It’s probably not the feds who are responsible, simply because knocking the servers offline at this point achieves nothing. Wikileaks gave the documents to newspapers weeks ago; the first stories about the contents are set to drop this afternoon at around 4:30 p.m. Unless they’re being DOS’d purely out of spite, why bother?
I’m not sure what the point of this is either:
In a highly unusual step reflecting the administration’s grave concerns about the ramifications of the move, the State Department late Saturday released a letter from its top lawyer to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his attorney telling them that publication of the documents would be illegal and demanding that they stop it…
The letter from State Department legal adviser Harold Koh was released as U.S. diplomats around the world are scrambling to warn foreign governments about what might be in the secret documents that are believed to contain highly sensitive assessments about world leaders, their policies and America’s attempts to lobby them…
The State Department said Koh’s message was a response to a letter received on Friday by the U.S. ambassador to Britain, Louis Susman, from Assange and his lawyer, Jennifer Robinson. The department said that letter asked for information “regarding individuals who may be ‘at significant risk of harm’ because of” the release of the documents.
“Despite your stated desire to protect those lives, you have done the opposite and endangered the lives of countless individuals,” Koh wrote in reply. “You have undermined your stated objective by disseminating this material widely, without redaction, and without regard to the security and sanctity of the lives your actions endanger.”
Again, the Times has had these documents for ages. No doubt they’ve got a giant front-page feature about them set to publish tonight. Assange probably couldn’t stop them at this point even if he wanted to, in which case releasing the letter is really just the feds doing PR. I’m intrigued, though, that it’s Koh who signed it and not some lower-level functionary. Partly that’s to signal how seriously State is taking this, but possibly it’s also an attempt by the Obama administration to trade on Koh’s leftist credibility in rallying U.S. public opinion against Wikileaks. He’s been a liberal shortlister for Supreme Court vacancies since The One took office, notwithstanding his legal defense of drone strikes in Pakistan. Having him publicly warn Wikileaks about the damage they’re doing to U.S. interests might temper progressive enthusiasm for Assange from three cheers to, say, one.
Needless to say, Assange has already rejected Koh’s demands. And just to make sure that he wrings every drop of media attention he can get out of this, he’s arranged for the documents to be released in waves, ensuring a week’s worth of buzz for him and his group instead of a mere 48 hours. What sort of bombshell revelations can we expect? Well, apparently, there’s nothing “top secret” in the files; six percent qualify as “secret,” 40.5 percent are “classified,” and the rest aren’t confidential at all. Which doesn’t mean that they won’t be embarrassing:
A journalist with Britain’s Guardian newspaper said the files include an unflattering US assessment of UK PM David Cameron.
Simon Hoggart told the BBC: “There is going to be some embarrassment certainly for Gordon Brown but even more so for David Cameron who was not very highly regarded by the Obama administration or by the US ambassador here.”
More here, including a reference to Ahmadinejad as “Hitler,” and here, teasing the possibility that Turkey might have facilitated weapons smuggling to Al Qaeda in Iraq(!). Until today, one could argue (unpersuasively) that Wikileaks isn’t so much anti-American as it is anti-war; releasing secret docs about Iraq and Afghanistan supposedly would speed an end to the conflicts, forcing a U.S. withdrawal and leaving Iraqis and Afghans to enjoy a thousand years of kite-flying, occupation-free peace, etc. That’s moronic, but it’s more or less in line with traditional leftist policy priorities. What’s the “anti-war” motive, though, in releasing a few hundred thousand diplomatic cables? Progressives are forever telling us that we need to rely less on Defense and more on State, and yet it sounds like today’s leak will do much greater damage to the latter than the previous leaks did to the former. Not only will it strain U.S. diplomatic relationships, but the paranoia it’ll engender among U.S. diplomats about future communiques being exposed will cripple their ability to be candid. In fact, depending upon how sensitive the revelations are and which countries they involve, Wikileaks is potentially increasing the risk of war in the Middle East, on the Korean peninsula, or who knows where else. As Glenn Reynolds likes to say: They’re not anti-war, they’re just on the other side.
Just as I’m writing this, the Times has gone live with its news package about the documents. I’m off to go read. Back later with more.
Update: Here’s a fun one from Spiegel. Let the outrageously outrageous progressive outrage begin!
US diplomats are alleged to have been requested by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to spy on the diplomats of other countries at the United Nations. That was the purpose of the “National Humint Collection Directive,” which has been seen by SPIEGEL. The document was signed by Clinton and came into force on July 31, 2009.
The information to be collected included personal credit card information, frequent flyer customer numbers, as well as e-mail and telephone accounts. In many cases the State Department also required “biometric information,” “passwords” and “personal encryption keys.” In the US, the term biometric information generally refers to fingerprints, passport photos and iris scans, among other things.
Hasn’t every country at the UN attempted to spy on every other country there since the day the building opened? C’mon.
Update: Someone on Twitter points out that the Times’s stories on the leaks contain the subhead “State Secrets — Day 1 of 9.”
