WikiLeaks unplugged

Is the era of WikiLeaks over?

It’s been less than a year since the underground organization made its first big splash with the release of thousands of U.S. military files from Afghanistan. And it’s been only two months since WikiLeaks began releasing documents from its trove of 251,287 U.S. diplomatic cables.

But with fewer than 3,000 cables released, the newspapers that were given access to the database have found that it has already reached the point of diminishing returns. Journalists working on the project say they (naturally) published the most interesting stuff first; what remains, apparently, is mostly a vast collection of diplomatic trivia.

And what of WikiLeaks itself? The organization is in tatters; its early successes have prompted both new competition and new controls on leaks.

As WikiLeaks’ founder, the mercurial cyber-militant Julian Assange, faces criminal investigations in Sweden and the United States, some of his lieutenants — alienated by Assange’s domineering ways — have split to form a new, competing leak depository called “OpenLeaks.” Even more threatening, the New York Times is considering a plan to cut out the middleman by opening an electronic leak channel of its own. “The aim would be to facilitate tips and information from sources who are afraid to directly approach a reporter,” the Times’ editor, Bill Keller, told me via e-mail.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government has taken steps to prevent others from doing what a soldier based in Iraq, Pfc. Bradley Manning, allegedly did for WikiLeaks, downloading secret cables onto compact disks and spiriting them away. “Bradley Manning could not do today what he did a year ago,” an official said.

Leaks will continue with or without WikiLeaks, but that’s nothing new. As John Adams, America’s second president, lamented: ‘How can a government go on, publishing all of their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not.”

The question is, now that we’ve survived WikiLeaks, what have we learned?

The WikiLeaks documents contained few blockbusters. These were not the Pentagon Papers. What they primarily showed was that American diplomats told the truth most of the time, that their perceptions of foreign leaders were more acerbic and interesting than anyone knew, and that many of them are quite good writers.

We learned that it’s a nasty world out there. We learned that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may be making money from private business deals with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. We learned that Arab leaders are desperately afraid of the growing power of Iran, just as U.S. officials have been claiming for years. We learned that China’s government employs thousands of computer hackers to try to read everyone else’s e-mails.

We also learned that we still need journalists to decipher what raw information means. It’s telling that even Assange, no fan of traditional institutions, felt a need to turn to old-fashioned newspapers and magazines to make sense of all those cables.

Even then, hasty journalism produced some stories that were incomplete. One of the biggest apparent scoops was a report that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had sent a cable ordering U.S. diplomats at the United Nations to spy on their foreign counterparts and even collect samples of their DNA (exactly how was left to the reader’s imagination). But officials later explained that Clinton hadn’t written that cable (it bore her signature as a formality) and that it was the kind of annual “wish list” from the CIA that most diplomats — the sensible ones — routinely ignore.

And we learned that some leaks can be dangerous. The Guardian published an article based on cables reporting that Zimbabwe’s prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, had privately urged Western governments to maintain their economic sanctions against the regime of President Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe’s attorney general promptly announced that he would use the report as the basis of a treason investigation.

U.S. officials say they assume, but don’t know for sure, that “technologically astute intelligence services” like China’s have penetrated the WikiLeaks database (which is in the hands of five newspapers as well as the parent organization). As a result, the U.S. government has contacted hundreds of people named in the cables to warn them that they could be exposed. “No one’s been killed, but I don’t think that’s the right standard to apply,” a U.S. official said. “There are people we have helped to move to safe places.”

But then, some of the cables may have had positive results too. In Tunisia, human rights activists have said they were bolstered by WikiLeaks cables that showed that the U.S. government didn’t love President Zine el Abidine ben Ali — although the claim that WikiLeaks played a major role in touching off that revolution has been vastly overblown. And U.S. officials have said privately that the WikiLeaks cables on Iran have helped impress the Tehran regime with how widespread foreign opposition is to its program to enrich uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons.

The long-term problem every government faces in keeping secrets isn’t WikiLeaks; it’s the information technology that makes communication easier but makes leaking easier too.

The wisest words on this subject remain those offered by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last year. In sum, he said: Get used to it.

“Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time,” Gates said.

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

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WikiLeaks unplugged