970630_Wikileaks, Lots of Fuss About Nothing

Al-Akhbar is currently going through a transitional phase whereby the English website is available for Archival purposes only. All new content will be published in Arabic on the main website (www.al-akhbar.com).

Al-Akhbar Management

Date 2010-10-27 00:07:52
From [email protected]
To [email protected]
Others Listname: mailto:[email protected]
MessageId: <[email protected]>
InReplyTo: [email protected]@stratfor.com
very nice. Really glad we're saying this. Thoughts within.

WikiLeaks, Lots of Fuss About Nothing

On Friday Oct. 22, the organization known as WikiLeaks published a cache of 391,832 classified documents on their website. The documents are mostly field reports filed by U.S. forces in Iraq from January 2004 to December 2009 (the months of May 2004 and March 2009 are somehow missing from the cache.) The bulk of the documents (379,565) were classified at the secret level with a handful of them being might explain that this is lower confidential. The remainder of the documents are unclassified. This large batch of documents are believed to have been released by Private First Class Bradley Manning, who was arrested in May 2010 by the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigations Command and charged with transferring thousands of classified documents onto his personal computer and then transmitting them to an unauthorized person. Manning is also believed to have been the source of the classified material [link http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20100726_wikileaks_and_afghan_war ] released by WikiLeaks pertaining to the war in Afghanistan in July 2010.

Like the Afghan war documents, WikiLeaks released the Iraq documents to a number of news outlets for analysis several weeks in advance. These news organizations included the New York Times, Der Spiegel, The Guardian and al Jazeera, and they each released special reports and websites to coincide with the formal release of the documents to the public by WikiLeaks.

Due to its investigation of Manning, the U.S. government also had a pretty good idea of what the material was before it was released and had formed a special task force to review the material for sensitive and potentially damaging information prior to the release. The Pentagon has denounced the release of the information, which it views as a crime, has demanded the return of its stolen property might make it clear how absurd this is a.) because it is electronic data and b.) after it has been released in electronic form on the internet, and has warned that the documents place Iraqis at risk for retaliation and also place the lives of U.S. troops at risk from terrorist groups who are mining the documents for tidbits of operational information than can be exploited to conduct attacks.

When one takes a careful look at the classified documents released by WikiLeaks, it becomes quickly apparent that they have revealed very few true secrets. Indeed the main points being emphasized by al Jazeera and the other media outlets after all the intense research they conducted before the public release of the documents seem to highlight a number of issues that were well-known and well-chronicled for years prior to the release: The U.S. knew the Iraqi government was torturing its own people; many civilians were killed during the six years the documents covered; sectarian? death squads were operating inside Iraq; and, the Iranian government was funding Shiite militias. None of this is news. But, when one takes a step back from the documents themselves and looks at the larger picture, there are some other very interesting issues that have been raised by the release of these documents, and the reaction to the release.

The Documents

The documents released in this cache of classified documents were taken from the U.S. government's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) a network that is used to distribute classified but not particularly sensitive information. SIPRNet is only authorized for the transmission of information up to the secret level. It cannot be used for top secret or more closely guarded intelligence that is classified at the Secret level. The regulations by which information is classified by the U.S. government are outlined in Executive Order 13526. Under that order, secret is the second-highest level of classification and applies to information that, if released, would be reasonable expected to cause serious damage to U.S. national security.

Due to the nature of SIPRNet, most of the information that was downloaded from it and sent to WikiLeaks was raw field reports from the U.S. troops in Iraq. These reports discussed things the units encountered, such as IED attacks, ambushes, the bodies of murdered civilians, friendly fire incidents, traffic accidents, etc. For the most part they were raw information reports and not vetted, processed intelligence. The documents also did not contain reports that were the result of intelligence collection operations, and therefore did not reveal sensitive intelligence sources and methods.

To provide a sense of the material involved, we will choose two of the reports randomly. The first report we encounter is a report classified at the secret level from an Military Police company reporting that the Iraqi Police found a dead body that had been executed in a village with a redacted name on Oct. 28, 2006. In another secret-level report we see that on January 1, 2004, the Iraqi police called a military police unit in Baghdad to report that an improvised explosive device had detonated and that there was another suspicious object found at the scene. The military police unit responded, confirmed the presence of the suspicious object and then called an explosive ordnance disposal unit which responded to the site and destroyed the second IED. Now, while it may have been justified to classify such reports at the secret level at the time they were written under provisions designed to protect information pertaining to military operations, clearly, the release of these two reports in Oct. 2010 has not caused any serious damage to U.S. national security.

Another factor to consider when reading raw information reports from the field is that while they offer a degree of granular detail that cannot be found in higher level intelligence analysis, they can often be misleading or otherwise erroneous. As anyone who has ever interviewed a witness can tell you, in a stressful situation people often miss or misinterpret important factual details. That's just how most people are wired. This situation can be compounded when a witness is placed in a completely alien culture. This is not to say that all these reports are flawed, but just to note the fact that that raw information reports must often be double-checked and vetted before they can be used in creating a reliable estimate of the situation on the battlefield, and the readers of these documents obviously will not have the ability to conduct that type of follow-up.

