Of Leaks and Conspiracies.

Wikileaks has scored another major coup with its publication of more than 90,000 official and previously classified documents on the Afghan conflict. I am of two minds on its doing so. On the one hand I see it as a valuable instrument of accountability, both as instrument for holding the people directly responsible to account as well as a future deterrent to others who might engage in unlawful acts or cover-ups during wartime. On the other hand, publication of the document clearly jeopardises the national security of the US as well as the ISAF mission, and does so on several levels. The bottom line is that it gives the Taleban, al-Qaeda, Pakistani intelligence (the ISI) and other rogue states very valuable insight into US military operations and intelligence gathering efforts. Depending on where one stands in the ideological divide, that can be very good or very bad news. I believe that in this regard it is bad news.

In publishing this classified information Wikileaks has made itself an enemy of the state in the US. In the measure that it uncovers other state secrets, it could well become an international pariah, at least among the Western states that is its main focus. This is ironic. Although Wikileaks has complained about harassment from US security agencies, it has not (yet) suffered direct retribution for its actions. But imagine if it published extremely sensitive classified military documents from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or even Israel. We can safely assume, given these country’s past records on breaches of  and threats to national security, that the Wikileaks community would have very good reason to fear for their lives. In fact, there may be two reasons why Wikileaks does not publish on these states: 1) the amount of secrecy in them is far superior to that of the US and other Western countries; 2) Wikileaks is afraid to do so for fear of mortal retaliation. Put another way, Wikileaks targets the US not only because of its concern about US military misdeeds, because it knows that it can get away with it due to the more benign nature of democratic regimes (to include the US) when it comes to confronting non-violent security threats.

That raises an item of note. Wikileaks is successful because it has people within the US and other Western security agencies leaking classified information to it. This is, of course, a crime, since public dissemination of classified information without official authorisation is outlawed in all states. For example, I am bound by an oath I signed in the 1990s to not divulge, release or comment directly on the classified issues that I worked on during my stint in the Pentagon, and after 25 years have passed must request permission from the agencies I worked with before attempting to do so. The penalities for breaching this contract are long federal prison terms. Similar laws bind people working in security agencies throughout the world. Thus any leak of classified material is by definition a crime against the state.

Yet in Western democracies people of conscience or feeling remorse regularly turn to the media as well as public watchdogs and government accountability agencies to reveal classified information that provides evidence of official wrong-doing. In fact, many consider it to be a public duty for them to do so. In addition, the size of security agencies often makes hermetic secrecy impossible. The US has 1.5 million people with top secret clearances. From my experience in the Pentagon and elsewhere, individuals often take home, either deliberately or (more often) inadvertently, classified work papers that are part of their normal desk load and which do not have the strict records controls of documents classified as Secret Compartmentalised Information (SCI) or higher. Between the two types of mishandling–deliberate leaks and misadvertent transfer–the US security apparatus is a huge porous sieve. The fact that a single US Army private provided the documentation (and video) on the Iraq helicopter assault on journalists and the Afghan war dossier proves just how far down the chain of command sensitive information flows. Imagine if it were a colonel or general who decided to pass along his secure file cabinet worth of documents! In fact, I am surprised that it was someone so far down the totem pole who managed to get so much information out of the system and into Wikileaks’ hands.

Which brings up the issue of purported US government conspiracies, those about 9/11 in particular. Unfortunately, due to some writing and public commentary I have made on 9/11, I have had to deal with conspiracy theorists who believe that it was an inside job, Zionist conspiracy, controlled demolition, rockets rather than planes involved, even holograms rather than the real thing. Some of these otherwise apparently sane people truly believe that the US government conspirators orchestrated the whole thing so as to launch the war on terrorism in a quest for complete global domination. Some even see a link between the JFK assassination, the fake moon walk and 9/11.

Well, I have two things to say to these folk. First, if the “9/11 as part of a drive towards global domination” scenario is true that those plans sure as heck are not working out too well. Second, in a context is which no secrets are safe, in which leaking has become an art form, is it really possible that the US government has been able to enforce one hundred percent secrecy at all levels of operation on the planning, execution and cover-up of the supposed inside job? Is it rational to think that not a single person involved in this monumental plot, which would have involved a cast of thousands, would not have come forward by this point with direct evidence of a conspiracy? Would Wikileaks not have received something along those lines by now?

