WikiLeaks and Journalism

At first glance one might think that journalists should be thankful that something like the 4 year-old WikiLeaks media organization exists. After all, WikiLeaks, the international non-profit media organization, publishes otherwise unavailable documents from anonymous sources and leaks.

WikiLeaks, which is lead by Australian Internet activist Julian Assange, has won a number of awards from organizations such as Amnesty International and the U.K.’s Economist Magazine and this year was a finalist for $500K in funding from the prestigious John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

WikiLeaks was back in the news again in a big way this past Sunday when it began publishing 251,287 leaked United States embassy cables, the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain. The documents will give people around the world an unprecedented insight into the international activities of the U.S. Government.

Journalists worth their salt have an intuitive understanding of that kind of activity. Many of us, at one time or another have obtained information from confidential government and embassy sources that helped us better understand and report a story. I certainly did during the Vietnam War and in places like El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, Chile, China, Mexico, etc.

But there is a fine line between obtaining sensitive information from an anonymous government source and publishing information that could result in the exposure and death of people in places where freedom of the press is viewed as a liability and not a right. In this case, some of the information released by WikiLeaks could do serious damage to U.S. intelligence gathering efforts by putting highly vulnerable foreign sources in danger.

When I talked with secret U.S. and foreign government sources in Asia and Latin America I made sure these people could not be identified in my stories. When I met with them I took byzantine-like precautions in finding a safe meeting place. I knew that to do anything less could result in their arrest, torture or worse, their deaths.

We don’t know yet just what impact the cables published by WikiLeaks will have on those who can be identified. The cables date from 1966 through the end of February this year and contain confidential communications between 274 embassies in countries throughout the world and the State Department in Washington DC. A significant number (15,652) of the cables are classified “Secret.” Another 101,748 are classified “confidential.”

The cables show the extent of US spying on its allies and the UN; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in “client states”; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for US corporations; and the measures US diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.

But most of all the documents reveal the contradictions between the US government’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors. There is nothing shocking here. It’s called “diplomacy.” Every nation in the world practices it and every nation in world spies on its “allies.”

I learned these lessons during my days in the U.S. Army intelligence community when I carried a Top Secret and Crypto Security Clearance. Embassies are notorious centers of intelligence gathering. Political and Economic Sections gather and analyze information on their host nations every day.

Of course most of that information is carefully guarded and never undergoes the scrutiny of the press, the public or an outfit like WikiLeaks.

All that changed when Pfc. Bradley Manning, who stands accused of stealing the classified files from Siprnet, handed them over to Julian Assange. The question many might have is how Pfc. Manning obtained access to these files in the first place? How does a young, low-level Army intelligence analyst gain access to a computer with hundreds of thousands of classified documents from all over the world?

The answer, apparently, is that those in the State Department or the U.S. military intelligence community can access these archives if they have: (1) a computer connected to Siprnet, and (2) a “secret” security clearance.

As Manning told a fellow hacker: “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labeled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing… [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” Manning said he “had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months.”

So what does that say about the U.S. State Department and its ability to protect sensitive information? To me that is the real story here. As a journalist I would like to know just how the classic “need to know” dictum in the intelligence community was ignored or violated.

One of the first things we were taught in the Army Security Agency, which worked with the National Security Agency, was that information is made available only on a “need to know” basis. If you could not demonstrate a need to know something, you were not going to have access to that information.

Did Manning demonstrate a “need to know?” If not, how did he gain access to the database containing these sensitive cables?

The answer to that question will ultimately be learned during Manning’s trial. Nevertheless, the fact that these supposedly “confidential” cables were so effortlessly leaked reveals the inexcusable incompetence of our cumbersome national security establishment.

Indeed, this week’s episode involving WikiLeaks says as much about U.S. government ineptitude as it does about U.S. government policy.