen discussed in the press.
As a number of you know, I spent most of my life in the government secrets business. I’ve had a high level security clearance for longer than I haven’t and though I don’t work in that field anymore, for which I am eternally grateful, I do know a bit about secrets.
And I find this situation very interesting.
For those of you who’ve been living under a barrel these last few days, I am, of course, talking about the huge dump of secret US diplomatic information posted into the public domain by the Whistleblower site, WikiLeaks (I’d post a link, but it wouldn’t be valid for more than a couple of minutes). Most of the information released is in the form of thousands upon thousands of electronic copies of diplomatic cables.
As a retired military intelligence officer, and as I’ve stated elsewhere, I don’t have much use for people who can’t live up to their oath. I talk about a lot of things here on Stonekettle Station, but I never discuss the information I swore to protect and I never will. It does not matter whether or not I agree with the reason why it was classified, it does not matter whether or not I think that the information should be in the public domain, and it doesn’t matter if I think the information is over-classified or outdated and no longer worth anything other than a couple of good sea stories. I swore to protect that information until told otherwise by legitimate authority. Either your word is good or it isn’t, there is no middle ground – it really is just that simple. If you feel that you can’t keep your organization’s secrets, especially when keeping those secrets is a condition to being given access to that information in the first place, then you shouldn’t have taken the oath. Period. There really are certain forms of information that need to be protected. There really is information that the public does not need to know, and in fact has no business knowing. There really are reasons to keep certain things classified.
Yes, yes, I see you there in the back.
The libertarians are standing on their chairs screaming BULLSHIT! at the top of their lungs. I know, I’ve met these people in person. I’ve had them scream at me. They believe that government should never, ever, keep secrets of any kind. It is their firm idealistic opinion that the public has a right to know everything. To which I answer, OK, you pony up your Social Security number, Bank Account number and PIN, and the contents of your internet browser history file and we’ll start with that. That’s usually when the screaming starts. Just as there are legitimate reasons for an individual to keep secrets, there are legitimate reasons for governments to keeps secrets, both from their citizens and from each other. If you don’t think so, you’re not living in the real world.
Ours is not a true democracy, our nation is a republic. We elect and hire those we hope will be the best stewards of our national interest, we bind them with laws and oaths and we entrust them with the authority to determine what we as citizens should know and what we shouldn’t. Certainly there are those who are more worthy of this responsibility than others. But, despite the clichéd image of the shiftless government worker or the boneheaded military jarhead, the vast majority are dedicated public servants who hold their oath as a sacred trust. Just as certainly, some, a minority, do not. And just as certainly the ancient adage of power corrupting and absolutely power corrupting absolutely is true – there are those entrusted with our government’s secrets who are corrupted by the power, who become patronizing assholes who revel in their secret knowledge or who become so enmeshed in that classified world that they cannot break free.
Government secrets have a tendency of becoming self perpetuating and self generating, spawning more and more secrets without purpose. I do know, probably better than anybody else reading this post, that governments have a bad habit of keeping secret things that really should be in the public domain. It is the nature of governments and their various organs to keep secrets. On and off over the years I worked at the National Security Agency, I was certain that they would have classified the lunch menu in the commissary if they could have gotten away with it, firmly convinced that the availability of tuna salad was of vital National Security interest. There is absolutely no doubt that governments classify things that don’t need to be classified for any conceivable reason. There is absolutely no doubt that governments over-classify things if left unchecked. Creating secrets becomes habit until those who are in the secrets business end up keeping secrets from each other – which is why the CIA and FBI and NSA don’t play well with others, let alone each other.
If I was free to talk, I could give you endless examples of information that was so over-classified, often to utterly ridiculous levels, that it couldn’t even be used – making its collection, processing, and security an apparently pointless waste of government assets and money.
But here’s the thing, it was not my call to declassify that information. Period.
