The Leaks

November 29, 2010 at 10:18 pm (By Rodjean)

The Wikileaks story has taken over the headlines.  The private who leaked the cables will no doubt spend many years in jail.  As a condition of his security clearance, he would have had to sign an agreement not t disclose what he released.  Politicians are calling for prosecution of Wikileaks and Julian Assange.  But whose laws did he break and where was he when he broke them?  Prosecution may be more difficult than we think.

Most of what we have seen so far is more embarrassing than strategic.  An ambassador here or there may have said some sharp things about  a foreign leader.  So, how do you vote?  Is Wikileaks a positive force for transparency or an act of treason?


  1. Jason (the commenter) said,

    I’m more concerned about Hillary Clinton. We know she violated international law by ordering foreign diplomats to be spied upon. Just because the information about her crimes was leaked does not mean she should go scott free. Why haven’t warrants been issued for her arrest all over the world, and what sort of deals did she and Obama make to keep her from getting into trouble?

    She should be out of office and on trial, with the expectation that she will be spending time in prison.

  2. chickelit said,

    Breaking international law is one thing but disclosing secrets for the sake of disclosure is another. I work for a large law firm. We don’t break the law, but we do rely on secrecy, as do thousands of ordinary clients. Wikileaks seems premised on the fact that a completely transparent world is a better world.
    I spit on that notion.

  3. chickelit said,

    er, “premised on the notion” not “premised on the fact”

    So I say hound the leakers to the ends of the earth.

  4. Theo Boehm said,

    What people often don’t realize it that international “law” is nothing more than the sum of agreements among nation-states. The rare cases of enforcement are commonly via the laws of the involved countries. Despite serious—and I think very misguided—efforts to make it so, international law bears little resemblance to familiar domestic law, upon which, in most cases, it still essentially depends for its enforcement. I frankly don’t know under what domestic US statutes Mrs. Clinton could be prosecuted, although I’m sure they exist. Quoting them would, no doubt, give great pleasure to some people. Valid treaties are still, in theory, the law of the land, and if the Administration wanted to pursue it, Mrs. Clinton might be in some legal trouble. Administrations do not, however, usually prosecute their own Secretaries of State for suborning diplomatic skulduggery. Nor is Mrs. Clinton likely to be hustled off to the Hague, except in the imaginations of ideological dogmatists.

    Responsible as Mrs. Clinton may have been for treaty violations, frankly, nothing she or our State Dept. has done is outside the norms of diplomatic behavior seen during the 500 years or so of the existence of modern diplomacy. The only surprising thing about, say, spying on UN officials, is the nature of some of the information gathered—biometric and digital—that befits our modern age. Had they our 21st century gizmos, Mazarin, Talleyrand or Metternich would have done no less.

    Actually, looking at the Wikileaks material, I’m impressed at how able, tough, and intelligent our diplomats seem to have been. The image of effete diploweenies is entirely wrong. Also, it’s interesting how well-written some of the dispatches are. That writing expressively and vividly still seems to count for something is the most refreshing thing I think I’ve learned from this.

    Mr. Assange, in his juvenile way, assumes people will be shocked, shocked that American diplomats act in America’s interests, and do so in the familiar ways diplomats have always acted. Certainly the naive will be upset, and ideologues will pretend to be, but, as far as I’m concerned, the Wikileaks revelations make me proud that our Government, in this area at least, seems so capable.

    I am not proud that the Government seems so incapable of keeping secrets. But who knows whether it intended to keep them? One of the main thrusts of these documents is how isolated Iran is, and how much its neighbors hate and fear it. Together with the release of information about the Sutxnet worm, showing, as well, how stupid the Iranians are, I’m wondering if there is not something deeper going on. Psychological warfare, called that or not, is also something diplomats have been doing for a very long time.

  5. Melinda said,

    Those leaks remind me of those “Slam Books” from junior high school. “So-and-so is a stuck-up bitch,” yadda-yadda-yadda.

  6. PatHMV said,

    Jason, you’re going to need to be a LOT more specific about what laws you think the Secretary of State broke in asking our diplomats to try to obtain the fingerprints, frequent flyer numbers, etc. of foreign officials. Is it a crime to take fingerprints off a dinner glass after an embassy party?

  7. Icepick said,

    Treason depends on the who and the what. Julian Assange can’t be guilty of treason against the US as he isn’t a US citizen nor in the country’s service. However, since he seems hell bent on doing what he can to wreck the nation (I see no other way to interpret it) I think it would be well advised if some nameless faceless US agent put a bullet in his brain. And the brains of those non-citizens working with him.