12 thoughts on “Of Leaks and Conspiracies.

  1. I don’t think it’s so clear as that. Have you heard of Operation Vigilant Guardian? It happened exactly the same time as 9/11 and basically simulated the same thing. Now it would be interesting to know the probability of that being a coincidence (not too high i’d wager), and it wouldn’t require a lot of people knowing about it.

    Not saying that’s what happened, but it does seem very strange.

    “OPERATION VIGILANT GUARDIAN: This exercise simulated hijacked planes in the north eastern sector. Lt. Col. Dawne Deskins, NORAD unit’s airborne control and warning officer, was overseeing the exercise. At 8:40am she took a call from Boston Center which said it had a hijacked airliner. Her first words, as quoted by Newhouse News Service were, “It must be part of the exercise”.


  2. I think what is equally interesting about these latest Wikileaks is that when Ministers in both the Australian and New Zealand Governments were asked by the media to comment about those specific reports documenting engagement by their own troops in Afghanistan with the Taleban, Ministers in both countries said they had been unaware of the incidents.

    This begs the question, are the military chiefs in Australia and New Zealand withholding information from their political bosses? Are they keeping information from their own Governments, for their own purposes? This surely is a debate worth having.

    On a related matter, the Auditor-General last week released her report into Defence staff seconded to the UN double-dipping on housing allowances – claiming an allowance from the NZDF as well as from the UN, all with the approval of the NZDF. The A-G was critical in the way the command structure dissuaded individuals from questioning senior officers even when they knew something was wrong.

    On the surface, it seems too much power (without adequate oversight or scrutiny by politicians) is in the hands of our military chiefs.

    If NZDF are going to consciously lie to the UN about housing allowances (they have since had to pay the money back to the UN), then it seems a short step for them to take in deciding to conceal military engagements of NZ troops with the Taleban, from their Minister.

  3. Very good points Chris. I was aware of the double dipping scandal because I have a journalist friend who covered it, but it seems to me you have pin-pointed a potentially bigger problem. Of course, NZ politicians seem to practice a version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to all things the NZDF (when not exhibit outright ignorance of defense and security related issues), so in a sense they invite the abuse of authority on the part of their supposed underlings.

    Your questions are they type that should be raised in parliament. Alas, they probably never will unless Keith Locke decides to give them a go.

  4. If the Wikileaks story tells us anything it is that it’s impossible in a Western democracy to keep things secret forever.

    And that makes the 9/11 conspiracies all the more laughable. If this sinister and ruthless plan existed within US intelligence to destroy the Twin Towers, why has nobody blown the whistle, and why have none of the “Truthers” been dealt with in the same ruthless manner?

  5. I am of two minds regarding the leaks. One, why leak now? Second, a complicated one – if you squint your eyes on the interactive the Guardian has made up and watch the entire period from 2003-2009 light up red, green,yellow. You can see patterns of IED explosions across the southern and eastern side of Afghanistan with the occasional hit west. This leads me to a two point question – Why put good soldiers on the line with such data? Just how useful is this information? from a strategic point of view, because the patterns of IED shows where insurgents are targeting, and where the response is taking place.

    It would seem in my view that the leaks can be a controlled leak, as a way of exploring potential in gathering information. But I am concerned that a patriot of the US deliberately chose to cross the line in the act of exposing its military to questions. I would agree that blunders do happen as the response time to an event is quite short when under fire, friendly or note. Getting intel quickly on the field would not be coming in faster enough. We must also be aware that this kind of warfare is fairly new in terms of tactics, by the enemy and friendlies.

    On a positive note: I found the data useful in that it gives me insight to the kinds of issues military personnel have to deal with. I respect more the kind of work they do.

    However, I do find the leaks treasonous. So what if I have learnt something useful, I still think that it has exposed too much information, for anyone.

