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State Department Cables, Wikileaks, and Classification

Let's talk about this Wikileaks issue.  The State Department cables leaked this week represent, we are told, the greatest diplomatic disaster in the current era.  So, considering the list of bombshells disclosed by these documents:  was there anything in them you didn't already pretty much know?

I'd say the biggest bombshell of the report is realizing that Hillary Clinton would have made a fantastic President of the United States.  I have to admit that I voted for her in 2008, in the primaries, mostly on a triage basis.  Look at her squarely today, though:  that's exactly the combination of guts and devotion to American interests I want to see in a President.  We made a terrible mistake as a nation in not putting her forward as the Democratic candidate in 2008.

Let's review the other great revelations; I'll use Drudge's list for ease of reference:

Iran smuggled arms to Hezbollah!  C'mon, everyone knows that.  

Iran obtained missiles from the DPRK!  Surprised?  Of course not -- there have been regular reports in the press about such efforts for years.

China is conducting computer sabotage!  Their interest in cyber warfare as an asymmetric lever is very well known.

Saudis urge US attack on Iran!  Anyone surprised by this?

How about those assessments of foreign leaders?  Putin is the real power in Russia!  Karzai is weak and paranoid!  Kim Jong-Il is a basket case!

It's important to keep diplomatic secrets, but it's also important to recognize how little most of them are secrets.  The United States -- and every other nation -- has well known, established interests.  Foreign leaders aren't, in general, black boxes.  Nobody's really surprised by any of this.

What's the point of this?  Diplomatic cables' inclusion in SIPRnet is of real benefit to interagency operations.  It would be a mistake to restrict them.  I used to read the things every morning in Iraq, to keep visibility on what was happening at the top that might filter its way down to our level.  Those 'secrets' won't ever appear in the newspaper because they aren't important to the world, but they were sometimes important to us.  

A cable treating, say, the probability of Iraq's federal government enacting new agriculture protections would be of tremendous interest to tribal leaders in the agricultural regions.  Knowing about it gave us advance notice and leverage, and the ability to be clued-in when we went out to talk with folks.

About six years ago the JASON panel put forward a suggestion that we needed to push information classification down to much lower levels than previously.  

Among the first steps, the authors say, is to define an acceptable level of risk.

 "As a nation we can afford to lose X secret and Y top secret documents per year. We can afford a Z probability that a particular technical capability or HUMINT source is compromised."

 Clearly, X, Y, and Z must be more than zero. Otherwise, "all operations stop, because all operations entail some nonzero risk."

 The next step is to *increase* information distribution "all the way up to the acceptable risk level."

They were, I submit, absolutely right about that.  This Wikileaks thing is the logical consequence of following that policy.  We're going to lose a certain number of classified documents every year; but we're also going to benefit from information sharing between State and the military.  We're going to benefit tremendously from pushing information down to the lowest possible level in the military -- to the platoon leaders, the company commanders, the battalion commander and his staff, to the TPTs and Civil Affairs teams going outside the wire.  

The more people who see this stuff, the more likely we'll lose some of it.  We have to be smart about deciding how to manage that risk.  Pushing things to higher levels of classification isn't the answer.  Part of the answer is probably better counterintelligence:  Manning should have been seen for the obvious security risk that he was.  He should not have had the access that he had, but that doesn't mean that soldiers in general shouldn't have access.  It means we should be looking for people who have personal reasons to betray our trust.  Just as we should be looking for bombers and not bombs in counterterror efforts, we should be looking for traitors in CI, not taking steps that would keep people who need to know this information from having access to it.

The loss of these cables is regrettable, and the traitor who passed them ought to be punished.  However, it was the right call to put these things out on SIPRnet:  the benefit of having that information available to our forces in the field outweighs the damage done by the release.