The website WikiLeaks made headlines again this Sunday when it released a new set of U.S. government classified documents. This new installment of controversial publications from WikiLeaks, following the July and October disclosures, sheds unparalleled light on the behind-the-scenes diplomacy that has increasingly dominated American foreign policy over the past several years. These documents have given the American public a detailed look at the way policies are conducted abroad, including candid assessments of terrorist threats and foreign leaders.
The cables contain specific information on the potential collapse of North Korea, negotiations with foreign powers to resettle inmates from Guantanamo, a report from a Chinese source that the Politburo in Beijing was responsible for hacking Google in a complex computer sabotage campaign and a shadowy alliance between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. But many of these documents could also compromise American intelligence operations and significantly endanger those identified as foreign informants.
It is impossible to deny that public knowledge of American diplomatic and military efforts improves government accountability to its citizens. Previous WikiLeaks releases of official documents describing American operations in Afghanistan have provided citizens an inside look at the direction of the war overseas, which in the long run will improve political transparency and accountability. This most recent release of documents should provide similar benefits to the public.
Unfortunately, these improvements have also led to considerable security risks. For the release of every classified document providing Americans with an uncensored look at foreign policy developments, a foreign informant – essentially a spy for American intelligence officers – is put in danger. Covers are blown, intelligence networks are dismantled and American case officers are forced to go back to square one in their efforts to provide diplomats and military officers with the information necessary to protect American citizens at home and abroad.
uch of the classified information the U.S. government keeps from public eyes is unnecessarily kept secret. “Operational security” is a very broadly defined term according to the Pentagon, CIA and other government agencies. Some pieces of intelligence should be kept inviolate, however, including the names of American sources and their handlers. Blowing the cover of just one important informant can lead to untold operational costs.
One diplomatic cable included in the recent WikiLeaks release, for example, quotes Saudi King Abdullah making “scathing remarks” (according to The New York Times) about the leaders of Iraq and Pakistan. One specifically calls Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan, the greatest obstacle to progress in his country.
By publishing comments like this, WikiLeaks seriously undermines American diplomatic efforts. Credibility collapses when secret discussions are made public, regardless of whether the records are released by a high-ranking officer or a bottom-rung enlisted soldier. The most recent set of documents was reportedly downloaded from military computers and submitted to WikiLeaks by Pfc. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst. Why, then, would King Abdullah continue to trust American diplomats? And how will Saudi-Iraqi or Saudi-Pakistani relations change following the release of King Abdullah’s remarks?
But these are only minor questions. The potential ramifications of the documents regarding Chinese attacks on Google servers and American and South Korean plans for invading North Korea after Pyongyang’s hypothetical collapse being made public are far more significant. These releases show all foreign powers, both friendly and hostile, that the United States is actively building contingency plans for dozens of potential security threats. In a period of heightened tensions in East Asia, particularly with North Korea following its recent rocket attacks on the South, these documents could counteract efforts to diplomatically resolve disputes in the region.
In a globalized world, it is no longer possible to release documents to just one group of people. If it were, the work WikiLeaks has done to increase transparency in Washington would be purely beneficial, perhaps even necessary, in supporting democracy and promoting liberty. However, information published on the Internet is available for anyone to access. This completely changes the dynamics of WikiLeaks to something akin to modern espionage, in effect no different from sending classified documents to America’s enemies. Put in this light, those behind the recent WikiLeaks, from the site owners to Manning, have committed treason.
This is what’s wrong with WikiLeaks – not the site’s attempts to promote transparency, but the detrimental ramifications these efforts can and almost certainly will have on American diplomatic endeavors. Lives are at stake, both military and civilian, foreign and domestic, all because top secret documents have been leaked on the Internet. While I’m not advocating mass treason and espionage convictions, the release of these documents is not something to take lightly.
Andrew Mullikin is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at mullikinthehoya.com. BEHIND THE WIRE appears every other Tuesday.
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