  6. Put another way, Wikileaks targets the US not only because of its concern about US military misdeeds, because it knows that it can get away with it due to the more benign nature of democratic regimes (to include the US) when it comes to confronting non-violent security threats.

    well yes, and i’d agree that the consequences would be more extreme if they leaked info about other regimes, although i think the threat would be much greater for the leaker than for the wikileaks community.

    but there is also the fact that the US is a much bigger target, having a much bigger global impact, given that it is responsible for 46.5% of global military expenditure, with the next closest being china at 6.6% (according to figures here).

  7. stargazer:

    I agree that the US is and should be a natural target due to its disproportionate size and impact on international security affairs. I simply note that for the moment Wikileaks has focused on Western democracies, mostly the US and its (in many regards dubious) military campaigns. The real measure of Wikileaks value to the international community will come when it starts publishing sensitive data about all types of state and corporate transgressions regardless of origin. But that, as you correctly note, is a risky proposition for would be leakers and whistle-blowers the world over. Think, for example, of what regularly happens to Russian investigative journalists and you get an idea of the fate that awaits those who do not have the legal protections afforded them by liberal democratic jurisprudence.

    But a start is a start I guess, although many have another word for what Wikileaks does: treason (although treason can only occur when a national unlawfully acts against his or her state on behalf of a foreign enemy, and since Wikileaks is a transnational organisation, it cannot be treasonous by definition. However, the same cannot be said for those who supply it with sensitive government documents, as the prosecution of Private Manning–the fellow who is suspected of supplying the documents on US military activities in Afghanistan and Iraq–will show).

  8. Pablo

    The problem with your definition of ‘treason’ is that it’s very hard to determine the difference between acting against the state and acting against the government of the day or their policies. A total equation of the state as an entity with the policies of the current government is the sort of practice that characterises the sort of totalitarian regimes you’re hoping wikileaks will shift its attention to.

  9. Hugh:

    That is not “my” definition of treason. It is the standard definition used in Western liberal democracies. It deliberately refers to the “state” rather than a government precisely to avoid the problem you mention, i.e. the confusion of state with government and the manipulation of the concept of treason by the latter.

    Both Ronald Reagan and W. Bush attempted to conflate the two terms in an effort to re-write the definition of “treason” in the face of domestic opposition to the Contra War and Iraq Invasion, respectively. They did not succeed because both Congress and the courts saw the ruse for what it was. On the other hand the Obama administration is intent on prosecuting Private Manning and/or other US nationals who may have been involved in the leaks, which illustrates my point since most of the leaked material covers a time period in which Bush 43 was in office. In other words, two very different US administrations concur in principle on the dangers to national security posed by the leaks precisely because the issue is non-partisan and involves state, not government secrets.

    Bottom line: you can be treasonous against a democratic state, but you cannot be treasonous against a democratic government.

  10. Pablo

    Personally, as an inhabitant of a liberal Western democracy, my experience is that the term ‘treason’ is rarely used outside of polemical circles and is maddeningly imprecise. Perhaps the liberal Western democracy I live in is an outlier, or perhaps my understanding is flawed.

    But I will say this – you seem to feel that because both a Democratic and Republican administration agree that what Manning did was is treason, it was treason, and that treason is an appropriate lens through which to approach this.

    I feel that there are analytical approaches which are still valid despite being inimical to both Democrats and Republicans.

    We may be approaching the point where we need to agree to disagree.

  11. Hugh:

    You really do have a penchant for putting words in my mouth. I never said that because Dems and Republicans viewed the Manning case in similar terms that I thought it was treason. In fact it remains to be seen if he will be prosecuted for treason, much less convicted of it (should he be responsible for the Afghan leaks). The point I was making with the example is simply that treason is a crime against a state, not a government. Surely that is a simple concept to understand.

    Your apparently limited experience notwithstanding, in Western liberal democratic jurisprudence the term treason is defined in rather precise terms in order to avoid the type of conceptual stretching that allows for its abuse as a punitive instrument against legitimate dissent and whistle blowing. There is nothing polemical about that.

  12. I retract the use of ‘treason’. In light of this post’s comments, I may have to rethink how, in this Internet savvy world, to define such leaks. Are they useful, moral even? Has damage truly been done the war effort in Afghanistan? Who actually gains from such leaks?

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