    The US Army private that released the information, however, is a different story. The diplomatic cables may not rise to the level of treason (as defined in the constitution) but the release of the military material does. He should be tried, convicted if guilty, and hung until dead.

    As for Clinton’s law-breaking – please. I would be concerned if our foreign service weren’t spying on other diplomats. And if I were a citizen of another country I would want to spy on everyone else, especially the US.* Hillary Clinton should have been removed from office if she weren’t spying on the other guys.

    * Caveat to that – I would want my nation to spy on those nations most immediately a potential threat first. After that, USA all the way.

  8. Icepick said,

    One other thing – international law is a worthless concept. Nations only abide by any of it so long as it provides benefit to themselves. Because there is no enforcement. The last serious enforcement action has only led to demands that those enforcing international agreements & standards themselves be prosecuted. Overall it’s not as stupid as the concept of “international democracy” but it’s still pretty bad.

  9. wj said,

    What surprises me is how many people seem to find Mr. Assange’s conduct inexplicable. Have they never encountered college undergraduates? Intelligent, yes, and with a determined assurance that they know all the answers to how the world should work — unencumbered by any depth or breadth of knowledge about the world. And a blithe disregard for the injury that their “solution” would impose on real people. Not to mention contempt for anyone who does not immediately recognize the beautiful purity of their solution — and a willingness to attribute the worst possible motives to any opposition, or even suggestion of doubt.

    And make no mistake, these leaks will do real injury. Not so much to nations or government officials, but to the real people whose names are mentioned. Those people are in much the same position as those who end up in witness protection programs. They haven’t (previously) needed new identities, because they were not testifying publicly. But now that their identities are out there, they and their families are at serious risk. But “information must be free” — somehow I don’t think they would be real enthused by that philosophy.

    So what it comes down to is, no Wikileaks is not a wonderful force for transparency. It could have been; but apparently its current corporate culture does not feel any responsibility about anything — which is why there have been a number of angry departures recently. But neither is it a matter of treason, since Wikileaks is based elsewhere and its people are not US citizens.

    The actions of those US citizens who leak information to Wikileaks are another story. Individual cases may be breach of contract, or treason, or possible violations of various statutes regarding confidential information.

  10. Jason (the commenter) said,

    PatHMV: Jason, you’re going to need to be a LOT more specific about what laws you think the Secretary of State broke in asking our diplomats to try to obtain the fingerprints, frequent flyer numbers, etc. of foreign officials. Is it a crime to take fingerprints off a dinner glass after an embassy party?

    Passwords. People keep leaving out the fact that she asked for passwords. Why do people need passwords? So they can hack into government computer systems and look at secret files.

    Wikileaks only released information that was given to it. Hillary Clinton ordered people to help her hack into computer systems so she could see the same type of information Wikileaks is in trouble for showing us. And she brazenly complains about Wikileaks!

    If Wikileaks is performing a terrorist act, then Hillary Clinton is one of the top terrorists in the world and America officially sponsors terrorism.

  11. Theo Boehm said,

    That’s ridiculous, Jason. Hillary is a Government official trying to gain insight into what officials of other governments and organizations are up to, for the benefit, I trust, of the country. It’s called spying, and it’s been done forever. I sure as hell hope my Government spies on foreign diplomats and others, and fully expect they will return the favor.

    This is no different than the king’s minister discreetly slipping a few florins to a diplomatic courier, so he can quickly whisk the courier’s pouch to the royal Black Chamber. There, they’ll find the dispatch, carefully open it to not leave a trace, a copyist will make a quick transcription, it will be resealed with a neatly forged seal, and be back to the courier in a quarter of an hour, a plausible delay in the days of horse travel. Afterward, the clever gentlemen who know about ciphers and such will prepare a copy en clair for the king and his ministers. The best of them could decipher any message in Europe and have it copied in an elegant hand in less than an hour.

    Nowadays, things are much less colorful than in the stylish 18th century: Passwords. Bah, how boring. I don’t know if Hillary belongs in the company of Mazarin, Talleyrand and Metternich, but it looks like she at least knows a few of their tricks, updated, of course to this Modern Age.

    I’d expect no less.

    I hear tonight on NPR that the State Dept. spokesman is saying that, of course, ALL correspondence from the Department goes out over the Secretary’s signature, and she’s…uh…responsible, BUT, lots of memos come from “other departments” with “wish lists” for our foreign diplomats, and, in this case, Secretary Clinton did NOT personally direct diplomats to do the things requested in the communiqué.

