Taking stock of Wikileaks

By George Friedman, Chief Executive Officer STRATFOR

Julian Assange has declared that geopolitics will be separated into pre-“Cablegate” and post-“Cablegate” eras. That was a bold claim. However, given the intense interest that the leaks produced, it is a claim that ought to be carefully considered. Several weeks have passed since the first of the diplomatic cables were released, and it is time now to address the following questions: First, how significant were the leaks? Second, how could they have happened? Third, was their release a crime? Fourth, what were their consequences? Finally, and most important, is the WikiLeaks premise that releasing government secrets is a healthy and appropriate act a tenable position?

Let’s begin by recalling that the U.S. State Department documents constituted the third wave of leaks. The first two consisted of battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. Looking back on those as a benchmark, it is difficult to argue that they revealed information that ran counter to informed opinion. I use the term “informed opinion” deliberately. For someone who was watching Iraq and Afghanistan with some care over the previous years, the leaks might have provided interesting details but they would not have provided any startling distinction between the reality that was known and what was revealed. If, on the other hand, you weren’t paying close attention, and WikiLeaks provided your first and only view of the battlefields in any detail, you might have been surprised.

Let’s consider the most controversial revelation, one of the tens of thousands of reports released on Iraq and Afghanistan and one in which a video indicated that civilians were deliberately targeted by U.S. troops. The first point, of course, is that the insurgents, in violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, did not go into combat wearing armbands or other distinctive clothing to distinguish themselves from non-combatants. The Geneva Conventions have always been adamant on this requirement because they regarded combatants operating under the cover of civilians as being responsible for putting those civilians in harm’s way, not the uniformed troops who were forced to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants when the combatants deliberately chose to act in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

It follows from this that such actions against civilians are inevitable in the kind of war Iraqi insurgents chose to wage. Obviously, this particular event has to be carefully analyzed, but in a war in which combatants blend with non-combatants, civilian casualties will occur, and so will criminal actions by uniformed troops. Hundreds of thousands of troops have fought in Iraq, and the idea that criminal acts would be absent is absurd. What is most startling is not the presence of potentially criminal actions but their scarcity. Anyone who has been close to combat or who has read histories of World War II would be struck not by the presence of war crimes but by the fact that in all the WikiLeaks files so few potential cases are found. War is controlled violence, and when controls fail — as they inevitably do — uncontrolled and potentially criminal violence occurs. However, the case cited by WikiLeaks with much fanfare did not clearly show criminal actions on the part of American troops as much as it did the consequences of the insurgents violating the Geneva Conventions.

Only those who were not paying attention to the fact that there was a war going on, or who had no understanding of war, or who wanted to pretend to be shocked for political reasons, missed two crucial points: It was the insurgents who would be held responsible for criminal acts under the Geneva Conventions for posing as non-combatants, and there were extraordinarily few cases of potential war crimes that were contained in the leaks.

The diplomatic leaks are similar. There is precious little that was revealed that was unknown to the informed observer. For example, anyone reading STRATFOR knows we have argued that it was not only the Israelis but also the Saudis that were most concerned about Iranian power and most insistent that the United States do something about it. While the media treated this as a significant revelation, it required a profound lack of understanding of the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf to regard U.S. diplomatic cables on the subject as surprising.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ statement in the leaks that the Saudis were always prepared to fight to the last American was embarrassing, in the sense that Gates would have to meet with Saudi leaders in the future and would do so with them knowing what he thinks of them. Of course, the Saudis are canny politicians and diplomats and they already knew how the American leadership regarded their demands.

There were other embarrassments also known by the informed observer. Almost anyone who worries about such things is aware that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is close to the Russians and likes to party with young women. The latest batch of leaks revealed that the American diplomatic service was also aware of this. And now Berlusconi is aware that they know of these things, which will make it hard for diplomats to pretend that they don’t know of these things. Of course, Berlusconi was aware that everyone knew of these things and clearly didn’t care, since the charges were all over Italian media.

I am not cherry-picking the Saudi or Italian memos. The consistent reality of the leaks is that they do not reveal anything new to the informed but do provide some amusement over certain comments, such as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev being called “Batman and Robin.” That’s amusing, but it isn’t significant. Amusing and interesting but almost never significant is what I come away with having read through all three waves of leaks.

