So, the cat is finally out of the bag. Whistle blower platform WikiLeaks started the release of confidential and secret diplomatic cables from US Embassies all around the world to the State Department on cablegate.wikileaks.org (Update 2010/12/14: mirror). As I’m writing this, 598 cables out of 251,287 are available online with more to come every day.
What are Embassy Cables?
Simply put, every ambassador routinely sends reports of the country he’s being accredited to to his ministry of foreign affairs (MFA. In the US: to the State Department). Such reports are almost always confidential or even secret in some cases, because they contain sensitive information not designed to be made public, or whose publication could in the worst case even spark a war between countries.
There’s nothing wrong with Embassy Cables per se. It is every ambassador’s job to talk to the ruling and influential elites and to report back what he or she talked about. That’s not only tolerated, it is expected by the host country, and the raison d’être of diplomacy and diplomatic missions since the dawn of diplomacy… everywhere in the world.
Why are WikiLeaks’ cables important?
Short of having access to the whole batch of US Embassy Cables, it is very difficult to assess the importance of the current WikiLeaks release. Right now, there are not enough raw data yet to come to a conclusion.
The released cables contain among others a lot of trivia about politicians, trivia that can easily be gathered from the local and international press and from gossip on the street. As such, diplomats merely act as an additional news agency. They may have access to “spies” (i.e. highly talkative informants within government and opposition circles), but the amount of data they gather is only insignificantly more interesting that what the general public already knows…
… at least in open democracies. In highly repressive regimes, HumInt sources are a lot more valuable, and not easily replaced when they are “burned.”
Another class of cables is a lot more important, and their leaking can have far reaching, overwhelmingly dire consequences. For example, what has already been suspected by the general public, and being an open secret in diplomatic circles for a long time suddenly became very official: Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States’ officials have pressured again and again the US to target and destroy the nuclear weapons program of Iran, as the following excerpt from a secret cable of the US Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, shows:
The Need to Resist Iran
10. (S) The King, Foreign Minister, Prince Muqrin, and Prince Nayif
all agreed that the Kingdom needs to cooperate with the US on
resisting and rolling back Iranian influence and subversion in Iraq.
The King was particularly adamant on this point, and it was echoed by
the senior princes as well. Al-Jubeir recalled the King’s frequent
exhortations to the US to attack Iran and so put an end to its nuclear
weapons program. “He told you to cut off the head of the
snake,” he recalled to the Charge’, adding that working with the
US to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq is a strategic priority for
the King and his government.
11. (S) The Foreign Minister, on the other hand, called instead for
much more severe US and international sanctions on Iran, including a
travel ban and further restrictions on bank lending. Prince Muqrin
echoed these views, emphasizing that some sanctions could be
implemented without UN approval.
The Foreign Minister also stated that the use of military pressure
against Iran should not be ruled out.
(Emphasis mine. Source: US Embassy Riyadh, Saudi King Abdullah and Senior Princes on Saudi Policy Toward Iraq. 2008-04-20 08:08. Secret. To be declassified in 10 years.)
The leak of such a cable is deemed particularly embarrassing to the US government for its lack of decisiveness versus Iran’s nukes program despite repeated calls by concerned neighbors who know their aggressive neighbor’s regime a lot better than the US which has no diplomatic mission there. Even more embarrassing it is for the Arab Gulf governments who obviously talk with a split tongue — a public tongue to appease their increasingly anti-western and increasingly Islamist populace by being all smiles and hugs with Ahmadinejad on TV, and a private tongue to US (and probably other western) diplomats by telling them what they really feel about the Iranian menace next door.
Obviously, releasing cables of this particularly sensitive nature is greatly harming the ability of US diplomats (and of diplomats in general, as such leaks could also happen in other countries’ MFA as well!), because who would want to speak candidly and openly to them, if such secret talks were suddenly being leaked to the public?
How could this happen?
In 1991, the DoD established the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (short: SIPRNet), a secured and isolated intranet on top of TCP/IP, between itself and the State Department. Think of this as a government internet that is isolated from the public Internet.
SIPRNet was meant to act as an inter-agency communications network, which could also be used to transmit documents classified up to SECRET (but not higher) between the DoD and State Dept.
Diplomats who wanted to transmit data to the DoD could do so, by tagging their message as SIPDIS (short for: SIPrnet DIStribution). Other, more sensitive documents would be send through other channels exclusively to the State Department. Anyway, SIPDIS tagged cables would then be stored in a shared database that could be accessed by everyone on the SIPRNet network, i.e. by all those within the State Department and the DoD with the requested security clearance.
