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December 20, 2010 4:06 pm

WikiLeaks’ Cascading Effects

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avatar by Morgan P. Muchnick

Much has been said regarding Julian Assange.  Whether you regard him as a hero, a terrorist, or somewhere in between, he has certainly captured the world’s attention.  Mr. Assange’s self-described motive is “ending two wars,” referring to the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He is someone who deeply loathes American power and, in my opinion, probably feels the USA is the problem in the world and should be taken down a few notches.

This is evident in his relentless leaking of information pertaining to US military and economic power.  Mr. Assange actively recruits informants in a manner similar to foreign governments engaged in espionage.   Does he also target China, Cuba, Syria, or other nations that routinely oppress their own people or cultivate international terror? The question is of course rhetorical.  Other nations are mentioned only in the context of working with the United States.  We are the problem and thus, we are the target.

The cruelly ironic aspect of his leak is that they serve to weaken the practice of US diplomacy and thus make international conflict more likely, not less.   Mr. Assange’s actions have damaged the State Department’s efforts to avoid conflict, particularly with Iran, by embarrassing our international partners. In the leaked cables, our Middle Eastern allies appear much more willing to pressure Iran, both diplomatically and militarily, than anyone would have previously thought.  They will very likely pull back from that support now, primarily because working with the United States is seen to be extremely unpopular with Muslim and Arab populations.  The only way these governments can work with US policymakers on sensitive issues such as Iran is if they have assurances that such risky behavior will not be disclosed, which could put their political stability in jeopardy.  Unfortunately, without the help of Arab and Muslim partners, there is only so much unilateral or Western-driven diplomacy can achieve.

Thus, Iran’s diplomatic position has strengthened, and the chance has lessened that diplomatic pressure will avert an armed conflict.  It seems possible that Israel or the United States (or both) will begin to see a military strike as the only realistic way to end or set-back the Iranian nuclear threat.  There are many, who feel it is extremely unlikely that Iran would be swayed from its nuclear ambitions through diplomacy alone.  However, there have been diplomatic successes in the past and while the odds of affecting Iranian behavior through negotiations was and is long, it is certainly not impossible.  However, Mr. Assange and his cohorts in the US military and intelligence community have brought the odds much closer to that unfortunate determination.

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Furthermore, the international community is learning quickly that the United States cannot protect its sensitive information due to a flawed system for dealing with classified documents. The United States spends a great deal of time and money in the security clearance process upfront, usually when one assumes a new government position.  In order to gain a security clearance, one must clear myriad hurdles including background and criminal checks, polygraph tests, and others, depending of the level of clearance.  According to an exhaustive Washington Post examination, there are over 850,000 active Top Secret clearances, and many more Secret clearances.  Allowing this many people access to classified information may not be a viable way to safeguard our national secrets.  Because there is often marginal oversight of employees with active clearances, it is extremely difficult to prevent rogue individuals from leaking information.

Finally, one negative consequence of WikiLeaks not often discussed is the chilling effect it will have on information-sharing within our government.  For example there is already talk that the State Department, with approval from President Obama, has temporarily withdrawn from the SIPRNet system. SIPRNet is a mechanism that allows government employees with the requisite clearance to exchange classified electronic information across organizational boundaries.  Unfortunately, fearing further breaches of security, intelligence professionals will likely hold information closer to their chests. Our effort to better-share national security information that was jumpstarted after 9/11 will likely be another victim in Mr. Assange’s campaign.

Adapted from an original version that appeared on

Morgan P. Muchnick is a 2001 graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Mr. Muchnick has served as chief speechwriter for Daniel Ayalon, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, and as a policy analyst for various organizations on Capitol Hill. Muchnick is an Editor at Large at the Algemeiner and can be emailed at [email protected]

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