At first, I thought that WikiLeaks was just another trendy, European socialist organization being fashionable and publicly trashing the US. Now, in looking closely at the volume and type of classified information disclosed, it is clear to me that the leaks are more than mere embarrassment for the US: WikiLeaks, under the leadership of Julian Assange, is substantially damaging the US and its interests in a deliberate and systematic way. Some call WikiLeaks journalism, others call it an enemy combatant, while those running the site call it a whistleblower. It is none of these things, but what matters most is that the US must recognize the new type of threat it represents and how to address it in the future. By disclosing vital national security documents, diplomatic communications and threatening the same against a leading bank, WikiLeaks is actively assisting America’s enemies and taking direct aim at degrading all four instruments of US national power.
The Nature of the Threat
The definition of espionage is “The use of spies by a government to discover the military and political secrets of other nations.” If we take out the word “government”, WikiLeaks would meet the definition of espionage, because it uses spies to obtain information illegally. In the real world, spies are not James Bond types. They are actual citizens who occupy legitimate positions within that nation’s government. In these positions, public servants become spies when they are subverted, persuaded or extorted into giving information to a foreign power. PFC Bradley Manning appears to be such an individual, except the information he stole was sent to our adversaries through WikiLeaks rather than directly to a foreign government.
One difference between WikiLeaks and espionage operations is one of method: A spy sends his ill-gotten information to its end recipient in an adversarial government or non-state actor by way of discreet means. WikiLeaks transmits stolen information to US adversaries by way of public media. By making stolen information public, Julian Assange attempts to distance himself from the espionage label by portraying himself as a crusading hero who exposes what he calls, “Government, acting illegally or immorally.” However, since the millions of classified US documents released to the public do not indicate any policies, procedures or actions that are illegal or immoral, the whistleblower label is not appropriate either.
Journalism is the occupation of reporting, writing, editing or broadcasting news. WikiLeaks does not reporting anything, least of all news. It merely makes public official US correspondence. Therefore it is not a news organization and Assange is not a journalist. WikiLeaks treads a fine line between journalism and espionage, but it essentially acts as an intermediary between adversarial state and non-state actors and disgruntled or disaffected American Public Servants.
The damage done
As a nation, the US possesses four primary modalities to sustain and defend itself and its allies, and advance its national interests. They are commonly called the four instruments of national power. They include:
- Diplomatic Power
- Military Power
- Economic power
- Information (which includes intelligence as well as public affairs).
WikiLeaks has systematically targeted these four instruments through selective disclosure of classified government documents that specifically degrade or damage each one. The first release of classified documents in October was intended to degrade US Military and Intelligence operations in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that the leaked documents did not harm the defense department. Although Gates is essentially correct, there is most definitely dangerous fall-out from the leaks: When US spies, informers, and intelligence assets are murdered because their cooperation has been exposed, it does not actually harm the US, but it does prevent the US from finding and killing terrorists sworn to its destruction.
In addition to our spies dying or fleeing for their lives, the disclosure of classified documents has adversely impacted US tactical operations in the field. Military operations are driven by intelligence. The clearer the picture a commander has of what the enemy is going to do, the better his ability to plan how to defeat them. Simply put, when sources of intelligence are killed due to leaked information, it is harder to conduct combat operations. When WikiLeaks exposed documents that identified by name the Afghans who were helping the US against the Taliban, many were murdered in most barbaric ways. When good people die for cooperating with the US, word gets out. People think, “… The US does not protect their information, or by extension, their informants. If you cooperate with them, your identity will be exposed and you will be killed in a most painful way.”
The October leak further degraded US tactical operations in Afghanistan by exposing documents which described how US combat techniques and procedures are conducted in the field. Just as American forces use intelligence to plan operations, the enemy uses tactical information such as this to plan their operations against NATO and the US.