Few True Secrets

In reality, there are very few true secrets in the cache of documents released by WikiLeaks, and by true secrets we mean things that would cause serious damage to national security. And no, we are not about to point out the things that we believe to be truly damaging. However, it is important to understand up front that something that causes embarrassment and discomfort to a specific administration or agency does not necessarily cause damage to national security. and can actually serve to expose flaws (sometimes things are classified within the system precisely because they are embarrasing)

As to the charges that the documents are being mined by terrorist groups for information that can be used in attacks against U.S. troops deployed overseas, this is undoubtedly true. It would be foolish for the Taliban the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and other militant groups not to read the documents and attempt to benefit from them. However, there are very few things noted in these reports pertaining to the tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) used by U.S. forces that could not be learned by simply observing combat operations -and the Taliban and ISI have been carefully studying U.S. TTP every hour of every day for many years now. These documents are far less valuable than years of careful, direct observation and regular, first-hand interaction.

This is a really valuable point you don't see being made elsewhere. Might be valuable to expand into another graph and really emphasize here -- particularly how absurd the idea is that combatants that have been intensely engaged with us for the better part of a decade are really going to learn anything operationally useful from after-action reports -- or perhaps even that some U.S. report about an informant at that low of a level would reveal something new to the Taliban, which has a far greater local situational awareness of who talks to the U.S. and what they said than anyone doing reporting at the secret level does.

This is not to say that the alleged actions of Manning were somehow justified. From the statements released by the government in connection with the case, Manning knew the information was classified and needed to be protected. He also appeared to know that his actions were illegal and could land him in trouble.

This is also not a justification for the actions of Wikipedia and the media outlets who are exploiting and profiting from the release of this information. However, what we are saying is that the hype surrounding the release is just that. There were a lot of classified documents released, but very few of them contained information that would truly shed new light on the actions of U.S. troops in Iraq or their allies or cause damage to the national security of the United States. While the amount of information released in this case was huge, it was clearly far less damaging than the information released by convicted spies such as Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames - information that crippled intelligence operations and directly resulted in the murder of Americans and American sources?.

Culture of Classification

Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of the WikiLeaks case is that is serves to highlight the culture of classification
http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/i_could_tell_you_id_have_kill_you_cult_... that is so pervasive inside the U.S. government. Only 204 of the 391,832 documents were classified at the confidential level, while 379,565 of them were classified at the secret level. This highlights the propensity of the U.S. government culture to classify documents at the highest possible classification, rather than at the lowest level truly required to protect said information. More is better.

Furthermore, while much of this material may have been somewhat sensitive at the time it was reported, most of that sensitivity has been lost over time, and many of the documents, like the two reports referenced above, certainly no longer need to be classified. EO 13256 provides the ability for classifying agencies to set dates for materials to be declassified, and indeed, according to the EO a date for declassification is supposed to be set every time a document is classified. But in practice, such declassification provisions are rarely used and most people just expect the documents to remain classified for the entire authorized period, which is 10 years in most cases and 25 years when dealing with sensitive topics such as intelligence sources and methods or nuclear weapons.

This culture of classification tends to creates so much classified material that it then becomes very difficult for government employees and security managers to determine what is really sensitive and what truly needs to be protected. It also tends to reinforce the belief among government employees that knowledge is power and that one can become powerful by having access to information and denying that access to others. This belief then can often contribute to the bureaucratic jealously that results in the failure to share intelligence - a practice that was criticized so heavily in the 9/11 Commission Report.

One of the things that will be important to watch in the wake of the WikiLeaks cases is how those who are a part of the culture of classification react to these events. Some U.S. government agencies, such as the FBI have bridled under the post 9/11 era mandates to share their information more widely and have been trying to scale back their sharing. As anyone who has dealt with the FBI can attest, they tend to be a semi-permeable membrane when it comes to the flow of information. Intelligence only flows one way - in -- and does not flow back out. But the FBI is certainly not alone. There are many organizations which are very hesitant to share information with other government agencies, even when those agencies have a legitimate need-to-know. they also guard their information closely for precisely this reason -- they don't think others properly vet or have the proper procedures in place to safeguard their information. so the default is not to share.

Although the WikiLeaks case did not result in the disclosure of FBI or CIA information, and did not even shed much light on the DOD's intelligence collection activities, there are certainly people and organizations in the U.S. government who will attempt to use the case as bureaucratic justification for continuing to classify information at the highest possible levels and for controlling the access to the intelligence they generate even more stringently i.e. sharing it with less people.
would conclude along these lines: this wikileaks business is partially a symptom of the utter overloading of the classification system with every possible piece of information when it serves no value to classify it. That overloading and overclassification actually weakens the system (as we saw with manning) and thereby endangers (though not directly in this case) the stuff the system exists to protect. The problem is not wait and see. We know the answer. The bureaucracy(ies) will treat the symptom with further classification, further restrictions on information sharing and further curtailment of accessibility to the lowest levels of classification. These are all exactly the opposite things they should be doing. So the ultimate damage that manning did was to strengthen a system that was already broken. That's the real irony.

Scott Stewart


Office: 814 967 4046

Cell: 814 573 8297

[email protected]



Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><img><h1><h2><h3><h4><h5><h6><blockquote><span><aside>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

^ Back to Top