    Hmmm…Sounds like they’re covering for Hillary, just in case she runs into some pesky, Jasonesque legal trouble, personally suborning the violation of treaties and all. Gawd, what pansies. Own up to it, or make the vague noises diplomats do when cornered, but don’t try to weasel out and cover for the Secretary personally, just in case. I wrote above that I was impressed by the candor shown in a few of the leaked memos, and that the image of diploweenies was inaccurate. That may be true for diplomats on station, but Foggy Bottom, alas, continues to live up to stereotype.

    My wife, the one with the graduate degree in international law from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, says of course officials of the Executive Branch would be distanced from potentially dodgy activity, and you can’t expect the State Dept. to say directly, “We violated our treaty with the UN because the Secretary said it was OK. Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh.” Alright, point taken. But it would be refreshing if those State Dept. types sounded, just for once, more like Gov. Christie and less like Elmer Fudd.

  12. amba12 said,

    I haven’t read much yet or drawn conclusions. Preliminary reactions:

    1) I know it’s irresponsible but I can’t help getting a giggle out of the novelistic details — Qaddafi’s voluptuous Ukrainian “nurse,” the gift lump of gold at the Wild East wedding. Lively reading!

    2) Assange is a grandstanding asshole. If he posts the documents in full, without redaction to protect operatives and informants, he is a criminal.

    3) Great comment, Theo. I have some close retired-career-diplomat friends and I’m glad to hear them get their due.

    4) There is probably a delicate balance between secrecy and transparency: too much of either, in a democracy, is harmful. The balance just tipped too far towards transparency. Those responsible should be punished and safeguards should be tightened; meanwhile, intentionally or not, the glimpse we got may do good as well as harm.

  13. Rod said,

    I agree with much of what has been said. Chickelit is right that this is a breach of privacy rather than a blow for freedom of speech. Some things should not be transparent. Diplomats need to give candid assessments to their governments without fear of exposure. Otherwise, the result will be less communication between nations, which is not a good thing.

    International law will not hold anyone accountable since it is really little more than what nations agree to do, and there are certainly some countries that will shield Assange. I don’t think he actually broke any U.S. law, as harmful as his conduct was.

  14. Icepick said,

    Theo: Gawd, what pansies. Own up to it, or make the vague noises diplomats do when cornered, but don’t try to weasel out and cover for the Secretary personally, just in case. I wrote above that I was impressed by the candor shown in a few of the leaked memos, and that the image of diploweenies was inaccurate. That may be true for diplomats on station, but Foggy Bottom, alas, continues to live up to stereotype.

    Theo, I don’t think you’re giving them their due. It private they can be candid, but not in public. The language from Foggy Bottom is just those diplomatic noises that you mentioned.

    Annie: Assange is a grandstanding asshole. If he posts the documents in full, without redaction to protect operatives and informants, he is a criminal.

    Annie, there’s redaction and then there’s actually protecting identities. Here’s a link to a document that describes information from an informant. The informant isn’t named. However, he is described in detail:

    The Baku businessman is a UK-educated engineer from a prominent Pre-Revolution Isfahan family, and formerly owned a large factory in Iran. He is a former national fencing champion of Iran. former President of the Iran Fencing Association, and Vice-President of an Azerbaijan sports association. He has been based in Baku for more than ten years, working primarily as a sub-contractor to BP and the Cape Industrial Services company.

    How many of those guys can there be? This was pointed out by someone with the UK’s Telegraph.

    I found something else interesting about the linked memo. That would be the following:

    Note: A quick google check revealed several companies with the name INSULTEC in the title – these may or not be affiliated. Based on the information provided by source (currently in Iran, where he frequently travels), one possible candidate could be “INSULTEC Chitral Ltd.”

    Okay, shouldn’t they be doing a little bit more research than JUST a Google search? This IS about the freaking Iranian nuclear program after all.

  15. Icepick said,

    So Assange is actually trying to get people killed, and is aiding and abetting the Iranians in their nuclear ambitions by exposing this stuff. Bullet to brainpan….

  16. amba12 said,

    You’re right about the “redaction.” It’s about as subtle as “a former U.S. president whose DNA was identified on the blue dress of a former intern.”

  17. Callimachus said,

    “The day secrecy is abolished,” wrote Jules Cambon, one of the wisest diplomats of the last century, “negotiations of any kind will become impossible.” Thanks to one arrogant hacker with well-placed friends in the United States, diplomacy has now become impossible.

    Only those whose sole delight is American embarrassment can celebrate this. Never mind what is in the cables. Whether they reveal much or nothing, this is the death of diplomacy. Diplomacy, as Cambon, Ben Franklin and any diplomat since the time of Cardinal Richelieu understood, depends on confidentiality. It depends on your faith in the other diplomat’s ability to keep a secret. And on your own government’s ability to do so.

