Glass Houses

by wjw on November 30, 2010

Color me stoked about the WikiLeaks scandal.  250,000 classified documents, half a billion words, a look at the way the US views the world, unfiltered by press secretaries (though apparently the cables will be redacted by several major news organizations, including the NY Times).

And what earth-shaking secrets have been revealed so far?  Well, we’ve learned that Iran is hated and feared by its neighbors, that Angela Merkel is timid, that Sarkozy is thin-skinned, that Karzai is ineffectual and a crook, and that Putin controls Russia through a network of corrupt ex-spies.  What a scandal, that this information has been revealed to an stunned world!

What astounding fact comes next?  That Silvio Berlusconi dates younger women?

Of course, there’s the weird item that Hilary Clinton has been nagging embassies to provide credit card information and the frequent flyer numbers of UN officials.  God alone knows what she was planning to do with that— order some cool office furniture from Hammacher-Schlemmer on their Visa cards?  (And besides, doesn’t she have the CIA to provide that sort of information?  It’s like she’s been pressing the wrong button on her phone all this time.)

And I don’t imagine the revelations are doing relations between China and North Korea any good.  It can’t have improved Kim Jong-Il’s day to know that the Chinese don’t expect his regime to long survive him, that they view him as a big baby, and that they’re okay with South Korea occupying his country (so long as they don’t bring Americans with them).

The cables reflect pretty well on the State Department.  These diplomats are doing what they’re trained for.  They’re collecting local information, they’re reporting the candid views of foreign sources, and they’re providing information about personalities, sometimes hilariously— you’ve gotta love the detail about the Chechen dictator dancing at a wedding with his gold-plated pistol hanging out of his waistband.

It has to be said, though, that the big news is that this information was so easily obtained.  The Pentagon’s Secret Internet Protocol Network (SIPRNet) is a worldwide US military network to which the State Department and its embassies have access.  It runs on Windows XP, not exactly your best model of Internet security.  Anyone with a Secret clearance has access not only to the diplomatic cables, but to everything else.

Wanna guess how many people have access to SIPRNet?  How about . . . three million?

You’ve gotta say, this is really not very bright.  I mean, some low-level enlisted man might logon and download 250,000 classified documents on a thumb drive or something.

SIPRNet is a classic example of a good idea gone haywire.  The idea was to put every document related to terrorism on a single source, so that it could be accessed by anyone who needed it.  But they dumped in loads of unrelated stuff as well, and now their own system has well and truly bitten them on the butt.

With a system that transparent, that means that any government with an interest has already suborned one of those three million and read these cables.  Folks, this is only news to us. Ordinary people, that is.

Still, I have hopes for WikiLeaks changing the game.  Remember, this is from the outfit that nearly changed the global consensus on climate change.  They crashed the economy of Iceland. WikiLeaks now claims to have obtained documents related to the inner workings of a very large American bank, which will show how the financial system really works, and how it interacts with government— hey, that could crash the U.S.! (Again.)   They claim to have a vast amount of material on Russia— and so maybe they’ll crash Russia too.

It occurs to me that Russia may only exist because a few important people have decided that it does.  And if those props are knocked out, does Russia just become another Iceland?

I recall a story in which a State Department analyst once offered to write a paper for Condi Rice concerning options for future U.S. policy, and she told him not to, because it would be on the front page of the New York Times the next day.

So for my money, the question now, is whether government and finance is only possible if the vast majority of the citizenry is kept in complete ignorance of what they are doing?  If Secretary Rice, for fear of exposure, prevents her own analysts from analyzing anything, does that mean that government can no longer conduct the kind of debate and internal dialog that is necessary for a clear-sighted view of its future and its own operation?  If the government can’t talk to itself for fear that someone’s listening, do we actually have a government, or just 2.15 million civil servants operating in a complete vacuum, unaware that a bigger picture even exists?

Maybe the people who most need WikiLeaks are the people who are actually running things.

Bjorn November 30, 2010 at 9:51 am

Good analysis, but I have to sadden you with the fact that Wikileaks had nothing to do with Kaupthing, and Iceland crashing.

They did however some months after the crash help leak a list of Kaupthing lendings.

ObDisclosure: I used to work at Kaupthing, lost my job in the cutbacks right after the crash)

Dave Bishop November 30, 2010 at 9:54 am

Here, in the UK, government officials seem to lose sensitive information on an almost weekly basis (they always seem to leave laptops and disks on trains – for some odd reason).

Personally, although I have no objection to the odd leak now and again, I really can’t see how we, the global public, are going to benefit from this latest avalanche. In fact I fear that, as you imply in your piece above, we may end up knowing even less than we do now.

Max Kaehn November 30, 2010 at 7:27 pm
Ralf the Dog November 30, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Why the UN credit card information?

1. Get the card numbers.

2. order a bunch of sex toys (strange ones).

3. Tell the UN worker you know about their rather disgusting habits and have proof. Get us this document or we will tell your wife and your girlfriend.

wjw December 1, 2010 at 5:00 am

Bjorn— you’re right. The leaks came in August 2009, and the Icelandic economy had melted down the previous October.

Specifically, the leaks showed that Kraupthing Bank had loaned its own officers and principal shareholders more than $1.5 billion, then written the loans off. Oops!

Max, you’re right that WikiLeaks’ stated objective is to persuade governments and institutions to “open your kimono” and reveal themselves completely. The idea is that if you’re completely honest and principled, you’ll be fine.

My question was whether it’s possible for a completely honest government to even exist. Isn’t “diplomacy” just a euphemism for “lying?” Or at least “obscuring the truth in a gentle haze of words?”

DensityDuck December 1, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Imagine how the Cuban Missile Crisis would have turned out if the United States had known the truth about the terrible performance of Russian strategic military hardware.

Consul-At-Arms December 8, 2010 at 4:32 am

1. Actually, SIPRNet predates the GWOT by quite a few years, although your arecorrect (I think) if what you’re getting at is State’s inclusion of classified cable traffic. That came well after SIPRNet’s establishment.

2. It occurs to me that Russia already is another Iceland.

Except, of course, for all the things that make it so much more (and so much less) than Iceland.

No offense meant, Iceland.

3. You’re getting to the heart of what I worry will be an over-reaction to the Wikileaks leaks; hamstringing our intelligence analysts and decision-makers through too-zealous or cookie-cutter application of need-to-know policies. After all, how does an intelligence analyst tell you he needs to know something if he doesn’t already know about it? Kind of hard to do that if he’s kept from knowing about it, isn’t it?

This sort of thing spells “intelligence failure.” Intelligence analysts know that there are, after all, only two kinds of military outcomes: operational successes and intelligence failures.

I’ve quoted you and linked to you here:


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