After 9/11, SIPRNet grew considerably, because then President George W. Bush issued a directive to “tear down the wall between the branches of the Federal Government” in order to facilitate the analysis of slivers of information in the hope to preempt future terrorist attacks. After all, so the not unreasonable thinking back then, the Hamburg Cell could have been arrested before it committed its murderous attacks if only the FBI, NSA, CIA, State, DoD, etc. had the same view of the data that various branches gathered and collected routinely. So the idea of an all-encompassing and inclusive shared Government database wasn’t so bad, back then.
As a result of this directive, the number of Government employees with access to SIPRNet and the necessary clearance to access the secret State Department database soared. But a secret shared by too many people is soon public knowledge, as we all know. It was just a matter of time before a disgruntled whistle blower in the Government would exfiltrate such easily accessible data, and leak it to the public.
And so it inevitably happened that a certain Bradley E. Manning, Pfc and intelligence analyst in the US Army was arrested in May 2010 for leaking military and diplomatic secrets. It is suspected that he was the leak of the Diplomatic Cables.
The old fashioned need to know principle for protecting secret documents is more important today that the world has become a global village with instant communications than ever before. Even as an intelligence analyst, a young Private First Class of the US Army has no need to know most secret cables between a US Embassy and the State Department. It’s as simple as it gets, and the G. W. Bush directive to expand SIPRNet access to literally hundreds of thousands of people was a big mistake, not just in retrospect. I’m pretty sure that the US Government is already reacting accordingly by re-restricting access to its most important secrets.
A lot of talk has been devoted to the role of WikiLeaks, and of their founder Julian Assange. That’s totally beside the point, IMO. If it had not been for WikiLeaks, the documents would have leaked anyway. There are millions of upload conduits to the Internet and to the conventional press, and no government in the world could have stopped them all in a timely manner. Once the cat is out of the bag, it is impossible to undo the damage.
Leaks will always happen, and the only way to restrict their impact is by reducing the amount of information that are collected and archived. Data parsimony, where practical, is a much better choice than a mammoth database. Even governments need to remember this, though I doubt they will.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a new spectacular leak included all bank transfers of individuals and corporations all over the world via SWIFT: the EU readily agreed to send all SWIFT data about bank transfers crossing its external borders to the US government for scanning of terrorist funding activity (Update 2010/12/14: TFTP, the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program). Considering the obvious inability of the US government to keep even its own secrets secret, this too is just a matter of time until it becomes public knowledge.
The Cablegate leak reminds me of Asimov’s great short story: The Dead Past. There, the government used all means to stifle research on chronoscopy, a science designed to look into the past by tracking subatomic particles like neutrinos. Yet, despite the lack of published material, a scientist managed to build his own version of the chronoscope so that his mentor, a bereaved historian, could learn what has happened when his child died in a fire accident many years ago, an accident he always thought to have caused.
After the scientist has been arrested by the government for working on forbidden science, one of his relatives published the recipe in defiance, so that everyone could build his own chronoscope.
Instead of being angry with them, an extremely sad senior government official simply let them free, on the grounds that there was no reason anymore to keep them arrested. Asked why, he explained that the Government had already built a chronoscope, but that it quickly realized the great danger it would pose. “Because,” he asked, “when does the Past start? 100 years ago? 10 years ago? Or perhaps 10 minutes ago? What about 1 millisecond ago?”
What did he mean? With a chronoscope tuned to 1 millisecond ago, one could look at virtually everything that just happened in near real-time, be it in public view or behind closed doors (because neutrinos wouldn’t stop at closed doors). It would be the ultimate spying glass. A chronoscope effectively meant the end of privacy, everywhere in the world. By publishing the recipe to build such a machine, the scientist’s relative destroyed the private sphere for everyone in the world.
In other words, not every time the Government wants to keep something secret from the public, it is necessarily with bad intentions. Sometimes, secrets are indeed necessary. A world with no secrets wouldn’t necessarily be a better world, and I doubt that I would like to live in such a Brave New Open World… and still, I’d love to read the rest of the US Diplomatic Cables!
Update 2011/01/07: The current count of released cables is 1999 / 251,287, and up until now, I’m positively surprised by the professionalism and cold, impartial, and factual reporting of the US diplomats. They deserve a big compliment for their outstanding job. Actually, because the damage has already been done, I think that Secretary Hillary Clinton should consider declassifying and releasing the diplomatic cables on the State Department’s public website altogether, to counteract malicious editing (who knows?), and calculated timing by this shady, non-transparent, and non-accountable WikiLeaks team of editors. Go ahead Hillary, get permission from the people being interviewed in the cables, and release the documents officially: that’s the best option right now.