2011-01-03 Debunked: "WikiLeaks' 'Critical Infrastructure' Cable endangers U.S. National Security"

The Falsehood:

WikiLeaks' release of 09STATE15113 represents a gross failure of due diligence, presenting a list of targets for terrorist operatives, and endangering the lives of US nationals and national security.

The Explanation:

Official attacks on WikiLeaks over 2010 have taken a twofold and often contradictory nature.

  • On the one hand, nothing new is said to have been revealed (this claim is substantiated by cherrypicking).
  • On the other hand, the releases are said to expose sensitive information, that endangers national security (this claim is rarely substantiated, and normally remains general.)

The present falsehood is the 'smoking gun' in the "sensitive information" argument, in light of the fact that WikiLeaks has an immaculate record in journalistic responsibility thus far. WikiLeaks' release of 09STATE15113 is lately the sole example raised in support of the idea that WikiLeaks endangers national security. It contains a list of sites compiled by the State Department, and designated as "critical to national security." The document is said to provide enemies of the United States with a useful list of targets.

The Source:

The cable in question was released on the 5th of December, 2010. The story originally broke the next day in The Times (UK), in response to comments by Sir Malcolm Rifkind and it was the source for other articles. The Times article is behind a paywall, but it was syndicated in The Australian, for anyone who wishes to read it. From these origins, it became a global story, and a major talking point on the American news networks, mostly without any need to make actual reference to the content of the document.

The Truth:

The endangerment of national security assets, or lives, is likely to be exaggerated.

Concerted efforts by officials to play up the seriousness of the disclosure have been undermined by

  1. general facts about the sensitivity of the diplomatic cables in question
  2. specific and credible analysis about the sensitivity of the information disclosed in 09STATE15113
    1. General Facts about SIPRNET

The military intelligence database from which the present cable releases were drawn, SIPRNET, contained information with a maximum classification level of "SECRET." This is regarded as a relatively low classification. As a result, access to the documents in question was extended to individuals of a relatively low clearance level, numbering in total approximately 2.5 million people. Even non nationals were given access to SIPRNET.

As a result, it is not credible that WikiLeaks' publication (with its media partners) of 09STATE15113, or any of the other cables, discloses anything new to the foreign intelligence community, nor to well organized terrorist organizations. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' has observed, in connection with the present cable release:

Let me just offer some perspective as somebody who’s been at this a long time. Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time.

It emerges from a balanced appraisal of the sensitivity of the information released in Cablegate that there is little danger of disclosing anything new to foreign governments, or any organization likely to have been expending capital and effort to gain access to classified US information.

A familiarity with the realities of how espionage is conducted, which is attainable by a careful reading of the accounts of former spies like Robert Baer, recommends the following line of reasoning:

  • a)There is a difference between espionage and the disclosures that led to Cablegate, which were motivated by a desire to disclose information to the public.

  • b)Those who engage in genuine espionage run a far smaller risk of getting caught than those who disclose information to the public, because the nature of espionage is that it is clandestine, whereas the nature of public disclosure is that it generates publicity, and is therefore intrinsically conspicuous to authorities. Ironically, the structural facts of the intelligence community are such that there exist incentives for those who would commit espionage, whereas whistleblowing is disincentivized. We can assume that ousted high profile spies like Harold James Nicholson and Robert Hanssen represent a small minority of the total number of actual spies in the US military and intelligence community, who will normally have been guilty of disclosing information of a far lower level of classification, and will often have remained uncaught. This lends support to the idea, introduced by Robert Gates comment above, that leaks of information are an information security reality and not an exception.

  • c)Leaks of intelligence data to the public, in the public interest, are almost certainly far rarer than leaks motivated purely by monetary gain. The last such public interest leak on a grand scale was the Pentagon Papers, in the early 1970s.

  • d)If the story behind the leaking of Cablegate is to be believed (and there are some very reasonable doubts about its reliability), the present leak of 250,000 diplomatic cables, and some 500,000 military communications, were carried out with absurd ease. US information security was so lax that an Army private was allegedly able to burn all of the leaked data from an army computer onto a blank DVD labelled "Lady Gaga," and simply carry it out of the military data center.