Those determinations are made far, far up the chain of command. If I thought that information should be declassified, or downgraded in classification, there was a process for bringing it to the attention of the proper authority. And it works, there were numerous times in my career where I or others like me brought information to the chain of command via the proper procedure and saw it downgraded or declassified. But, there often are reasons to keep information secure that we, as individuals down in the trenches, are unaware of. A seemly innocuous piece of information, combined with others, can destroy billions of dollars in capability (military, industrial, financial, and so on), compromise missions, ruin negotiations, ruin pending legal cases, impact treaties, give a contractor an unfair advantage, influence the stock market or elections or trade or any number of other things. Release of information can literally kill people, ours, theirs, innocent bystanders – this is not hyperbole, but indisputable fact. Read up on the Robert Hansen case if you don’t believe me. I shouldn’t have to spell out what would happen if the name of a confidential Mafia informant was inadvertently released for example. If he wasn’t killed outright, it would cost the tax payers millions to protect him. It could destroy the State’s case against a mob kingpin. It could, and has, compromised the public safety.
There are systems in place to prevent runaway over-classification. There are periodic reviews. Classification Authorities (those with the actual power to classify information, and there are very few) must answer to the President and are subject to oversight by Congress. The system is not perfect, it can’t be, but it tends to be self-correcting, if a bit slow and conservative. The media and public are part of that process, periodic requests for information from both often drive and accelerate that review process and provide a form of persistent error correction that is both vital to the public interest and as a check on governmental power. Restricting the press will not make you more secure, it will make you less. The Founding Fathers were well aware of this, which is precisely why freedom of the press was specifically spelled out in the First Amendment – no other private business enterprise was, just the press. It’s that important.
There are times – few and far between – where the system does not work. There are times where there is no alternative, no right course of action, where due to the nature of the situation it might be necessary, perhaps even honorable, to break you oath, to get the word out and let the public know what their government is up to and let the chips fall where they may. Watergate comes to mind, where a President used the power of the Executive to manipulate the electorate, there was no higher authority to appeal to except the American people. But that is a damned rare situation. In almost every single case, the unauthorized release of classified information is because some faithless greedy self-aggrandizing coward betrayed their oath – the case that first brought Wikileaks into the public awareness, Army Specialist Bradley Manning, is a perfect example.
Now, with all that said, I find the current WikiLeaks situation interesting on a number of levels:
- Despite the fact that this release of information is an astonishingly enormous and unprecedented security breach that directly and negatively affects dozens of nations, there is little mention from either our leaders or anybody else’s about the source of the information. Julian Assange didn’t break into the State Department like some character in a Tom Cruise movie, so how did he get his hands on a quarter of a million classified US diplomatic cables? It could only have been an inside job. Oddly, the White House has not stood before the American people and sworn to bring the traitor to justice, not really. The president hasn’t definitively promised the US people that he’ll unleash the FBI and the NSA and the CIA and find the bastard. I find it odd that President Obama has not aggressively addressed this issue. I find it odd that the press hasn’t called him on it. I find it even more odd that his political enemies haven’t called him on it, not really – I find that very odd indeed.
- Yesterday, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made vague and disjointed statements about finding the source of the leak, but spoke mostly about the damage from the information release being limited – a very odd position for a woman known for her powerful and definitive statements, but even more peculiar when you consider that the leak must have originated from within her own organization. The bulk of the information is classified State Department diplomatic cables. More than that, they are diplomatic cables dealing with many, many countries. A low level flunky would have only had access to his or her area of specialty, i.e. a particular diplomatic area of responsibility, access is limited to “need to know.” Whoever released this information had full access. And not only full access, but access in such a manner that it allowed him or her the privacy to copy those files from a secure network onto a portable storage device and get that storage device through security with a reasonable degree of confidence that they wouldn’t be caught. It means a secure private office. It means that they were confident that their computer transactions weren’t being monitored – and obviously were not or they would have been caught by now. It means that they had working USB ports on a classified computer in a controlled space. It means they aren’t the type of people who get searched upon exiting the building. It means that whoever did this is somebody high up in the State Department. I find it very odd that Clinton hasn’t sworn a blood oath to hunt down the source of the leak – based on the likely level of the leak, it’s probably somebody she knows personally. And then, just to make the situation more peculiar, Clinton announced that she will retire from public service and will not seek another office following her stint as Secretary of State – though it’s possible, maybe even likely, that this is only a coincidence, I find that the timing of that announcement very odd indeed.