Obviously, the leaks are being used by foreign politicians to their own advantage. For example, the Russians feigned shock that NATO would be reassuring the Balts about defense against a potential Russian invasion or the Poles using the leaks to claim that solid U.S.-Polish relations are an illusion. The Russians know well of NATO plans for defending the Baltic states against a hypothetical Russian invasion, and the Poles know equally well that U.S.-Polish relations are complex but far from illusory. The leaks provide an opportunity for feigning shock and anger and extracting possible minor concessions or controlling atmospherics. They do not, however, change the structure of geopolitics.

Indeed, U.S. diplomats come away looking sharp, insightful and decent. While their public statements after a conference may be vacuous, it is encouraging to see that their read of the situation and of foreign leaders is unsentimental and astute. Everything from memos on senior leaders to anonymous snippets from apparently junior diplomats not only are on target (in the sense that STRATFOR agrees with them) but are also well-written and clear. I would argue that the leaks paint a flattering picture overall of the intellect of U.S. officials without revealing, for the most part, anything particularly embarrassing.

At the same time, there were snarky and foolish remarks in some of the leaks, particularly personal comments about leaders and sometimes their families that were unnecessarily offensive. Some of these will damage diplomatic careers, most generated a good deal of personal tension and none of their authors will likely return to the countries in which they served. Much was indeed unprofessional, but the task of a diplomat is to provide a sense of place in its smallest details, and none expect their observations ever to be seen by the wrong people. Nor do nations ever shift geopolitical course over such insults, not in the long run. These personal insults were by far the most significant embarrassments to be found in the latest release. Personal tension is not, however, international tension.

This raises the question of why diplomats can’t always simply state their minds rather than publicly mouth preposterous platitudes. It could be as simple as this: My son was a terrible pianist. He completely lacked talent. After his recitals at age 10, I would pretend to be enthralled. He knew he was awful and he knew I knew he was awful, but it was appropriate that I not admit what I knew. It is called politeness and sometimes affection. There is rarely affection among nations, but politeness calls for behaving differently when a person is in the company of certain other people than when that person is with colleagues talking about those people. This is the simplest of human rules. Not admitting what you know about others is the foundation of civilization. The same is true among diplomats and nations.

And in the end, this is all I found in the latest WikiLeaks release: a great deal of information about people who aren’t American that others certainly knew and were aware that the Americans knew, and now they have all seen it in writing. It would take someone who truly doesn’t understand how geopolitics really works to think that this would make a difference. Some diplomats may wind up in other postings, and perhaps some careers will be ended. But the idea that this would somehow change the geopolitics of our time is really hard to fathom. I have yet to see Assange point to something so significant that that it would justify his claim. It may well be that the United States is hiding secrets that would reveal it to be monstrous. If so, it is not to be found in what has been released so far.

There is, of course, the question of whether states should hold secrets, which is at the root of the WikiLeaks issue. Assange claims that by revealing these secrets WikiLeaks is doing a service. His ultimate maxim, as he has said on several occasions, is that if money and resources are being spent on keeping something secret, then the reasons must be insidious. Nations have secrets for many reasons, from protecting a military or intelligence advantage to seeking some advantage in negotiations to, at times, hiding nefarious plans. But it is difficult to imagine a state — or a business or a church — acting without confidentiality. Imagine that everything you wrote and said in an attempt to figure out a problem was made public? Every stupid idea that you discarded or clueless comment you expressed would now be pinned on you. But more than that, when you argue that nations should engage in diplomacy rather than war, taking away privacy makes diplomacy impossible. If what you really think of the guy on the other side of the table is made public, how can diplomacy work?

This is the contradiction at the heart of the WikiLeaks project. Given what I have read Assange saying, he seems to me to be an opponent of war and a supporter of peace. Yet what he did in leaking these documents, if the leaking did anything at all, is make diplomacy more difficult. It is not that it will lead to war by any means; it is simply that one cannot advocate negotiations and then demand that negotiators be denied confidentiality in which to conduct their negotiations. No business could do that, nor could any other institution. Note how vigorously WikiLeaks hides the inner workings of its own organization, from how it is funded to the people it employs.

