Last month, On the Media launched an effort to track down the killer of the Whistleblower Bill in the Senate. The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (S. 372) was intended to provide critical extensions to protections for government employees and contractors in an effort to expose corruption and waste. It enjoyed wide bipartisan support.
The bill originally passed unanimously by the Senate in the waning days of the 2010 lame duck session. However, WikiLeaks delayed passage of it in the House. A bipartisan House agreement was brokered in the 11th hour, and legislation that would only extend coverage to non-intelligence employees for unclassified whistleblowing disclosures passed in the House by unanimous consent. The bill returned to the Senate where it died because one Senator issued an anonymous hold on it.
The irony of whistleblowing legislation being scuttled under a cloak of secrecy was not lost on the NPR based program whose staff set themselves the task of outing the closeted Senator responsible. The offices of all 100 Senators were contacted, and 95 have asserted they did not issue the hold. Five Republicans remain silent on their involvement.
As of January 27, 2011, less than a month after anonymously holding the Whistleblower Bill, the Senate eliminated the practice of secret holds. This was a welcome change toward what both parties professed would be a more open and transparent government. But the change was not retroactive, so the popular bill languishes in perpetual purgatory. The Senator who banished it, and the secrets he’s presumably trying to protect, remain unknown.
A Congressional official said publicly that the Wikileaks revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers. On condition of anonymity, Reuters was told that State Department officials have privately said to Congress they expect overall damage to U.S. foreign policy to be containable.
“We were told (the impact of WikiLeaks revelations) was embarrassing but not damaging,” said the official, who attended a briefing given in late 2010 by State Department officials.
Previously, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley had said, “From our standpoint, there has been substantial damage. We believe that hundreds of people have been put at potential risk because their names have been compromised in the release of these cables.” But it turns out those assertions were overblown in an effort to stoke the firestorm of backlash against Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange, a claim Wikileaks defenders have been making for months. Still, the U.S. government will continue to investigate whether criminal charges can be brought against Assange. This admission by no means lets him off the hook.
This also does not mean the released information is inconsequential. Damage assessments by the State Department, Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community are still continuing. Meanwhile, the current view of many officials that damage has been limited could change if WikiLeaks releases additional material from its trove of unpublished documents.
House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) launched a new website this week soliciting government whistleblowers. The site is looking for anonymous tips to locate government waste, abuse, and fraud.
Meanwhile, Issa has also promised to investigate Wikileaks, which has been the largest source of whistleblown tips for government waste, abuse, and fraud in recent history.
Issa said his committee would investigate WikiLeaks because it wanted “to get that right so the diplomats can do their job with confidence and people can talk to our government with confidence”.
However, in recognition of the probable lack of any existing laws with which to prosecute a foreign news organization for publishing leaked government information, he suggested the new Congress would have to pass legislation to try to prevent “similar acts of whistleblowing”. Issa even calls it whistleblowing in both contexts.
This is not a case of one Congressional hand not knowing what the other is doing. Both of these plans came from the same office within a couple weeks of each other. Apparently, with absolutely no recognition of the inherent irony.
In the ongoing debacle over the release of State Department cables, the government is yet again demonstrating they really have no idea how the Internet works. Apparently, Sen. Ted “Series of Tubes” Stevens really was the technical wizard in Washington.
While the government’s embarrassment over the publication of the documents is certainly understandable, it’s response is anything but. There have been repeated calls by politicians and pundits to prosecute Wikileaks and/or it’s founder Julian Assange. Sen. Diana Feinstein wants to prosecute on charges of espionage. (That’s at least plausible as opposed to calls from the likes of Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee that this is somehow treason or terrorism.) Yet, everyone seems to keep overlooking that all Wikileaks did was publish the documents. They didn’t steal them. They didn’t aid or abet the theft. They may have been the first to publish, but the desire to prosecute them stems from a woefully misguided notion that if Wikileaks hadn’t done what they did, these documents never would have seen the light of day. That’s sheer sophistry. In a day and age where everyone can publish anything on the Internet, someone somewhere would have put these documents online. PFC Bradly Manning, awaiting trial for stealing the documents, could have found any number of willing publishers, hackers, or tech-savvy malcontents to publish his booty, or even uploaded them himself. Wikileaks may have been the vehicle, but they weren’t the cause.
Further, if publishing alone constitutes a crime, then at this point shouldn’t the NY Times, CNN, and practically every other news organization on the planet be in trouble? They’ve all republished bits and pieces of the stolen information.
