Foreign and Defense Policy

Stop Downplaying WikiLeaks Damage

robert_gibbsLast week, the word had clearly gone out among Obama administration spokesmen to downplay the damage caused by WikiLeaks. Last week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs appeared on Fox News to declare “We should never be afraid of one guy who plopped down $35 and bought a web address … Let’s not be scared of one guy with a laptop.” See the full video here.

Meanwhile, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell went on the airwaves to declare that the leaks did nothing more than create “some awkward and embarrassing situations for the United States government, it clearly puts those who cooperate with us, even some of our diplomats, in difficult positions—hopefully not endangered situations. But, at the end of the day, it does not, at least over the long term, adversely impact America’s power or prestige.”

Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates got onto the denial bandwagon. “I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer and so on,” Gates told reporters at the Pentagon last week. “I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought . . . Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

Then, on Sunday, Julian Assange struck again, releasing what are arguably his most damaging disclosures to date. The Associated Press reports:

In a disclosure of some of the most sensitive information yet revealed by WikiLeaks, the website has put out a secret cable listing sites worldwide that the U.S. considers critical to its national security. U.S. officials said the leak amounts to giving a hit list to terrorists.

Among the locations cited in the diplomatic cable from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are undersea communications lines, mines, antivenin factories and suppliers of food and manufacturing materials.

The Pentagon declined to comment Monday on the details of what it called “stolen” documents containing classified information.

… In the message, marked “secret,” Clinton asked U.S. diplomatic posts to help update a list of sites around the world “which, if destroyed, disrupted or exploited, would likely have an immediate and deleterious effect on the United States.”

The list was considered so confidential that the contributors were advised to come up with the information on their own: Posts are “not being asked to consult with host governments in respect to this request,” Clinton wrote.

Attached to Clinton’s message was a rundown of sites included in the 2008 “Critical Foreign Dependencies Initiative” list. Some of the sites, such as border crossings, hydroelectric dams and shipping lanes, could hardly be considered secret.

But other locations, such as mines, manufacturers of components used in weapons systems, and vaccine and antivenin sources, probably were not widely known. The Associated Press has decided against publishing their names due to the sensitive nature of the information.

This is a virtual repeat of what happened in August, when WikiLeaks released 75,000 classified documents on the war in Afghanistan. At first, the documents were dismissed as containing no new or damaging information. But then, on closer examination, it turned out that they identified more than 100 Afghans who were secretly cooperating with the United States against the Taliban—putting the lives of these sources and their families at risk.

Now, once again, the damage of Assange’s disclosures is undeniable. On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder put aside whatever directive had gone out to downplay the leaks and spoke plainly:

The national security of the United States has been put at risk; the lives of people who work for the American people have been put at risk; the American people themselves have been put at risk by these actions that are, I believe, arrogant, misguided, and ultimately not helpful in any way.

Holder added that he “authorized just last week a number of things to be done so that we can hopefully get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable,” but declined to elaborate. He’d better act soon. Assange is releasing this latest cache of documents in piecemeal fashion, a few at a time, and he has promised more to come. The WikiLeaks founder is in British custody now fighting extradition to Sweden to face rape charges. This would be an optimal moment for the Justice Department to indict Assange, and issue an extradition request of our own.

Image by Studio08Denver.

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