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Re: S-weekly for comments - Wikileaks, Lots of Fuss About Nothing

Released on 2012-03-01 23:00 GMT

Email-ID 976964
Date 2010-10-26 21:44:29
Good piece. A few comments below. Also, I think people are going to be
wondering why a private first class who obviously wasn't trustworthy would
be in the position to read these files. You address it, essentially, by
inferring that this information is not all that sensitive; however, it
would be nice to see a sentence on the matter (that would presumably say
that shit happens).

scott stewart wrote:

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 confidential. I don't
think most ppl know the difference between secret and 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 ]
released by WikiLeaks pertaining to the war in Afghanistan in July

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, 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; 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

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 US 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. There's also a selection bias. It is not necessary
to mention, but a view of the on-the-ground situation is going to be
tainted by the fact that people don't report seeing butterflys and
double rainbows. If someone wants to know what life was/is like for
soldiers in Iraq these are only part of the picture.

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 does not necessarily cause damage to
national security.

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 observation.

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 Wikileaks.
Certain they aren't connected to 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
killed people.

Culture of Classification

Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of the WikiLeaks case is that
is serves to highlight the culture of classification 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. Unclear if you are stating
this as the writer or if you are stating the US perspective. You
address it below, but suggest making it clear here.

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. Is it not used because its just another
beauracratic thing to do or because people are covering their asses?

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.

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. It will be interesting to watch and see if they are
successful in their efforts to roll back some of the post 9/11
information sharing mandates based on the large amount of media
attention the WikiLeaks case has generated.

Scott Stewart


Office: 814 967 4046

Cell: 814 573 8297