But that horse has left the barn. The documents have already been dumped to the web. In response, Sen. Joe Lieberman has been pressuring hosting sites like Amazon who were acting as one of several worldwide servers hosting the Wikileaks website. Amazon has since relented and taken the content off of their servers. The company Tableau Software was providing analysis and visualzations of the Wikileaks data dump. They too have been persuaded to take down their content. None of these moves have been more than annoyances. Wikileaks data is spread across servers all over the international web at this point. There’s no useful way to scrub it all off.
Earlier today, the government pressured the US based DNS provider for Wikileaks to disable the wikileaks.org domain name. This made it difficult to find the website for several minutes until the direct IP addresses of the servers were posted widely. Within 6 hours, the site emerged with the new Swiss domain name wikileaks.ch.
The net, by its very nature, is highly connected, highly redundant, and not under any one country or company’s control. Ask any starlet who’s tried to get her nude pictures down off the web. You can try and whack every site they pop up on, but ultimately you just draw more and more attention to the pictures and insure they will haunt you forever. This is no different. The State Department cables have been cached, copied, and spidered countless times by servers and users all over the world. You can even go here to download your own copy of the Wikileaks website so you too can put it online, or just have a look about.
As Sally told Harry all those years ago, “You can’t take it back… Because it’s already out there.”
Anyone who’s played the arcade game Whac-a-Mole can tell you, playing makes a lot of noise and tends to draw a crowd of onlookers anxious to see you make a fool of yourself. At this point, all the government can do is stop drawing attention by whacking the little critters. It just encourages them. Eventually, it will blow over.
Oh, and they might want to upgrade their security procedures to prevent any Lady Gaga CDs from getting into secure areas.
The news is abuzz with the story of Wikileaks releasing some of the 250,000 State Department documents they acquired. Some, like Congressman Peter King, are claiming the release is worse than a military attack and calling for Wikileaks to be treated as a terrorist organization. Others are touting Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as a hero for shining light on covert government actions using the government’s own documentation.
Clearly, some of the leaked documents are embarrassing, not only to the U.S. government, but to many foreign officials and diplomats as well. But by and large, the documents just confirm rumors and suspicions of activities widely believed to have been happening anyway. Is anyone truly shocked to learn that some diplomats are suspected to be spies? Is it news that Middle Eastern countries other than Israel also view Iran as a growing threat? Are people aghast that China was actually behind the Google Gmail hacks? On the contrary, it could be seen as comforting to ordinary citizens that our leaders are not as blind to what’s going on as it would seem from the official press releases.
While sunshine may be the best disinfectant, it’s hard to argue that some amount of secrecy isn’t required in order for the government to operate. The key is trying to figure out where to draw the line.
The press was responsible for exposing information leaked from inside the government that resulted in the downfall of President Nixon in 1974. Were Woodward and Bernstein terrorists? There’s no doubt the last decade would have played out much differently had the manufactured run-up to the Iraq War been exposed back in 2003. Those secrets needed sunshine.
One of the recent Wikileaks releases shows that the President of Oman lied to his parliament about attacks against Al-Qaeda within their borders. President Ali Abdullah Saleh covered up U.S. military strikes in Oman claiming instead that Omani forces carried out the attacks. From the perspective of the Omanis who were lied to, was this valuable sunshine?
So far, no one has identified any specific released information that poses a danger to soldiers, diplomats, or anyone else, despite claims from the Pentagon that Wikileaks has “blood on their hands.” In fact, there appears to have been some sort of self-censorship, coordinated by the NY Times, to redact documents deemed to potentially endanger individuals or national security. Were some of the published documents over the line anyway? Probably, especially considering that everyone draws the line in a slightly different spot. But so far, indications are that all of the information released is at least close to the line, and thereby is much nearer to news than a terrorist action.
If there are lessons to be learned from this, perhaps they are these:
Think twice before you justify warrantless wiretaps or invasive security scans based on the assertion, “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.” Just because you haven’t committed a crime doesn’t mean you’ll be comfortable hanging all your laundry on the line… and turnabout is fair play.
Stop labeling everything you don’t like with the word “terrorist”. The meaning is diluted enough already. If Wikileaks’ actions induced genuine terror in you, then you likely lack the constitution to sit through the Bride of Frankenstein without running screaming from the theater. Buck up soldier.
Given that the 21st century press has earned the reputation as the lapdogs of government, it’s somewhat refreshing to see them reclaim at least a bit of their watchdog credibility—even if it does push the envelope a little.