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WikiLeaks, Secret Cables and the Downside of America's Security Mania

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The embarrassing release of more than a quarter million confidential U.S. diplomatic cables Sunday by WikiLeaks is certain to spawn a hand-wringing national debate over why America cannot keep its secrets. Inevitably there will be strident calls for draconian new laws, more exhaustive security procedures and more invasive background investigations into the staggering 3 million Americans with security clearances.

That is the American way dating back to the earliest days of the Cold War – respond to every security breach with a new slam-the-barn-door crackdown. But this bureaucratic reflex obscures the larger truth that for decades America has been unable to tell the difference between real secrets (nuclear codes, the names of Iranian spies, war plans on how to respond to a North Korean military offensive) and routine memos stamped "secret."

Among the 11,000 "secret" cables included in the WikiLeaks document dump is a memorable September 2009 character assessment of Muammar Qaddafi by Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Qaddafi, according to the cable, will not travel without his favorite "voluptuous blonde" Ukrainian nurse because she alone "knows his routine." In fact, Cretz reports, "some embassy contacts claim" that (warning: shocking revelation ahead) Qaddafi and his 38-year-old Ukrainian caregiver have a "romantic relationship." The memo to the State Department goes on to conclude that Qaddafi is "a complicated individual who has managed to stay in power for 40 years through a skillful balancing of interests and realpolitik methods."

Sprinkled with details about Qaddafi's apparent interest in dance troupes and horse racing, the cable reads like a competent newspaper profile written by a visiting foreign correspondent after a week of picking up the diplomatic gossip in Tripoli. The difference is that rather than immediately appearing in the Economist or The Washington Post, the Cretz cable was supposed to remain secret until 2019 when it would be reviewed for declassification. If Qaddafi is still alive in 2019 or any of his heirs hold power in Libya, the odds are prodigiously high that the cable would again be stamped "secret" until 2029 or 2039.

Obviously, there are serious complications for American diplomacy from the unauthorized release of documents like the 2009 conversation between King Hamad of Bahrain and Gen. David Petraeus about possible military strikes against the Iranian nuclear program. No national leader – especially not an Arab monarch – wants his private conversations with the U.S. military emblazoned across the world's front pages. That is why a chagrined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may be contemplating a new book, "It Takes a Village to Plug a Leak."

For all the blustery denunciations of the security breach (John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called it "a reckless action which jeopardizes lives"), this is not the Pentagon Papers revisited. Blaming The New York Times for coordinating the release (and redacting documents) with WikiLeaks is ludicrous since the same material was provided to foreign publications such as The Guardian in Britain and Der Spiegel in Germany.

Short of Chinese-style totalitarian measures like blocking Google searches, any American could access the documents once they hit the web anywhere in the world. The humiliation for U.S. diplomacy comes from the document dump itself – and not from the ability of American voters to learn that the Afghan vice president arrived in the United Arab Emirates with $52 million in cash. (Presumably the Afghan official, Ahmed Massoud, does not qualify for an American Express card).

A lasting casualty from the State Department security breach is the hallowed tradition of the eloquent cable to Washington from an astute political officer in, say, Jakarta who can convey the Indonesian mood with deft details and dazzling analysis. Every diplomat wants to be a modern-day George Kennan who defined the contours of American Cold War policy with his famous Long Telegram from Moscow in 1946. But such bravura breakthroughs are impossible in a world defined by instantaneous communication. As Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins shrewdly wrote Sunday: "What this saga must do is to alter the basis of diplomatic reporting. If WikiLeaks can gain access, by whatever means, so presumably can a foreign power."

All this brings to mind the enduring wisdom of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the last intellectual to serve in the Senate (four terms from New York) and the only public official to serve in the Cabinet or sub-Cabinet of four successive administrations (from JFK to Jerry Ford). Moynihan, who was U.N. ambassador and envoy to India, was long obsessed with the folly of excessive government secrecy. As Moynihan put it in a 1990 memorandum written right after the Berlin Wall came down with no warning from the CIA, "The central and enduring problem of the security system is that ... the secrets are frequently wrong."

Moynihan's correspondence has been collected in a new book titled "A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary," edited by my friend Steve Weisman. Moynihan took pains in his final 2000 letter to his constituents in New York to stress, "As I close out near on to a half century of government and politics, the great fear that I have is the enveloping culture of government secrecy and the corresponding distrust of government that follows. Since the end of the Cold War – which, incidentally, all those secret agencies quite missed ... the secret side of government just keeps growing."

These words were written a year before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist threat has, of course, changed the nature of government secrets worth protecting: No one wants to publicize the vulnerabilities of nuclear power plants or the targeting instructions of Predator drones. But secrets like these are far different than an ambassador passing along unverified rumors about a "romantic relationship" between the Libyan dictator and his "voluptuous" nurse. Such details about Qaddafi are intriguing – and might possibly be useful in Washington – but they are not exactly the crown jewels of American intelligence.

That is the key word -- "intelligence" or the lack thereof. Maybe one reason why America is so bedeviled by WikiLeaks is that the nation has too much dumb bureaucratic over-classification and too little wise national security.

Follow Walter Shapiro on Twitter (lucky you).
Filed Under: WikiLeaks

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36 Comments

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djh6721

Pretty easy to solve this. Do honorable things and you won't have to worry about the truth leaking out. Imagine that.

December 01 2010 at 12:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
croone22

What took the Obama administration so long to react? They knew the release was going to be made months ago. No offence Hillary,but this country is going to have to 'man-up' if it's going to survive. I am sure when Iran attacks the Saudis, because they asked the U.S. to Nuke-Iran, it will be our military that will pay the price.