Update: The Times claims it’s taken precautions to protect sources, including agreeing to some — but not all — redactions proposed by the White House: “The Times has taken care to exclude, in its articles and in supplementary material, in print and online, information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security. The Times’s redactions were shared with other news organizations and communicated to WikiLeaks, in the hope that they would similarly edit the documents they planned to post online.”
Update: One of the questions before the leak was whether there’d be any real news here or whether, like the war leaks, it’d fall into the “confirmation of stuff most people suspected anyway” category. Here’s an example of real news and an illustration of my point about how the leak will make war more, not less, likely. Given the fragility of the situation in North Korea, is now the moment to make bombshell public accusations against them?
Secret American intelligence assessments have concluded that Iran has obtained a cache of advanced missiles, based on a Russian design, that are much more powerful than anything Washington has publicly conceded that Tehran has in its arsenal, diplomatic cables show.
Iran obtained 19 of the missiles from North Korea, according to a cable dated Feb. 24 of this year. The cable is a detailed, highly classified account of a meeting between top Russian officials and an American delegation led by Vann H. Van Diepen, an official with the State Department’s nonproliferation division who, as a national intelligence officer several years ago, played a crucial role in the 2007 assessment of Iran’s nuclear capacity…
The missile intelligence also suggests far deeper military — and perhaps nuclear — cooperation between North Korea and Iran than was previously known. At the request of the Obama administration, The New York Times has agreed not to publish the text of the cable.
Other cables reveal King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly urging the U.S. to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, which does fall into the “stuff everyone suspected” category but isn’t going to help Sunni/Shiite relations, especially if things come to a head in Lebanon over the findings of the Hariri tribunal. Among others urging action: Jordan, Bahrain, and Abu Dhabi.
Update: More rocking of the North Korean boat: The Times’s overview article mentions that the U.S. and South Korea have discussed how to bring about reunification on the peninsula. That’s firmly in the “stuff everyone suspected” category too, but if North Korea’s looking for a new pretext to justify a further provocation, an alleged foreign “plot” to dissolve the DPRK could be useful.
Also in that overview piece, here’s a way to further destabilize an already unstable country:
For instance, it has been previously reported that the Yemeni government has sought to cover up the American role in missile strikes against the local branch of Al Qaeda. But a cable’s fly-on-the-wall account of a January meeting between the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the American commander in the Middle East, is nonetheless breathtaking.
“We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Mr. Saleh said, according to the cable sent by the American ambassador, prompting Yemen’s deputy prime minister to “joke that he had just ‘lied’ by telling Parliament” that Yemeni forces had carried out the strikes.
Yemenis surely already suspect that the U.S. is working against jihadis inside the country, but it’s one thing to suspect it and another to have hard evidence of Saleh merrily lying to the public to protect American interests. AQ will get a lot of propaganda mileage out of that.
Update: The point of leaking government documents, ostensibly, is to expose matters of urgent public interest. Sometimes that means revealing state crimes, sometimes it means exposing state disinformation, sometimes it simply means that something so important is going on that citizens need to know about it notwithstanding the value of secrecy. That said, what’s the “urgent public interest” in revealing this?
The US diplomats’ verdict on the NATO partner with the second biggest army in the alliance is devastating. The Turkish leadership is depicted as divided, and Erdogan’s advisers, as well as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, are portrayed as having little understanding of politics beyond Ankara.
The Americans are also worried about Davutoglu’s alleged neo-Ottoman visions. A high-ranking government adviser warned in discussions, quoted by the US diplomats, that Davutoglu would use his Islamist influence on Erdogan, describing him as “exceptionally dangerous.” According to the US document, another adviser to the ruling AKP party remarked, probably ironically, that Turkey wanted “to take back Andalusia and avenge the defeat at the siege of Vienna in 1683.”
Breaking news: Turkey is trending towards Islamism and looking to increase its regional influence. That’s not even a “stuff everyone suspects” item; it’s a “stuff everyone knows for a fact” item, adorned here with a few dark suspicions — which may or may not even be meant seriously — about the foreign minister. Is the public interest in knowing that Davutoglu isn’t to be trusted worth the strain this will put on U.S.-Turkish relations at a moment when we’re desperate to keep Turkey oriented towards the west and secularism? That is to say, what’s the ratio among the leaked documents of those that expose “urgent public matters” to those that simply embarrass the American diplomatic corps and alienate their foreign counterparts? If it’s important for the public to be informed of foreign relations down to the level of which international diplomats we do and don’t trust, then Congress should simply pass a law requiring all diplomatic messages to be made public immediately. See how that works out.
Update: Guardian contributor Simon Jenkins helpfully, and conveniently, obliterates the “urgent public interest” standard. Turns out everything, save for naming sources and details that might jeopardize military ops, is a matter of public interest now:
Anything said or done in the name of a democracy is, prima facie, of public interest. When that democracy purports to be “world policeman” – an assumption that runs ghostlike through these cables – that interest is global. Nonetheless, the Guardian had to consider two things in abetting disclosure, irrespective of what is anyway published by WikiLeaks. It could not be party to putting the lives of individuals or sources at risk, nor reveal material that might compromise ongoing military operations or the location of special forces.