Assange’s claims are made even more interesting in terms of his “thermonuclear” threat. Apparently there are massive files that will be revealed if any harm comes to him. Implicit is the idea that they will not be revealed if he is unharmed — otherwise the threat makes no sense. So, Assange’s position is that he has secrets and will keep them secret if he is not harmed. I regard this as a perfectly reasonable and plausible position. One of the best uses for secrets is to control what the other side does to you. So Assange is absolutely committed to revealing the truth unless it serves his interests not to, in which case the public has no need to know.

It is difficult to see what harm the leaks have done, beyond embarrassment. It is also difficult to understand why WikiLeaks thinks it has changed history or why Assange lacks a sufficient sense of irony not to see the contradiction between his position on openness and his willingness to keep secrets when they benefit him. But there is also something important here, which is how this all was leaked in the first place.

To begin that explanation, we have to go back to 9/11 and the feeling in its aftermath that the failure of various government entities to share information contributed to the disaster. The answer was to share information so that intelligence analysts could draw intelligence from all sources in order to connect the dots. Intelligence organizations hate sharing information because it makes vast amounts of information vulnerable. Compartmentalization makes it hard to connect dots, but it also makes it harder to have a WikiLeaks release. The tension between intelligence and security is eternal, and there will never be a clear solution.

The real issue is who had access to this mass of files and what controls were put on them. Did the IT department track all external drives or e-mails? One of the reasons to be casual is that this was information that was classified secret and below, with the vast majority being at the confidential, no-foreign-distribution level. This information was not considered highly sensitive by the U.S. government. Based on the latest trove, it is hard to figure out how the U.S. government decides to classify material. But it has to be remembered that given their level of classification these files did not have the highest security around them because they were not seen as highly sensitive.

Still, a crime occurred. According to the case of Daniel Ellsberg, who gave a copy of the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam to a New York Times reporter, it is a crime for someone with a security clearance to provide classified material for publication but not a crime for a publisher to publish it, or so it has become practice since the Ellsberg case. Legal experts can debate the nuances, but this has been the practice for almost 40 years. The bright line is whether the publisher in any way encouraged or participated in either the theft of the information or in having it passed on to him. In the Ellsberg case, he handed it to reporters without them even knowing what it was. Assange has been insisting that he was the passive recipient of information that he had nothing to do with securing.

Now it is interesting whether the sheer existence of WikiLeaks constituted encouragement or conspiracy with anyone willing to pass on classified information to him. But more interesting by far is the sequence of events that led a U.S. Army private first class not only to secure the material but to know where to send it and how to get it there. If Pfc. Bradley Manning conceived and executed the theft by himself, and gave the information to WikiLeaks unprompted, Assange is clear. But anyone who assisted Manning or encouraged him is probably guilty of conspiracy, and if Assange knew what was being done, he is probably guilty, too. There was talk about some people at MIT helping Manning. Unscrambling the sequence is what the Justice Department is undoubtedly doing now. Assange cannot be guilty of treason, since he isn’t a U.S. citizen. But he could be guilty of espionage. His best defense will be that he can’t be guilty of espionage because the material that was stolen was so trivial.

I have no idea whether or when he got involved in the acquisition of the material. I do know — given the material leaked so far — that there is little beyond minor embarrassments contained within it. Therefore, Assange’s claim that geopolitics has changed is as false as it is bold. Whether he committed any crime, including rape, is something I have no idea about. What he is clearly guilty of is hyperbole. But contrary to what he intended, he did do a service to the United States. New controls will be placed on the kind of low-grade material he published. Secretary of Defense Gates made the following point on this:

“Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments — some governments — deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.”

“Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

I don’t like to give anyone else the final word, but in this case Robert Gates’ view is definitive. One can pretend that WikiLeaks has redefined geopolitics, but it hasn’t come close.

George Friedman is author, founder, chief intelligence officer, financial overseer, and Chief Executive Officer of Strategic Forecasting, Inc., a Private global intelligence corporation.