  • e)It is credible to assume, on the basis of the foregoing, that given lax information security, the extremely wide access constituency for the SIPRNET database, and the scarcity of public interest disclosures relative to genuine espionage operations, the information in Cablegate was already in the hands of anyone who had seriously sought it. The only group given the opportunity to learn anything new is the general public, whose only conduit to information about what is done in its name has until now been the corporate mainstream press.

    This argument, which is not conclusive by any means, still encourages us to regard the official outrage about Cablegate not as deriving from any risk that foreign intelligence agencies or terrorists have learned anything new, but that the public has been given an insight into things that a global and borderless elect would prefer it didn't know.

    In general terms, it also causes us to regard with suspicion the hysterical soundbites of British, Canadian and U.S. officials reported in the press, with reference to 09STATE15113.

      2. Specific Analysis of 09STATE15113

    The above analysis is borne out in a December 12th article by STRATFOR, in which the media interest in 09STATE15113 is described as a "frenzy," concludes that "[m]edia interest aside, STRATFOR does not see this document as offering much value to militant groups planning attacks against US targets abroad."

    "The sites listed in the cable," writes STRATFOR, "are either far too general, such as tin mines in China; are not high-profile enough to interest militants, such as undersea cables; or already represent well-known strategic vulnerabilities, such as the Strait of Malacca."

    STRATFOR indicates that the information available in the cable is unlikely to have been unknown to any well-funded and highly organized terrorist organization, and as a result, is not nearly as sensitive as it has been reported to have been.

    STRATFOR has discussed how many of the sorts of targets mentioned in the cable do not necessarily lend themselves to successful terrorist attacks...

    Instead of an earth-shattering list of sites vulnerable to terrorist attacks, the list leaked this week is really a more revealing look at the inner bureaucracy and daily activities of the US security community and at how diplomats around the world contribute to assessing threats to US interests. This does not mean listed sites will not ever be attacked, but that experienced militants do not rely on DHS studies to provide targeting guidance.

    The article is behind a registration wall at STRATFOR's site (which didn't work for this author), but has been syndicated by The Manilla Times, and can be read there.

    The conclusion recommended by this analysis is that the disclosure of 09STATE15113 represents even less of a national security threat than the accidental publication of THE LIST OF SITES, LOCATIONS, FACILITIES, AND ACTIVITIES DECLARED TO THE INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY by the U.S. Government Printing Office, in June 2009.


    Based on a credible analysis of the classification level of the material of which 09STATE15113 is a part, the realities of the intelligence community, the apparently lax information security of the United States military, and the informed opinions of professional analysts, it is very likely that reportage on 09STATE15113 tends towards the sensational, and that this cable does not constitute the smoking gun that critics of WikiLeaks desperately need in order to substantiate their claims that WikiLeaks "endangers national security."

    ADDENDUM: There is also some merit to the idea that attacks on critical infrastructure would be a move away from the modus operandi of the global terror movement.

    Where attacks such as the Madrid and London bombings, and the attacks on the 11th of September 2001, were calculated so as to kill as many civilians as possible, and to be as symbolic as possible, thereby spreading terror, and (successfully) causing the Western establishment to attack its own tradition of civil and political freedoms, attacks on infrastructural targets would appear to be rather less symbolic, stand less of a chance of massive civilian casualties, and would appear to harmonize rather more closely with what are considered legitimate forms of warfare by any major party to a war in the last 200 years.

    This does not vindicate or condone any such attack; it constitutes instead a recognition that it would be rather more difficult to distinguish in kind between an Al Qaeda attack on critical infrastructural U.S. targets, and the U.S. attacks on critical infrastructure which are well documented in every major military engagement the U.S. conducted in the 20th and 21st centuries, from Vietnam through the Gulf conflicts to the ongoing war in Afghanistan. If Al Qaeda chose to target U.S. infrastructure, rather than centres of civilian activity, it would have moved away from acts of terror, and towards only slightly less reprehensible acts of war. The moral distinction between the parties to the "War on Terror" would become even less clear.

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