Could the Obama administration have stopped any or all of the three Wikileaks data dumps? Former Bush aide Marc Thiessen argues that not only could the White House have disrupted Julian Assange’s operation, but that given the potential damage that a breach of diplomatic and military security could mean on this scale, Obama had a duty to do so. The failure to act shows a weakness in Obama that increases the risk for the US, Thiessen argues in today’s Washington Post:
WikiLeaks’ first disclosures caught the Obama administration by surprise. But how does the administration explain its inaction in the face of WikiLeaks’ two subsequent, and increasingly dangerous, releases? In both cases, it had fair warning: Assange announced what kinds of documents he possessed, and he made clear his intention to release them.
The Obama administration has the ability to bring Assange to justice and to put WikiLeaks out of business. The new U.S. Cyber Command could shut down WilkiLeaks’ servers and prevent them from releasing more classified information on President Obama’s orders. But, as The Post reported this month, the Obama administration has been paralyzed by infighting over how, and when, it might use these new offensive capabilities in cyberspace. One objection: “The State Department is concerned about diplomatic backlash” from any offensive actions in cyberspace, The Post reported. Well, now the State Department can deal with the “diplomatic backlash” that comes from standing by helplessly, while WikiLeaks releases hundreds of thousands of its most sensitive diplomatic cables.
Because of its failure to act, responsibility for the damage done by these most recent disclosures now rests with the Obama administration. Perhaps this latest release crosses a line that will finally spur the administration to action. After all, the previous disclosures harmed only our war efforts. But this latest disclosure is a blow to a cause Democrats really care about – our diplomatic efforts. Maybe now, finally, the gloves will come off. Or is posting mournful tweets about the damage done to our national security the best this administration can do?
Contrast this, Thiessen argues, to the way Obama protected Hollywood last week:
Just this past week, the federal government took decisive action to shut down more than 70 Web sites that were disseminating pirated music and movies. Hollywood is safe, but WikiLeaks is free to disseminate classified documents without consequence.
It seems more than passingly strange that this administration has taken stronger action against copyright infringement than in protecting the secrets of the US and its allies. The Dept. of Justice didn’t use the US Cyber Command to take down the infringing sites, of course, and the Obama administration has publicly requested intervention by Sweden to essentially do the same thing to Assange that the DoJ did to the allegedly infringing websites, to no avail. There is a certain amount of consistency between the two for the White House, even if the contexts are wildly disparate.
The US is not bound to act only through civil courts for its own defense outside of the borders of the US, whether those courts are ours or another nation’s. The first release caught the Obama administration by surprise, but the subsequent two — and anything else that comes in the future — will not. When diplomatic efforts failed, the US should have found other means to cripple Assange’s efforts. If someone can sneak a Stuxnet into Iran, then surely it wouldn’t be impossible to conduct some counterespionage sabotage to put an end to Wikileaks as well.
The White House might be concerned that having the US conduct cyber warfare will give a green light for all nations to do the same. That supposes an assumption that other nations won’t conduct cyber warfare without the precedent of a US cyberwar first. If that’s really the reason for any reluctance, it’s a dangerously naive assumption.
Either the Obama administration is unwilling to go after Assange’s operation, or unable to do so. I’m not sure which gives the greater appearance of impotence.
Note: In fairness, it should be noted that the best way to have stopped the leaks was to have prevented them in the first place with rational security. That problem predates the Obama administration.
Update: Marc Thiessen, not Michael Gerson. My apologies for the error.