Taking Stock of WikiLeaks is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

Understanding Julian Assange, and The WikiLeaks

The world is under attack. At the center of it all is Julian Assange, and his organization called, WikiLeaks. Yet this isn’t an ordinary attack. There are myriad philosophical considerations that one needs to address. There is the question, “is this right, or wrong?” to, “Should governments have secrets?” There are questions like, “Is WikiLeaks doing the job of journalism?” How about questions that “what wikileaks is nothing more than voyeurism?” There is also the question on the robustness of our Internet infrastructure.

Let us first go through the implications of this on Internet infrastructure.

Internet infrastructure

The implication of this thought bomb that wikileaks unleashed has repercussions on the status quo of the Internet. Denial of service by being kicked out of hosting providers is nothing new. BitTorrent and other File Sharing sites have experienced this in the past. The disabling of DNS is another, and leads to a philosophical question of the robustness of the Internet infrastructure itself. The disabling of DNS under the request of the US Government without so much due processes leans dangerously close to 1984. If it can be done to WikiLeaks, it can be done to any one who has a service, business or activity on the Internet.

Domain Name Service or DNS is the Internet equivalent of the Phonebook. To reach, for instance, you type the name “” on your browser. That is the same as you scrolling through your phonebook, looking for a name of the person you want to reach. The same way that your phone translates the name into a phone number so that the phone company can properly route your call, is the same as what the Web Browser does when you hit that enter key on your web browser asking it to connect to a website.

Being removed from the Domain Name Service is the equivalent of being kicked off the Internet because you become “unreachable.”

DNS and web hosting companies are well within their rights to keep you off their service through a violation of their terms of service, it raises interesting questions on fragile our online life is, by putting it on the hands of others. The removal of WikiLeaks from DNS is a point of failure.

Already, Internet denizens are rallying to mirror WikiLeaks’ content on their individual sites or redirecting it to the new hosting company in Sweden.

Therefore we ask, shouldn’t there be a peer-to-peer based Domain Name Service, which the founders of the Pirate Bay are already working on, and would such a service create a darknet? One part is the regular Internet, and the other— a popularized Darknet, which is a less censored version of the original Internet.

Now the challenge is posed to Cyber Warriors on the Internet: how do you ensure the lights are on when governments, or other organizations wage cyber war on you? Is it imperative therefore to create a truly decentralized Internet? That there is a need to decentralize and secure root DNS?

Internet freedom

How easy would it be for the next time some government wants content off the Internet?

Secretary Hilary Clinton gave a speech early this year on Internet Freedom. She spoke of the Freedom to Connect. She said, “the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other. The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace.”

A friend of mine, described a project on the Internet that we are working on as an agora.

Isn’t the Internet one huge agora?

Is not the denial of service against WikiLeaks, an attack on the Freedom to Connect?

If this Internet is free, shouldn’t it be a venue for all ideas?

If the symbol of a country is a flag, and does it also not mean that we can exercise our civil liberties by burning that flag?

If these Internets are free, shouldn’t all knowledge be freely available? Even knowledge such as those found in a corner, in those dark alleys where child pornography lurks. On one side there are those Neo-Nazis. There are trolls. There is bile. There is hate. There are words posted on blogs that make decent people sick.

As xkcd pointed out, “someone is wrong on the Internet.”

Yet, the censorship of wikileaks is that— censorship.

American representative Ron Paul on his twitter wrote regarding Wikileaks, “In a free society, we are supposed to know the truth. In a society where truth becomes treason, we are in big trouble.

How do we attack bad ideas, and is WikiLeaks necessarily, a bad idea?


The right of WikiLeaks to be on the Internet is apart from what it has done: release state secrets. Iraqi War Diary, and Afghanistan War logs are one thing. Is the release of Cablegate, excessive?

Should governments keep secrets?

What WikiLeaks has done is like stealing someone’s private thoughts for the whole world to know. The argument has merit in that we don’t always say what’s on our mind. We keep some opinion to ourselves, right? Dean Jorge Bocobo @-replied to me on Twitter, he said, “@cocoy if we could all read each other’s mind civilization might not be possible. Wikileaks is like that.”

That’s true too isn’t it?

Voyeurism or journalism?

Is WikiLeaks voyeurism or journalism?