- Congress has not availed themselves of the opportunity to grandstand. Oh, they’ve made some vague statements and waved their arms around a lot, they’ve spoken about the damage (or not) this release of information has caused, they’ve bloviated at length about WikiLeaks itself – but none have out and out sworn to seek out and destroy the source the leak. Neither Senators Lieberman or McCain have taken the opportunity to beat their chests in a manly fashion and make noises about a Congressional Investigation – which given the current political climate is extremely peculiar, because Lieberman and McCain convene an investigation if somebody leaves the toilet seat up in the Congressional shitter. Sure, the usual cast of characters have condemned the White House for the situation, but they’re not using it to make the kind of political hay you’d expect given their recent track record. Why is that?
I’m no conspiracy nut. But if I was, I’d have to wonder if this wasn’t done on purpose.
Well, that would depend on who released the information.
If it was done by the White House, it effectively eliminated Hillary Clinton as a rival for the Democratic nomination in 2012. Conservative hatred of Barrack Obama is so strong that a number of prominent Republicans have said they’d vote for Hillary Clinton in 2012 if the Democrats nominated her. A number of Democrats have expressed similar sentiments. That’s one hell of a bargaining chip and very real political threat. Politics at that level are brutal and cutthroat and utterly ruthless. The Bush administration sacrificed a national hero for no less – and as a result Colin Powell will never, ever hold public office again let alone be President. President Clinton did the same thing, so did Reagan, and so did a lot of administrations all the way back to George Washington. It is the nature of politics, it is how the game is played. Hell, it might have been done with Hillary Clinton’s willing participation – and that too is how the game is played. Time will tell, the proof will be whether or not she is cashiered the same way Powell was, or whether she is rewarded by the Democratic party and the White House somewhere down the road.
On the other hand, what if somebody in Congress set this ball in motion? Prominent and powerful Republican members of Congress have sworn to bring the President down by any means necessary. They see it as their patriotic duty. They see it as saving the country from socialism, or communism, or fascism, or liberalism, or all of the above. If informants and spies and diplomats are sacrificed along the way, so be it. Republican leadership has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice the pawns in order to place their opponents in check and there’s no reason to suppose they’d show restraint here. The same folks, Rove et al, are still pulling the same strings they did when they threw Valerie Plame under the bus. Would they do it to take both Obama and Clinton out of the 2012 equation? Would they risk prison? See, the President is the ultimate declassification authority, he could authorize the release of these documents by executive order, retroactively if necessary, but for a member of Congress or the GOP Leadership to do so would be treason. In time of war. We used to hang people for that. Would they take that risk? And if they were behind it, why then haven’t they been making more of it?
Would the White House orchestrate something like this? Would the Administration’s enemies? Even to speculate out loud makes me sound like those goofs who think George W. Bush blew up the World Trade Center with a nuclear bomb or those loons who think FDR let the Japanese attack the fleet at Pearl Harbor. But here’s the thing, the release of this information has not harmed the United States – In point of fact, just the opposite is true and that is very, very peculiar indeed.
What does this information actually show?
First: This release of information shows what we all suspected, Iran is a threat and everybody knows it, including the rest of the Muslim Middle East. Following the disastrous intelligence failure that led to the Iraqi invasion, it was impossible to get international public consensus regarding Iran, especially among Arab States. Islamic governments simply could not be seen, in front of Muslims, to agree with the United States and worse yet, Israel. In public. Privately, of course, they are as concerned about the those crazy bastards as we are. Privately they stand with Israel. Hell, Egypt just offered, and Israel accepted, firefighting assistance to battle the blaze threatening Haifa. This is unprecedented. Imagine how damned frustrating that must be for the diplomats, for the White House, for Congress, for our allies – hell, for the Arab leaders who really, really want us to knock the Ayatollahs on their pointy asses but can’t say so out loud because we screwed up Iraq so damned badly.
It’s out in the open now.
Iran damned well knows, now, that even their neighbors and fellow Muslims are arrayed against them.
The Muslim world knows that it is in their best interest to stand with Israel, at least on the question of Iran, and secretly they’ve been saying so all along.
