Analysis: WikiLeaks shows 21st-century secrets harder to keep

LONDON Mon Nov 29, 2010 9:18am EST

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LONDON (Reuters) - The diplomatic cables so far released by WikiLeaks might embarrass U.S. diplomats but probably won't shatter any international relationships.

The key lesson so far seems to be just how much easier the information age has made it to steal vast quantities of data -- and how much harder it is to keep secrets.

The U.S. and other governments have been keen to talk up the potential diplomatic damage from the release of some 250,000 cables, details of which began to be published on Sunday by Western newspapers.

The cables, some of which were released in full and some only in part, revealed confidential -- and often unflattering -- views and information from senior U.S. diplomats based overseas that would normally have been kept confidential for decades.

Experts and former officials are divided over the impact. Speaking before the release, Italy's foreign minister Franco Frattini said he feared it would prove the "9/11 of diplomacy" and would "blow up the trust between states."

Others are much more sanguine, and believe diplomats will continue their long tradition of politeness in public and brutal honesty in the reports back home.

"This won't restrain dips' (diplomats) candor," Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British Ambassador to Washington DC, told Reuters. "But people will be looking at the security of electronic communications and archives. Paper would have been impossible to steal in these quantities."

That's a lesson governments have been learning fast. British officials have been embarrassed several times by the loss of discs containing personal data for thousands of members of the general public, while experts say hackers have stolen truckloads of sensitive information from Western corporates.

In the case of the latest release -- as with years' worth of U.S. military logs on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict earlier this year -- the cables appear to have been stolen by just one person. U.S. Army private Bradley Manning has been charged with leaking classified information and is in military custody.

JEOPARDISING DIPLOMACY?

"Whoever was behind this leak should be shot and I would volunteer to pull the trigger," said former U.S. cyber Security and counterterrorism official Roger Cressey, describing it as "pretty devastating."

"The essence of our foreign policy is our ability to talk straight and honest with our foreign counterparts and to keep those conversations out of the public domain. This massive leak puts that most basic of diplomatic requirements at risk in the future."

Cressey points to sensitive relations with Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, both key to U.S. strategy against Islamic militancy. The cables include criticism of both countries and details of conversations with their senior officials.

Some western leaders reportedly come in for criticism, including British Prime Minister David Cameron. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is described as risk-averse and "rarely creative."

"It is a sign that in the information age, it is very difficult to keep anything secret," said Professor Michael Cox, associate fellow at London think tank Chatham House.

"But as to whether it is going to cause the kind of seismic collapse of international relations that governments have been talking about, I somehow doubt. Diplomats have always said rude things about each other in private, and everyone has always known that."

Some of those who should be most aware of security had been tripped up by the new information age. Last year, security experts were left aghast after the new head of Britain's secret intelligence service MI6's wife posted family photos and details on Facebook. Other officials have been forced to apologize after tongue-in-cheek e-mails have ended up in the public domain.

The real beneficiaries from the vast leak, Cox said, were historians, academics and students of international relations who now had a "great treasure trove" of primary evidence to go through. The volume of data is so vast that details may continue to be extracted from it for years to come.

JUST WHAT NATIONS DO?

But much remains secret. There are cables, for example, asking U.S. diplomats to forward sensitive information on a variety of national leaders and senior politicians. But that information was sent through more secure channels reserved for sensitive intelligence, and remains largely unpublished.

"Governments have a tendency to keep as much information as possible secret or classified, whether it really needs to be or not," said Chatham House fellow Cox.

"The really secret information, I would suggest, is still pretty safe and probably won't end up on WikiLeaks."

What was more worrying, he said, was the apparent ferocity of government campaigns against the whistleblowing website. WikiLeaks complained it was the victim of a cyber attack shortly before the data was released on Sunday, and says sexual assault accusations in Sweden against its founder Julian Assange are also orchestrated by its enemies.

For now, experts say the diplomats in Washington and elsewhere will hurry to reassure allies and soothe ruffled egos. Some may find they are less trusted -- particularly now other nations have seen the cables encouraging diplomats to effectively also function as spies.

Former U.S. counterterrorism official Fred Burton, now vice president for risk consultancy Stratfor, said some long-term intelligence-sharing agreements might be jeopardized and the State Department would now be focused on "serious damage control."

"But this is what nations do," he said. "Rule number one in this business. There are no friendly intelligence services."

(Additional reporting by William Maclean; editing by Andrew Roche)

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Comments (3)
ElroyFromIowa wrote:
You don’t suppose this stuff was intentially “leaked” to let the Iranians know that we have been asked to chop the head of the snake off? That the US has been the “moderate” in their situation.

There is a lot of chaff here. But the point to Iran is that if the US smacks them, nobody will shed any tears.

Perhaps I am too jaded. Okay, put the leaker in jail and let him rot there.

Nov 29, 2010 12:00pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Gotthardbahn wrote:
I looked at some of these so-called ‘revelations’ and, really, I am trying to be surprised by what I’ve read. The Afghan government is corrupt? REALLY? Middle Eastern governments are afraid of Iran? Is that right? North Korea sold missiles to Iran – you can’t be serious! Any reasonably shrewd reader of current events could have figured all this out on their own so, really, what’s the fuss? Besides, as one fellow pointed out, the really sensitive stuff is still hidden away.

Nov 29, 2010 2:51pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Sergii wrote:
My largest concern is the reaction of “special agencies” (mostly representing the goverment of USA may be other world powers) to the info leakage – that is intimidation (attacks on the Wikileaks web-site and attempts to jail its founder). Just imagine if it were not a rather influential and public person, equipped with a team of highly profesional lawers, as the founder of the Wikileaks, what they could have done to a regular man under such circumstances. And please note that there is no any criminal offence or illegal actions by Wikileaks. The web-site mentioned just assures freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution of USA. The freedom of speech that has used to be manualy regulated and limited (despite requirements of the Constitution) just to manipulate conciesness and mind of an average citizen (eg. american, european, russian, chinese etc.). That is the less an average citizen knows the easier he/she is managed. Thus information was and is remainig the strongest and most dangerous weapon in the world. And those who control and manage informaiton could be among winners (and as it has used to be very often an average citizen pays all the costs). I am sure all the said above are well known facts for people who use their brains properly. A limited number of influential groups just need an easily managable consumers’ society to feed them all this junk food(wrong values of life, goods and services). They want to determine (with help of media industry) what is good and wrong for us. I believe we should learn how to act and think independently from those Masters of Papets (i.e.goverments)who tend to apply the word “patriotism”, as they run out of other arguments. That is, let’s not work (act) as fools. As to wikileaks it has successfuly made attempt to demonstrate double standards applied by powers and politicians (when it is beneficial for them) to manipulate minds and keep their papets (citizens)under control. I think it wikileaks did a good job…

PS
I am an advocate of democracy and have nothing to do with either religious or other radical movements.

Nov 29, 2010 6:12pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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