    WikiLeaks has guaranteed that, for the next 10 years at least, no one anywhere will trust an American diplomat. How many unnecessary wars will be fought because negotiations cannot be accomplished? How many good people will die because they could not trust the Americans to keep their names out of print? All for the ego of one individual who claims to act in the name of peace and human rights. He has just effectively castrated the one good alternative to war. Shame on him, and yes, shame on the media outlets who felt compelled to join his vandalism.

    Redaction means nothing. Would you want your life, your freedom, your safety to hinge on the whim of an ego-monster and accused rapist?

    Diplomacy is not democracy. It cannot be accomplished in public view. Successful diplomacy relies on a closed and secretive system among a professional class of negotiators in many nations. They are almost a class unto themselves.

    Just when America is on the point of successfully winding down its hegemony, when other nations are rising and claiming places on the world stage, just when we most need diplomacy, one snide man has ripped it from us. Diplomacy cannot now be the tool of the wise to steer nations away from calamities and accomplish peaceful resolutions of global disputes. Stability — the world’s need and the goal of diplomacy properly conceived — is now more elusive than ever.

    As for those U.S. citizens who gave these cables to this man, they are more guilty of treason than Julius Rosenberg ever was. But this is America’s government’s failure. A nation that can’t keep its secrets hardly deserves to be a major power.

  18. Icepick said,

    Consider this: Would you want those closest to you to have access to every unfiltered thought you had? As for people, so too for peoples.

  19. Icepick said,

    Cal, it’s time to consider the fact that secrets might not be possible anymore. Truly, if this is the work of one private in the US Army then there’s no hope. One person with the appropriate skills in a position of SOME trust was able to download hundreds of thousands or even millions of documents.

    I’m reminded of a Mad Magazine bit updating Poor Richard’s Almanac with sayings of Richard Nixon (from the Watergate tapes) replacing those of Ben Franklin. “Little strokes fell great oaks” is replaced by (I’m paraphrasing) “It’s the little people that are going to bring us down – the secretaries, the clerks….” That seems appropriate for the digital age.

    We may have to get used to the fact that secrets just can’t exist much longer.

    (And I say that as someone who also comments/blogs behind a pseudonym. But I don’t think it would be impossible to figure out who I am if someone wanted to spend some effort to do so. My biggest ally is that no one really gives a shit who I am. Anonymity has its advantages.)

  20. Icepick said,

    It’s about as subtle as “a former U.S. president whose DNA was identified on the blue dress of a former intern.”

    As sublte as that, huh?

  21. michael reynolds said,

    I think Cal and Ice are both right.

    Diplomacy can’t exist without secrecy. (I think we just took a big step closer to war with Iran as a result of these leaks.)

    But secrecy is perhaps obsolete. We’re going back to the days of life in the village when everyone knew everyone else’s business.

    There are advantages to that, but it’s hard to see how one plays poker when all the cards are face up.

  22. Icepick said,

    I’m not sure we’re getting closer to war with Iran. Someone (ahem) is bumping off their nuclear physicists in rather gruesome fashion. It might not prove necessary. As my friends would say, “Assymetric warfare, bitchez!”

  23. michael reynolds said,


    Like you I mourned their passing. Some of just mourn by smirking.

  24. rodjean said,

    Successful diplomacy depends on confidentiality much as successful journalism does. Who would trust a (journalist/diplomat) who couldn’t protect his source. That is why the New York Times refused to publish the leaks. Oh, wait, they didn’t. What hypocrites.

  25. Icepick said,

    Imagine the howls of protest if someone published all the NYT’s confidential sources.

  26. amba12 said,

    I know, they were so lame and shameless in the way they “justified” publishing the leaks. They had to put on airs, as if it were a moral rather than a commercial decision. They simply couldn’t afford to get scooped by the ‘Net yet again.

  27. wj said,

    Ice, I don’t think that “Assange is actually trying to get people killed,” so much as he is simply indifferent to the collateral damage that individuals may suffer. It’s an affliction common to those who have a belief about how a perfect world should be…and what that would mean for real people, or what getting there would do to real people, cannot be a factor in determining their actions.

  28. wj said,

    I’m not sure that diplomacy has quite become impossible as a result. It will probably take a while to implement procedures to encrypt communications and ensure that only a very tiny number of people will be able to read the results on receipt. But, given the absolute requirement to be able to get a frank analysis from the folks on the scene, those procedures will be implemented.

    It will be quicker and easier (but not trivial) to put better controls in place on who can see communications once they are being archived. And, since that is (apparently) where the leak occurred, that should get us at least sort of back on track relatively quickly. Look for budgets for data management at State and Defense to go up substantially.