That is an extremely powerful diplomatic lever, if placed upon the correct fulcrum.
It makes me wonder if perhaps it was Clinton who pulled the strings on this information dump after all. She is an exceptionally shrewd and intelligent individual who has labored largely in the background these last two years. If true, it’s a masterful implementation of information warfare and potentially a diplomatic coup of the first magnitude. The way we’ll know, depends on what the White House and State Department do with the opportunity in the next two years. But, it would also fit the agenda of the warhawks on the Right, especially those pushing for war with Iran. Again time will tell. Watch and see, if after the new Congress is seated, there are calls for military intervention in Iran you’ll know where this leak came from. However, no matter the source or intention, both sides could use this opportunity to definitely pull Iran’s fangs for a long, long time – but they’ll have to work together. Frankly, I’m not holding my breath.
Second: This release shows that our intelligence is correct. So far, the released documents directly support what our diplomats have been telling us. The leaked cables go a long, long way towards restoring credibility in the US State Department and its assessment of the world situation – something sorely lacking since the intelligence and diplomatic failures that led to 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. Americans have been gradually losing faith in their government’s intelligence assessment since the Bay of Pigs. Now, it is unlikely that this release will do much to restore the American public’s faith in their government – hating the government while professing to love the country has become quite fashionable of late, especially on the right – but it will go a long way towards restoring both our allies’ confidence in our assessment of the world political situation and that of our adversaries, such as Russia and China and maybe even Iran itself. Not publically, mind you, but privately, within the circles of power where it counts most.
But then again, if the information coming to light doesn’t exactly restore Joe America’s faith in his Uncle Sam, it does speak directly to his bias. It’s odd, isn’t it? That the leaked diplomatic cables show the world exactly as most Americans perceive it to be? The French leaders are weak and cowardly and queer. The English are stiff and old fashioned. The Russians are comic book characters. The Chinese are cunning and inscrutable. The Iranians are evil and unpredictable and dangerous. The North Koreans are insane. Not surprising, this is what our leaders have been telling us for years, but damned peculiar that the cables, so far, show that and only that, i.e. the cables show that our government has been telling us the truth and other governments have been lying to their people (especially when it comes to Iran). This, of course, could be deliberate depending on the nature of the leak, or it could be an artifact of perception on the part of the diplomats writing the cables, it could an artifact of selective release of information by WikiLeaks, or it could be an honest and accurate assessment of the situation in question. History will tell us eventually.
Third: This release shows just how damned hard it is to suppress information once it reaches the public domain. One man, a handful hackers, and a website have become ghosts in the machine. The information moves from server to server, distributed across the network, independent of borders and politics and power. The most powerful nations in the world cannot shut it down, not for long anyway. Kill WikiLeaks and it pops up somewhere else, under a different name, on a different server. Nuke it from orbit, and from the smoking wreckage a hundred Phoenixes will rise. The information is out there now, it will be free.
Shutting down WikiLeaks is an exercise in futility. Anybody who knows even the minimum about the Internet understands that. WikiLeaks was only a convenient portal, a million more exist or will exist at any given moment. Killing Napster didn’t eradicate music downloads, hell, it very likely stimulated the development of distributed file sharing. Napster itself has gone the way of Altavista, but the change in information flow and distribution it started is alive and well and growing at an exponential rate. Information cannot be suppressed, it can be hounded, it can be hunted, it can be forbidden and made illegal, but it will be free.
With that said, if I wanted to see how my countermeasures worked in the real world, if I wanted to see how my adversaries’ countermeasures worked, this is one hell of a target of opportunity. And just so you understand what I’m saying here, this applies to hackers, WikiLeaks, and those who sell information as well as some nefarious plot spawned in the basement of NSA. I would very much like to know who the hackers behind the DDoS attacks on the WikiLeaks servers work for. I would very much like to know who in our government pressured Amazon into dumping WikiLeaks from their servers and by what authority that was done. If I were truly a conspiracy nut, I would have to wonder if those who really created and operate WikiLeaks didn’t do this deliberately in order to draw those countermeasures out into the open, sacrificing a throwaway site and the patsy Julian Assange – before they set up their real operation. Who is “they?” Beats me, if I was a real conspiracy nut, I’d say it was the Jews or the Masons or Illuminati or the Bilderbergs or space aliens terminators from the future.