With the second posting of thousands of secret government documents, WikiLeaks took aim at the US Diplomatic Community. Diplomatic relationships require free communications and trust. WikiLeaks undermines both. When a foreign government enters into confidential talks with the US, that government presumes communications will be held in confidence. But when the substance of those talks is made public because of Julian Assange’s grudge against the US, their allies will be less likely to speak candidly with them in the future for fear of those comments being made public.
Julian Assange recently promised his next disclosure will target one of America’s largest banks. Depending on the nature of the documents to be released, if the public were to lose confidence in our largest bank, or the American financial system in general, it could trigger another economic meltdown reminiscent of 2008.
Through his first two disclosures and the threat of a third leak, Assange has directly targeted all four instruments of American National Power. Apart from the hypocrisy of one who has so righteously vowed to shine the light of truth on government immorality by trafficking in stolen merchandise, it is clear that Assange means to harm the United States of America while hiding behind the mantra of free speech, of which the US is the most fervent defender. He must be stopped and the US must protect its sensitive information in the event that others attempt to emulate WikiLeaks in the future.
The primary task for the US at this point will be to convince its allies that their involvement in military, intelligence and diplomatic operations will, without a doubt, be confidential. The single most important action the US could take in this respect would be to immediately institute comprehensive and rock-solid systems changes designed to safeguard sensitive material.
A good first step would be to simply enforce the law by swiftly, severely and publicly punishing those who have stolen classified US material and given it to WikiLeaks, such as PFC Bradley Manning. This would send a very powerful message to anyone considering similar ventures in the future. Next, the US should better control access to sensitive information by imposing stricter approval standards on those seeking to view classified material.
In addition to controlling who views classified information, downloads of sensitive material should also be more strictly controlled. Tracking data transfers would help catch a perpetrator but would do nothing to prevent misuse of information. Downloads of sensitive material must require higher levels of authorization beforehand. Junior soldiers such as PFC Manning should not even be able to look at the volumes of data he did, much less be able to walk out with it.
Dealing with Julian Assange is more complicated. In the private sector, if an individual were to disclose proprietary information or intellectual property, he would be held liable for countless damages and subject to a lifetime of litigation, fines, penalties and financial ruin. But when dealing with official government documents, the laws against theft are clear, but legal opinions are divided regarding laws against distribution.
18 U.S.C. 793(e) states that “Whoever having unauthorized possession of, access to, or control over any document, writing, code, book (etc) relating to the national defense, which the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the US or to the advantage to any other nation, willfully communicates the same to any person not entitled to receive it, or willfully retains the same (etc)… shall be fined or imprisoned not more than ten years or both.”
18 U.S.C. 641 states that “Whoever receives or retains a thing of value to the US, knowing it to have been embezzled, stolen, purloined or converted (etc)…” is also guilty of a felony.
Despite the language in these two laws, many legal analysts say that there is no law against distributing classified information that has been obtained by another party. If these two laws are not clear enough, the US should either modify existing laws or write new ones that would specifically protect its information from cyber-predators seeking to harm the country and its citizens. This is time-consuming, so the US must immediately use its diplomatic muscle to encourage its allies to do as Switzerland has done and exploit obscure laws and technicalities to degrade WikiLeaks’ ability to function. So far, several of Assange’s assets have been frozen, his PayPal account has been disabled and several of his servers and domains have been shut down.
By disclosing vital national security documents, diplomatic communications and threats of the same against a leading bank, WikiLeaks is actively assisting America’s enemies and taking direct aim at degrading all four instruments of US national power. It is baffling to me that in 2003, the American left was livid at the disclosure of Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA employee (even though she was not under cover, not operational, and not even deployed), yet they remain silent when people are murdered and enemies of the US are given both tactical and strategic advantages by a gang of anti-American thieves and hackers exposing official correspondences. This is a new and serious type of threat against US National Security and must must be dealt with swiftly and decisively. If the US does not implement better network security measures and information safeguards, it will find itself in a three-front war: The Afghanistan, Iraq and Cyber theatre of operations.
De Oppresso Liber