  29. Icepick said,

    wj, Assange is not stupid, whatever his other faults. So I can’t believe that he doesn’t think people will ultimately die because of his actions. Just because he’s callously indifferent doesn’t let him off the hook.

    It will probably take a while to implement procedures to encrypt communications and ensure that only a very tiny number of people will be able to read the results on receipt.

    But this is precisely the problem with an interconnected digital world – what you suggest is impossible unless everything is done strictly on paper. That means no word processing programs and no printers. Everything will need to be written amnually or typed manually. (And don’t forget to destroy the ribbon when you’re done!)

    But once it’s digital it CAN be hacked by anyone with access to that network. And except for some defense networks (God I hope), none of the networks are completely independent from all the others.

  30. Theo Boehm said,

    But if you consider my example, above, of a typical18th century Black Chamber, even papers handwritten with a quill pen and put in cipher were regularly rifled.

    For instance, there were two diplomats at the court of Fredrick the Great, I believe, who, when they opened dispatches from their respective ministries, found that they had gotten each others’ messages, even though everything was neatly sealed. One ambassador, from a potential rival of Prussia, sent the proper correspondence on to the other, a diplomat from an inconsequential court whom he thought would be beneath Fredrick’s notice, with the note, “You, too?”

    If paper, handled even by a relative few, has never been secure, and digital decreases security exponentially, what can be done?

    We can talk about all kinds of systems and compartmentalization, etc. But I think one lesson from the tough-minded 18th century is that the prospect of a quick noose or firing squad would tend to focus the mind of low-level misanthropes and glory-seekers, such as Pvt. Manning. Amateurs thus discouraged, the professionals would be free of distractions to continue their work, as far from the public prints as they always have been.

    History does not, as far as I know, record the fate of the clerk who mixed up the messages in Potsdam, but I assume it wasn’t pleasant.

  31. Maxwell James said,

    I think Assange’s philosophy – itself a radical extension of the GNU/Linux standard that “information wants to be free” – is really stupid, and currently causing a lot of damage. Icepick’s observation “as for people, so too for peoples” is exactly right.

    But – in the long run I think he is providing a useful service. Governments and corporations, including ours, have become dangerously addicted to the use of secrecy as a means to protect the powerful. Think of how often the US government uses the “state secrets” to stop lawsuits and inquiries, even in laughably minor cases. It’s not just an abuse of power – it’s an addiction, a crutch that allows a lame and enfeebled form of governance to perpetuate itself. Same goes for the Bank that Wikileaks is allegedly going to out next month – who here believes that institution is actually creating wealth for anyone but insiders of the corporate and government worlds?

    In his callous & foolish way, Assange is revealing to us that we can’t go on like this anymore.

  32. Theo Boehm said,

    Several people have already not gone on like this or anything else because of Assange’s “philosophy.”

    I suspect many more will similarly find it difficult to go on, thanks to Mr. Assange.

  33. Icepick said,

    But if you consider my example, above, of a typical18th century Black Chamber, even papers handwritten with a quill pen and put in cipher were regularly rifled.

    Yes, but it cuts back on he number of people with access. That and the noose and firing squad would, as you mention, settle some of these issues.

  34. Icepick said,

    Confidentiality can be a drag. In previous jobs (or rather, when I had jobs) I always had access to confidential information. As a graduate assistant I had access to student grades. As a financial analyst I had access to fair amount of financial data about a very large corporation. As an actuarial analyst, I had access to tens hundreds of thousands of individual records concerning employment finances SSNsand personal status, bank records, government filings, etc. etc.

    At some point it just became wearying. Frankly I’m glad I’m not privy to a lot of that anymore. I remeber one paraticular case were I cracked the identity of someone who had gone into a government relocation plan* – they got a new identity, and I figured out who they had been. That was not really fun. Actually someone else had cracked it before me and I found their patch. I wonder if anyone found the patch we put on the records after that….

    Truly the best protection most of us have is the shear volume of information out there. Someone either has to stumble onto your records randomly, or they have to go looking for you in the first place. Safety in numbers, just like water buffalo crossing a crocodile infested river in Africa. ‘THEY’ can’t get us all.

    * People sometimes get new identities, including new SSNs, for reasons other than big criminal cases. On occassion women have been granted new identities to evade particularly vindictive ex-spouses. I had no idea about that until I stumbled across it at work on day. Really really happy to not have such info any more.

  35. rodjean said,

    I am told that only a small portion of the documents were “classified,” which is a differeewnt category than “confidential.”

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