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from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2010, Issue No. 95
December 1, 2010

Secrecy News Blog:



The ongoing release of U.S. diplomatic communications by the Wikileaks organization is "embarrassing" and "awkward," said Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates yesterday, but its consequences for U.S. foreign policy are likely to be "fairly modest."

"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... Other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another."

Coming from the Secretary of Defense, that measured statement should help to deflate some of the more extreme reactions to the Wikileaks action.

The Obama Administration should "use all legal means necessary to shut down Wikileaks before it can do more damage by releasing additional cables," said Sen. Joe Lieberman on November 28.

Wikileaks leader Julian Assange should be designated an enemy combatant, suggested Rep. Steve King (R-IA) on the House floor yesterday. Then he could be "moved over to a place offshore of the United States outside of the jurisdiction of the Federal courts..., and adjudicated under a military tribunal in a fashion that was designed by this Congress and directed by this Congress. That's what I'm hopeful that we'll be able to do."

Such fantastic notions probably cannot survive the judgment of the U.S. Secretary of Defense that what is at stake is "embarrassment" and "awkwardness," not the defense of the realm.

That does not mean that the policy consequences of the latest Wikileaks release will be insignificant. Information sharing within the government is already being curtailed, and avenues of public disclosure may be adversely affected by the Wikileaks controversy. In a November 28 email message to reporters, the Pentagon spelled out several security measures that have already been implemented to restrict and monitor the dissemination of classification information in DoD networks.

"Bottom line: It is now much more difficult for a determined actor to get access to and move information outside of authorized channels," wrote Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.

Meanwhile, the Office of Management and Budget ordered (pdf) each agency that handles classified information to perform a security review of its procedures and to reinforce the traditional "need to know" requirements that strictly limit individual access to classified information.

"Any failure by agencies to safeguard classified information pursuant to relevant laws, including but not limited to Executive Order 13526, Classified National Security Information (December 29, 2009), is unacceptable and will not be tolerated," the OMB memo stated.

The possibility of prosecuting Wikileaks as a criminal enterprise is reportedly under consideration, and has been publicly urged by some members of Congress and others. The feasibility of such a prosecution is uncertain, and nothing quite like it has been attempted before. The most "promising" legal avenue of attack against Wikileaks would seem to be a charge of conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act (under 18 USC 793g), based on the allegation that Wikileaks encouraged and collaborated with others in violating the terms of the Act. But these are dangerous legal waters, fraught with undesirable consequences for other publishers of controversial information.


As confidential U.S. diplomatic documents continue to enter the public domain, it is worth remembering that not everything that is written down in a government document, even (or especially) in a classified document, is necessarily true. "Truth telling" involves a bit more than trafficking in official records. Any historian or archival researcher knows that. So did the Soviet agent Kim Philby, who addressed the issue in his 1968 book "My Silent War" (p. 255):

"It is difficult, though by no means impossible, for a journalist to obtain access to original documents. But these are often a snare and a delusion. Just because a document is a document, it has a glamour which tempts the reader to give it more weight than it deserves. This document from the United States Embassy in Amman, for example. Is it a first draft, a second draft or the finished memorandum? Was it written by an official of standing, or by some dogsbody with a bright idea? Was it written with serious intent or just to enhance the writer's reputation? Even if it is unmistakably a direct instruction to the United States Ambassador from the Secretary of State dated last Tuesday, is it still valid today? In short, documentary intelligence, to be really valuable, must come as a steady stream, embellished with an awful lot of explanatory annotation. An hour's serious discussion with a trustworthy informant is often more valuable than any number of original documents."

"Of course, it is best to have both," he added.


Nuclear physicist Sam Cohen died Sunday at age 89, the Washington Post reported in an obituary today. Cohen, a veteran of the Manhattan Project, conceived, designed and advocated development of the neutron bomb, a high-radiation anti-personnel weapon.

He cordially despised the Federation of American Scientists, which didn't stop him from writing and calling us regularly to discuss his bodily ailments, the history of nuclear weapons, classification policy, and whether or not former Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary was the devil's spawn.

In 2000, Sam Cohen authored and self-published a book called "Shame." It is an almost unbearably candid memoir of the author's abusive childhood, which left him deeply scarred, and a description of how his views of nuclear weapons emerged as a result. It is a neglected classic. We reviewed it here. Rest in peace.


Noteworthy new documents from the Congressional Research Service that have not been made readily available to the public include the following (all pdf).

"Changes in Airport Passenger Screening Technologies and Procedures: Frequently Asked Questions," November 23, 2010.

"North Korea's 2009 Nuclear Test: Containment, Monitoring, Implications," November 24, 2010.

"Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty: Background and Current Developments," November 16, 2010.

"North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation," November 10, 2010.

"Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI)," November 5, 2010.