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Wikileaks Reflections

I’ve been following the Wikileaks State Department cable story for awhile. I’ve been saddened by the Administration’s overreaction, though not entirely surprised. What does surprise me is that the Obama administration, which has shown itself to be pretty tech savvy, appears to believe that it can prevent the cables from being read by government employees simply by blocking Wikileaks from gov’t computers. The widespread use of smartphones renders this action immediately ineffective. In order to truly block Wikileaks and sites reproducing their cables, the US Government would need to institute a Chinese style “Great Firewall” where all US traffic was routed through government censorware. I don’t think that’s worth it. Such a national firewall would inevitably be used to censor a growing amount of information (“immorality”, “hate speech”, “unAmerican ideas”, “infringed copyrights”, etc) entirely unrelated to national security.

Interestingly, one thing lost in the Wikileaks story is that most of their leaked cables are unclassified. That’s right. Here are numbers by classification from the Wikileaks Cable Viewer:

  • 15, 652 secret
  • 101,748 confidential
  • 133,887 unclassified

So 53% of the cables are NOT secret data. Some of these unclassified cables make for interesting reading and raise questions that aren’t being discussed in the media. For example cable 09BRASILIA1276, titled “REQUEST TO BRAZIL TO RESETTLE CUBAN MIGRANTS PROTECTED ON GUANTANAMO” details US efforts to have Brazil take some Cubans who somehow got to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. This raises at least a couple of questions – 1) Why aren’t these Cubans being resettled in the States? It’s not Brazil’s problem unless they’re showing up at the Brazillian Embassy. It’s not even a similar cultures thing – Spanish speaking Cubans would be disadvantaged in Portuguese speaking Brazil as they would be in the English speaking US. Couldn’t they be sent to Spanish speaking US territory Puerto Rico instead?; 2) How many Cuban migrants are at Guantanamo?; 3) Is the US prepared to have Guantanamo Bay become a mass destination for desperate Cubans?  If so, do we have a plan to handle them?; 4) Are the Castro brothers planting spies at our naval base through some of these “migrants”?

Did you know that we’re running a hostel for migrants at the same base we’re holding suspected terrorists? I didn’t. And that’s just one revelation from one UNCLASSIFIED cable. What else is the government doing that we don’t know about and which some Americans might question?

That brings us to the secret cables.

Generally speaking, I’m with the folks at the Federation of American Scientists who believe that there are some legitimate secrecy needs but that much information is badly overclassified. The standards I think are fair are:

1) Personally identifiable information that might lead to the death of someone cooperating with US authorities should never be disclosed while that person is alive.

2) The location of US and allied forces in PUBLICLY acknowledged theaters of war. (i.e. The location of US teams in Afghanistan and Iraq need not be disclosed for operational security, but if we’re using Special Forces teams to kidnap people in Switzerland, that deserves be disclosed.)

3) Confidential negotiations and other actions in support of PUBLICLY declared US policy should be protected from immediate disclosure, but should be declassified after the 25 years prescribed by law.

4) Statements by foreign governments that are in support of their PUBLICLY declared policy. (i.e. If the Saudi gov’t really wants Iran’s government toppled, they should either keep that to themselves or go public. Leaving us to be the heavy isn’t acceptable.)

In short I think the government is entitled to secrecy for operational reasons when their conduct conforms to publicly decided policy. A government of a representative republic has no entitlement to secrecy when pursuing policy aims hidden from the voters. Our actions should confirm to our stated intentions. If we won’t hold ourselves accountable, then others have the right to. I wish Wikileaks had vetted their cables better to prevent naming cooperative individuals, but I support similar efforts at enforcing accountability by showing the world when we say one thing, but do another.

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