Or maybe it was organized by Tom Clancy, this would make a hell of a plot line for a spy novel.
I’ve postulated a number of things here in this post, none of which are more than wild speculation without a shred of proof.
It’s fun to think about it, fun to think like a conspiracy nut, but likely this release of information was simply the result of a cowardly, disgruntled, self-aggrandizing lone-gunman. Frankly, I seriously doubt my government is organized enough to pull off some grand conspiracy.
But, as I said, the situation is interesting.
Question: Didn’t the leak originate with US Army Spc Bradley Manning?
Answer: Unlikely. Manning was a low level army technician (detailed here). He released video from Army Apache attack helicopters, the type of thing he would have access to as a low level analyst in theater.
Question: Yeah but he had a security clearance and access to SIPRNET
Answer: There’s a big difference between security clearance and access. Clearance determines a basic level of trust. Access to information is granted on a “need to know basis.” For example, just because you have a Top Secret Special Compartmented Intelligence clearance which is required for your job analyzing, say, Chinese nuclear submarine capability, you don’t automatically get access to classified CIA Predator drone video of Taliban on the Pakistan border. Both pieces of information are classified to the same level, but your job doesn’t require you to have access to the Taliban stuff. Same here, SIPRNET is for the most part identical to the Internet, but the two are not connected. SIPRNET contains Secret level information. Like the internet, much of the data there is accessible to all, but much of it is also controlled behind password/CAC card (an electronic security ID used by military and government workers) access – just like the internet. There is a SIPRNET State Department front end that anybody on the net can access, but behind that is a CAC controlled firewall/gateway that grants access to State Department SIPRNET Intranet. You don’t have the right access, you don’t get access.
Question: Yeah, but Manning tried to give 260,000 classified documents to Wikileaks. This leak is about 260,000 documents. Coincidence?
Answer: Yes. Manning attempted to pass 260K docs to WikiLeaks editor Adrian Lamo. Lamo supposedly refused and turned Manning into the FBI. Supposedly the documents were never transferred.
Question: Yeah, but the document count is the same.
Answer: Yeah, that’s roughly how many averaged sized PDF files fit on an 8GB thumb drive.
I’m not saying it’s impossible, but based on the information available (which is assuredly of questionable veracity) , this leak and Manning are likely unrelated.
12/5/20 Update 2:
I have been corrected. Apparently the leaked information was widely available on SIPRNET and not protected behind a firewall. Which means Pfc Manning would have had access to it.
The popular press is attributing Manning as the source of the documents. Certainly possible, though that directly refutes Adrian Lamo’s story and makes him a repeat offender, hacking and stolen information wise. The question is, why are we hunting Julian Assange instead of Adrian Lamo? (that’s a rhetorical question, don’t bother to answer).
Manning may be nothing more than a convenient scapegoat. Or not.
But, as I said in the comments, here’s the real question: If indeed, Manning is the source of the documents, what then was his point?
He supposedly released gun camera video purporting to show the US engaged in war crimes. This is basically his entirely defense, I saw evidence of war crimes, I could not report them to my superiors because they were part of the criminal activity, I didn’t know what else to do, I couldn’t live with it, so I gave it to the public domain. The recently released cables absolutely do not support Manning’s defense. Just the opposite. The released cables directly refute Manning’s supposed justification. So again, what was his point?
Now, Manning doesn’t appear to be particularly bright, so this may simply be a case of abject stupidity, hoist on his own petard so to speak. But on the face of it, you’d expect more gun camera video, or the type of information he was tasked with reviewing – not boring old diplomatic cables.
Of course, we haven’t seen all the information yet. Could be the stuff I’m talking about is there.
Bottom line: Release of this particular information makes little sense from the standpoint of a disgruntled individual. It makes a lot of sense if it’s coming from the government itself. On the other hand, there is no hard and fast rule (or even a soft and squishy one) that says it does have to make sense from Manning’s standpoint. He could just be an idiot.