Assessing WikiLeak's Damage To U.S. National Security

Concerning the impact on US national security interests, there are three absolute “knowns” caused by one of the largest leaks in history of classified US military and State Department documents into the public domain.  Made available by the international non-profit media organization WikiLeaks—a group catering to anonymous sources wishing to publish otherwise unavailable documents—they are:

1)    The extent of some of the damage caused will take decades to accurately assess.

2)    The full extent of all the damage done will never be known.

3)    It is clear—at a time the US is doing battle with a range of growing challenges from multiple threats with value systems
much different from our own, endangering our way of life—the releases do little to help our fight while assisting those committed to subordinating our values to theirs.  With the volumes of information released and more to come, the only good that can now come from all this is if revelations about Iran finally educate Americans on the need to aggressively curtail Tehran’s nuclear program.   

On July 25th, WikiLeaks released approximately 90,000 documents—“Afghan War Diaries”—providing insights into unreported civilian deaths, covert operations against the Taliban, US fears that Pakistan’s intelligence service was aiding the Afghan insurgency, etc.  Covering the period January 2004 through December 2009, the reports represent “raw” intelligence, submitted by US military forces on the ground, rather than intelligence carefully analyzed and refined by experts to determine its value.   

On October 22nd, WikiLeaks released another 391,000 documents—“The Iraq War Logs”—covering the same timeframe but with a focus on Iraq. Each document represents a “Significant Action” reported by US troops on the ground. They provide insights into how the war is perceived to be progressing from this standpoint.

On November 28th, WikiLeaks released 251,000 more documents, this time focusing on US embassy cables, providing the world with unprecedented insight into the US foreign policy mindset. 

On May 10th, the “anonymous source” allegedly making the documents available to WikiLeaks was arrested.  His arrest came after boasting to a confidant he was the source of a widely watched internet video entitled “Collateral Murder,” alleged to be a 2007 US bombing incident involving the “murder of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists,” released April 5th by WikiLeaks.  The source was an intelligence analyst serving in Iraq, US Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, who was turned in by the concerned confidant.

If Manning was simply opposed to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one could try to understand (without condoning) his reason for releasing the two war diaries.  However, it is the release of 44 years of US State Department cables in addition to the war diaries that is more telling.  This is a man—who despite having taken an oath to protect and defend the US Constitution and entrusted to safeguard US national security interests represented by the classified materials to which he had access—opts instead to betray a sacred trust, endangering those in harm’s way defending those interests.  He is a man who has triggered a diplomatic tsunami that will circle much of the globe, destroying US trust and confidence in its wake.

Not since the 1971 leak of the top secret “Pentagon Papers”—a 1967 study ordered by then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on the history of US political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967—revealed by Daniel Elsberg as proof of systematic lying by the Johnson Administration on US policy there—has the US government suffered such embarrassment.  However, the WikiLeaks releases are far more devastating based on their global IMPACT on multiple threat fronts.    

Immediate damage was done.  Less than a week after the release of the Afghan diaries, a Taliban spokesman made it known they were pouring through the documents to target those who could be identified in Afghanistan for having helped the US.   Despite later redactions of names by WikiLeak, other information within the documents was helpful in identifying sources.  And, as is well known, the Taliban need not correctly identify those SOURCES it targets as its intent is to intimidate survivors, denying the US local cooperation and undermining efforts to establish local governance.  Such intimidation is brutal—such as strapping “traitors” to explosives before detonating them in public. 

Clearly, the bond of trust necessary to encourage cooperation between US forces and Afghan locals has been damaged. 

Additionally, US forces who may well have benefitted from that bond will now be at greater risk without it.  They now find themselves undertaking a much more difficult task than building trust with locals—trying to rebuild trust lost.    

The immediate consequence of this lost trust is a decline in HUMINT (Human Intelligence)—i.e., intelligence gathered by means of interpersonal contact.  HUMINT is extremely important as it enables us to see beyond the limitations of our intelligence gathering technologies.

For example, it was HUMINT during the Cuban Missile Crisis that enabled President Kennedy to avoid war based on information provided by Soviet intelligence officer Colonel Oleg Penkovsky.  US U-2 spy plane photographs revealed construction activity going on in Cuba, but it was Penkovsky’s information that made Soviet intentions clear—for which he suffered a savage execution.  Other intelligence officers were forced to watch as Penkovsky was fed alive, feet first, into a blazing furnace.

HUMINT played a very important role in helping to reverse al-Qaeda’s initial success in Iraq.  It was only in December 2004, after Osama bin Laden—a Saudi—appointed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—a Jordanian—as the “prince of al-Qaeda” in Iraq, that local Iraqis recognized the real threat to them was not the US.  The fact that a Saudi was appointing a Jordanian to kill Iraqis did not set well with the locals.  What had only been a trickle of HUMINT turned into a steady flow as locals began reporting on al-Qaeda activities.  

Diplomacy is the art of getting another country to do something it does not want to do; the failure of diplomacy is war.  The leaks reveal one such diplomatic effort secretly initiated in 2007 WHICH SOUGHT to get Pakistan to remove highly enriched uranium from a research reactor for fear it might be diverted for use in an illicit nuclear device.  The initiative was kept secret so as not to inflame the passions of the Pakistani people.  That initiative is now dead, as WikiLeaks’ release has inflamed those passions. 

Diplomats routinely play poker in the conduct of foreign affairs, holding cards close to the chest in order to negotiate the best deal they can with the cards dealt.  WikiLeaks has given our enemies an immense upper hand in now knowing whether we will hold or fold our diplomatic hand on certain issues.

If any good comes out of these releases, it should be our realization others in the Middle East neighborhood are very worried about Iran’s effort to develop nuclear arms—hopefully generating a US initiative to take all necessary means to STOP it.  Documents reveal Saudi Arabia’s King has repeatedly urged the US to attack Iran—fearing the consequences of a nuclear armed Iran.   

At a time we are trying to put fires out started by North Korea’s aggression, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, Mexican drug gangs crossing over our borders, Hezbollah terrorists linking up with drug gangs, China’s extraterritorial claims, etc., we should not be faced with dealing with the damage created by PFC Manning’s diplomatic tsunami.  Yet it will consume a large part of our diplomatic efforts in the weeks and months ahead—possibly even years—as WikiLeaks continues to publish more documents on its website.

Manning has caused immeasurable damage in making so much classified information available to WikiLeaks.  It raises the issue what price should be extracted from him if convicted. 

For the moment, Manning has only been charged with unauthorized use and disclosure of US classified information—a charge pertaining to the “Collateral Murder” video release.  As more evidence becomes available, other charges will follow.  Is there a basis for a charge of treason?

The seriousness of such a charge is underscored by the fact treason is the only crime defined in the Constitution.  It states, “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” Whether prosecutors can prove Manning’s acts fall within the definition remains to be seen.

In US history, there have been 16 convictions OF AMERICANS for treason—half resulting in executions.  Of those, two involved the 1859 John Brown Raid and four the 1865 Lincoln assassination.    The last execution for treason occurred 68 years ago—a German-American citizen with dual nationality convicted as an enemy agent for Nazi Germany during World War II.  

Even if charged and convicted of treason, there is little likelihood Manning would suffer the death penalty.  It would be ironic, as his actions may well prove responsible for causing the execution of numerous persons whose identities will remain unknown.