Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wikileaks vs. The United States (again)...

For anyone who doubts the complexity of cybersecurity, both as a technical and political problem, just look at what's been happening with Wikileaks over the past 48 hours.

In a nutshell, on Sunday, somebody leaked about 250,000 classified documents from within the U.S. State Department and posted them on Wikileaks. The website is designed to be a safe haven for "whistle-blowers" and its stated purpose is to expose corruption in both the government and the private sector, but it's certainly come under scrutiny in the past for, among other things, publishing a list of U.S. nuclear sites.

This new round of leaked documents exposes the secretive world of global diplomacy. Sensitive conversations by government officials that were thought to be private can now be read by any 7th-grader with internet access. Some of the revelations include how the king of Saudi Arabia is urging the U.S. to bomb Iran, how Turkey is being aggressive and wants to expand its sphere of influence in a "neo-Ottoman Empire", and how U.S. diplomats overseas are also acting as spies, engaging in active espionage.

Reactions to the leaked documents are, literally and figuratively, all over the map. U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman said that Wikileaks is endangering the lives of thousands of Americans, but didn't go so far as Representative Peter King who suggested that Wikileaks be officially designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Meanwhile, the State Department has been scurrying to defend its diplomats citing emphatically that they are not spies. The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan immediately wrote an essay that was published in a leading Pakistani newspaper to apologize for any disparaging statements made about their country and their leadership. The Arabist notes that the incident "might reverberate much more strongly in the Arab world, where press freedom and government transparency are extremely limited". And, in perhaps the most interesting reaction, President Ahmadinejad of Iran actually criticized the Wikileaks disclosure as being "invalid" and called it nothing but "a plot" conceived of by the American government to conduct "psychological warfare" against Iran.

So that's the story - minus one more plot twist. Apparently, minutes before Wikileaks posted the classified documents, when the word got out of what was about to happen, a cyberattack was launched against the site, in an attempt to completely shut Wikileaks down. Care to take a guess who might have been behind it?

A few questions need to be raised...

1) Is cybersecurity a technical problem, or a political one? Increasingly, it's both - a lesson that policymakers deny at their own peril.

2) Why doesn't the government shut down Wikileaks? Because it's the internet, stupid! The website itself is hosted on a server overseas where the U.S. has no jurisdiction, and the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, is an Australian citizen who, since the site was created in 2006, has lived in many countries and is "constantly on the move". The goverment launched their cyberattack against the site because they are well aware that shutting down Wikileaks through traditional legal channels would be uber-complicated and take several years.

3) Did Wikileaks actually break the law? This is the most fascinating question of this case because the answer is NO. The anonymous individual who actually leaked the classified documents broke the law, but Wikileaks, which played no role other than hosting the materials, was simply a forum. In a free press society there is no "prior restraint", and indeed the U.S. has a long history of classified material being published in newspapers. Remember the Pentagon Papers? Because, at the very least, it's not clear that Wikileaks actually broke the law, the question about what the government should do to stop the site is that much more complicated.

4) To what extent is Wikileaks, and other sites like it, a serious problem? From the American perspective, two different cultural values are at odds with each other... freedom of the press vs. national security. Benjamin Franklin famously said, "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both". Then again, Abraham Lincoln added, "The Constitution is not a death sentence". We can debate this conflict of values in academia all we want, but at some point we have to recognize when something is, indeed, a true threat to our security. Is Wikileaks there yet? Ultimately, it's still just a problem, not yet a threat. However, whenever classified State Department documents are stolen, then shared publicly with the world, endangering the lives of some officials, and certainly doing damage to our reputation and foreign policy efforts abroad... let's just say that that, in and of itself, is definitely not a good thing.

This story is far from over.


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