The world needs to keep things secret. What wikileaks has done is the equivalent of recording a conversation between two people, and telling a third what that conversation was about.

If WikiLeaks is Voyeurism, then it suggests that the people behind WikiLeaks has done this routinely, monitoring the world’s signals. It isn’t impossible to do, but it is also difficult for few choice individuals to actively do it. State-sponsored signals gathering is required for the depth of intelligence that WikiLeaks has accomplished.

Voyeurism suggests that Jullian Assange derives pleasure in enjoying seeing someone in distress.

That isn’t who Julian Assange is. To differentiate Assange and WikiLeaks’ philosophy, its raison d’être would be a mistake.

Tom Peyer wrote, “Wikileaks is to journalism what hiphop once was to music.

To understand what wikileaks is, one needs to delve to understand who Julian Assange is.

Julian Assange, some say is a folk hero, a real life, “V,” from “V from Vendetta”. Some say he is out for power. Zunguzungu points out that Assange is out “to destroy this invisible government.”

In “State and Terrorist Conspiracies” (PDF link), Julian Assange wrote, “To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not. Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action.”

That is Assange’s belief.

Julian Assange is an anarchist.

Wikileaks traces its ethos from Assange’s hacker roots. He has combined his knowledge of the digital universe with his experience in journalism.

If knowledge is power, and if the Internet is the greatest accumulation of that knowledge and the best way to unleash the entire knowledge of human kind, isn’t that great power? In many ways, WikiLeaks has done what Journalism has failed to do: uncover the secret world of power. It opened a can of worms such as these charge that al-Jazeera changed coverage to suit Qatari foreign policy.

That can’t be good.

Wikileaks is the forbidden fruit that no one is suppose to eat. It is pandora’s box.

US State Department has warned Columbia State University students not to discuss about WikiLeaks on Facebook, on Twitter. The Huffington post quoted:

“[The alumnus] recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter,” the Office of Career Services advised students. “Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.”

It is like asking to put back the toothpaste out of the tube.

Is it still censorship when the subject matter at hand is confidential information that was stolen?

Does it harm the Interest of free men everywhere to learn that funds flowing to Terror groups are now largely unimpeded? That in fact, terrorist financiers are using bank robberies, kidnap for ransom, harvesting drugs from Afghanistan, religious pilgrimages to Mecca is helping fund terrorism around the world?

What about the ambitions of Iraq’s neighbors? That apparently, their meddling is one of the many reasons why that country is still struggling in a post Saddam world?

Does the release of this information give Intelligence service around the world, an early Christmas and in doing so, does it translate to an attack on the world?

Why Iran loves WikiLeaks,” is an example of how much damage WikiLeaks has done to the diplomatic discourse. How can diplomats speak with candor with each other after this? Does knowing all this diplomatic cable help make the world a better place, or has it simply opened a can of worms, that makes the world even more untenable?

We have taken a bite. We have opened the box. Wikileaks gives us knowledge, but it is in the analysis by the New York Times, the Guardian, and others— the filtering out of the raw data so that the world can make sense of it all is where we derive wisdom. What wikileaks has successfully done is disrupt the applecart. It has exposed fundamental weaknesses in DNS and how easily the tap can be turned off. It has thrown an egg on Journalism’s face. The story on al-Jazeera, on the dangers in Iraq, could serve the public perceptions of the fundamental trouble in the region and how utterly important it is to tame Iran.

Wikileaks released Terror targets— location of sites vital to US national security.

Is Wikileaks worth the price of disclosing US diplomatic cables, thus damaging the ability of diplomats everywhere to speak with candor with everyone?

In the same vein that Napster changed the way movie and music industry in Hollywood has, Wikileaks did something similar to fundamentally change the world of diplomacy, journalism, and government, and maybe a further decentralization of the Internet. Has Wikileaks gained a small victory in the short term, but the larger battle merely forces all players to ante up their game? Is this change as permanent as Napster’s revolution of ushering digital download? Does this therefore open up a world that requires a Steve Jobs and iTunes to fix and stabilize for the next generation, and that in the same way that Wired declared Music piracy to be over, so too would a new status quo be formed?

Photo Credit: Espen Moe, some rights reserved.

This post was originally published on Cocoy Chronicles.