November 29 2010 at 8:45 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
mugugaipan

Don't spin the issue with any other issue. Govnment should be able to its secrecy in order to function properly. Whoever works for any branch of government and swore for its duty and breached his obligation, he should be punished. Not only he breached his obligation but also betrayed public trust. If one's personal belief conflicts with public duty, he shouldn't take the job in the begining instead of swearing falsely and betraying public. We have to carify entire situation and punish those individuals according to the law.

November 29 2010 at 8:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Good Luck!

It's about time some truths are revealed about our government's diplomatic operations....perhaps covert and a jeopardy to national security, BUT, I'll bet the "conspiracy theorists" are going to have a field day, possibly being proven correct in some cases. We were going to pay $1Million dollars per detainee to their governemnt to take them back?? HUH?? BTW, if the person who leaked this information is a foreigner in a foreign land, I'm wondering if treason applies since he's not an American.

November 29 2010 at 4:24 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
copperkettle3

You tell your wife that her although her sister is very nice, she's eaten one too many Twinkies. Some things should stay behind closed doors. Those responsible, including those at Wikileaks, should be held accountable and prosecuted.

November 29 2010 at 2:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
deniseemtb

I have mixed feelings about this release. As a concerned American who votes, I liked the thought that we can see what goes on behind closed doors when the government thinks that are being sneaky and no one will find out. It shows that our government is as corrupt as many have said for years. While I don't like Obama, and would NEVER vote for him or any of his idiot supporters, we do have to realize that this only covers about a year of his term. Our government was corrupt long before then. My concern, is of two things. One, if and I mean IF, these are real documents that show where are troops really are (and not something used as a decoy), then I think it's wrong that it's released. Put our government under the groud, but don't jeopardize our soldiers. However, I really doubt that someone, no matter how good their contact is, got the REAL documents. If they had, Wikileaks' owner, writers and such would have disappeared off the face of the earth along with the people from the Times and other media sources who are going to or did publish this stuff. Think what you want, but our true "secrets" would never have made it out, short of someone on live TV releasing info. (However, as soon as words started coming our of his/her mouth, they would have their head blow off). We as Americans don't allow things like the locations of our soldiers and where are nukes are hidden to be released. You can argue if you want, but the government will make you disappear if you are a "true" threat to the security of this country. I wonder what is really going on in our country right now. Everyone is racing to find these documents (that are still online even though they are a breach.. Yeah right), all while Washington is busy doing other things. It's hard to tell who leaked this crap and what they are hoping to cover up while everyone has their head on a newspaper. That's what I would be concerned with. Trust me, some of this might be real, like smart a** remarks about other country leaders, but the true "secrets" that were supposed to have been released aren't anymore real than Santa. (Sorry if I'm the first to tell you Santa isn't real)...

November 29 2010 at 2:44 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
ROY S. MALLMANN

We need to go back to the days of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and perhaps temper it just a bit. I have never neen a Democrat that was able to keep a National secret if spilling it would result in personal political gain. You elected a President who could not even pass a MINIMAL military secret clearance, so what in the heck to you expect.

November 29 2010 at 12:46 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
tjcnopops2

Dear Rick 10:41, are you aware that the JCS were planning a military coup to depose JFK because he was planning to close down our 'incursion' into Vietnam? I do not trust anyone in the military above the grade of Lieutenant. The WikiLeaks has shown our State Department for what it is, a division of the Chamber of Commerce. Clearly our State Department is not filled with great minds, but rather gossipy, small minded people who aren't bothered by the number of military personnel they kill in order to 'win.' BTW, what are we winning? Certainly not hearts and minds. We are not acquiring anything other than oil rights and animosity --all over the world! And we've been doing it for at least 50 years. Those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither.

November 29 2010 at 12:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Simply Poetic

This is crazy, people are using this to attact the Obama administration, but the documents span over 44 years, Obama was President for only one of those years. I'm sorry as and American soldier I dont care is the president is Johnson,Nixon,Cleveland,Carter,RayGun,Big Bush,Clinton,BU..SH.., or Obama hell I dont care if it was Washington, Linchon, or Roseveth I dont want my possible targets knowing that I am coming after them. This is the era of technilogical genius, nuclear hot headedness, and real terrorist spying is necessary. And if you dont believe that sometimes you have to spy on your allies then just ask your boss why is one of his/her cameras on you while you are at work. Because history has shown us that sometimes you just cant trust your friends 100% when they are 1000s of miles away. So yes the government an the military intelligence agencies have to sometimes step out of the lines of comfort zone of the average Joe. But guess what we volunteer to be willing to take a buttet for that guy while he sleep at comfortable at night enjoying all of his GOD GIVEN AMERICAN RIGHTS. And it PISSES me off that while I am trying to be camouflaged that some idiot trying to make another dollar is telling the ememy where to aim. Thank you wikileaks for being a hired gun, you make the perfect mercenary. Thank you so make for all of my friends that you are about to kill. The blood of Americans and American soldiers will be on your hands.

November 29 2010 at 12:15 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply
Tilliebona

this comment by someone is correct. The government can shut down web sites for illegal music sharing and selling counterfeit Gucci bags but they are helpless against leaking secret information? Is it THAT easy to gain access to secret papers? Or, and probably someone is handing them to Wiki, they can't hack into everything, can they? That person should be prosecuted and also The people at Wikileaks in absentia. THEY obviously are afraid to show themselves anywhere. Be afraid in your hideyholes, be very afraid! Someone is already after all of you, but especially your glorious egomaniacal leader.

November 29 2010 at 12:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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