And in case you’re wondering what his agenda is, he offers this: “America’s foreign policy is revealed as a slave to rightwing drift, terrified of a bomb exploding abroad or of a pro-Israeli congressman at home.”
Update: Ben Smith calls the revelations “a moment of remarkable impotence” for American diplomacy but finds a silver lining in the fact that it happened on Obama’s watch instead of Bush’s. True enough: The One’s international influence ain’t what it used to be, as his trip to Asia demonstrated, but he doesn’t draw the sort of venom abroad that the Bushitler did. That ought to make damage control marginally easier. On the other hand, it gives true anti-American factions ammo to persuade the Bush-haters that the problem isn’t Bush, it’s America. Under Dubya, this sort of mega-clusterfark could be spun internationally as further evidence of his personal incompetence, recklessness, malignancy, etc, but under Obama — who famously framed his foreign policy as, er, “smart power” — it’ll be proof that, as a systemic matter, U.S. national security isn’t nearly as secure as it should be. If you’re a foreign diplomat of whatever level, but especially among the higher ranks with political exposure at home, I don’t know how you’d trust the State Department to keep your confidence after this. Remarkable impotence indeed.
Update: Wikileaks is back online and armed with a characteristically smug, self-serving introduction to the documents:
This document release reveals the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors – and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what’s going on behind the scenes.
Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington – the country’s first President – could not tell a lie. If the administrations of his successors lived up to the same principle, today’s document flood would be a mere embarrassment. Instead, the US Government has been warning governments — even the most corrupt — around the world about the coming leaks and is bracing itself for the exposures.
Ah, hypocrisy, the all-purpose excuse. We see that as a defense whenever some conservative sex scandal is exposed too: The aim, transparently, is to embarrass the target, but since that’s too petty a reason to justify so vicious a tactic, the exposure is unfailingly dressed up as some sort of high-minded attempt to make the target “live by his principles.” If you take this argument seriously, any confidential communication between government officials should be fair game for leaking so long as it somehow contradicts or questions, however glancingly, state policy. (Hypocrisy!) But of course, they’re not limiting publication to only those documents that undermine official State Department positions; as noted above in the context of Turkey’s foreign minister, a lot of this stuff will simply be bits of intelligence about various international actors and speculation about their motives. Nothing “hypocritical” about it — but mighty embarrassing. In fact, there’s nothing “hypocritical” about arguably the biggest revelation thus far, the report of North Korea shipping missiles to Iran. That sort of cooperation goes straight back to Bush’s “axis of evil” speech; theories about collaboration between the two are a staple of proliferation analyses. There’s no U.S. government “lie” that needs to be exposed there, in other words. It’s simply a case of Wikileaks trying to weaken America’s hand by revealing some of the cards that it’s holding.
Two other points. One: Note that they don’t say they wouldn’t have published the documents if the crucial hypocrisy component was missing. On the contrary, in their sonorous meditation about George Washington, they suggest that they would have done so anyway even though the damage to U.S. interests would have been greatly diminished. That’s further evidence that it’s confidentiality itself that they object to, not hypocrisy, and it follows Simon Jenkins’s lead in ignoring the usual balancing act when weighing the merits of a leak between the sensitivity of the information and the public’s interest in knowing about it. Wikileaks would have you believe that confidential government communications are so inherently anti-democratic that exposing them is virtually always in the public interest, no matter what collateral damage might result. No country in the world has ever followed that standard and no country ever will. Two: To the extent that they do take the hypocrisy standard seriously, does that mean that less democratic nations aren’t fair game for leaks because, hey, at least they’re living by their principles? Wikileaks’s lack of interest to date in revealing state secrets of, say, China is mighty conspicuous given that cracking Beijing’s culture of secrecy would be a far greater intel coup than publishing U.S. diplomatic cables and might even have major political repercussions for the Chinese regime. But then, China isn’t “hypocritical,” you see. And of course China also isn’t likely to tolerate damaging leaks like this the way liberal western nations are.
I’ll leave you with this thought, via Danger Room:
Ronald Neumann, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, tells Danger Room he fears the impact of forced candor on U.S. foreign relations. “A man might say things to his wife about his mother-in-law that he would be horrified to hear her repeat to her mother and the doing of which might even put great strain on his marriage,” Neumann says. “That is what a lot of classification is about. I believe it serves the public. There is always an argument for publicizing malfeasance. I do not believe there is one for making more difficult just getting on with the nation’s diplomatic business.”
Update: If there’s a big winner thus far from the leaks, the emerging consensus is that — irony of ironies — it’s Israel. The JPost is crowing about vindication, pointing to the urgency of Sunni demands in private chats with the U.S. to do something about Iran’s nuclear program. Says Eli Lake, “Wikileaks cables suggest actually that Israel was less bullish on bombing Iran than most Arab states.” And Omri Ceren takes it a step further, wondering why it is that Sunni Arabs seem so focused in the cables on hitting Iran when American leftists are forever insisting that (a) the Iranian threat is overstated and (b) a Palestinian state is the true key to regional peace and eventual Iranian disarmament. Good question.