The Missed Absurdity of Cablegate

There are some absurd aspects of Cablegate that show more than anything else why politicians around the globe but especially in the USA are so upset with Cablegate and Wikileaks. While media and bloggers concentrate on the “infowar”, the story how the USA (and indirectly her allies) enabled the alleged source of the leak, Pfc. Bradley Manning, and Wikileaks to lay hand on the material, is not a heroic one. Just consider this:

1     WikiLeaks is a tiny organization with (besides Julian Assange) little more than five full-time staff members, 40 regular and 800 occasional helpers, plus a base of around 10.000 supporters and donors (numbers from Juli 2010) .

2     Exactly how many sources WikLeaks has and used in its latest leaks is not known (and is rather irrelvant). Suffices that there is only one prime suspect, Pfc. Bradley Manning, to be the source of all, the Afghanistan War Logs , the Iraq War Logs , and of Cablegate . One person. 

3     Pfc. Bradley Manning had a “Top Secret/SCI”-clearance that “would have given him access to the Secret internet Protocol Router Network used by US military personnel, civilian employees and private contractors” . All “top secret” information on the other hand is hosted on the separate Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, which Mannings apparently had the clearance to access too (but from which due to security-regulations pertaining to the JWICS he couldn’t download files ). All information leaked in Cablegate (as far as it is known publicly) stems from the SIPRNet and is not labelled “top secret” . (On the contrary, from the 250.000 documents only 11.000 are declared “secret” .) Besides his security clearance Manning was a low ranking member of the Armed Forces and it is still not clear whether he might have had any help in the downloads and leaks he is charged with .

4     Nonetheless Manning is said to have claimed that he had “unprecedented access” 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for eight or more months . Even if he did not use all that time browsing, reading, and downloading the files (provided he did it at all), one wonders why there were no supervisors around overseeing what a 22 years old Pfc. was doing all day.

5     A bundle of unfortunate circumstances provided the opportunities for the leak. One important was the incredible amount of people in the USA with access to sensitive information. About 2.5 million people, military personnel and civilians, have clearance to access “secret” information , around 854.000 of them to “top secret” information . The reasons for this broad access to secret information are manifold (for details see ), they comprise technical, organisational, and historical ones. Suffices to point out two elements. Classification: A long history of over-classification (too many documents are marked “secret” and above), and “derivative” classification (a superior can delegate to his employees the right to classify), brought about the need to provide an enormous quantity of people with clearance to access these documents and with that the chronic problem of oversight and . Information-sharing: The traditional mistrust between the branches of the US Intelligence Community and the Military brought about deficits in information sharing. This proved fatal in 2001 when especially CIA and FBI weren’t able to “connect the dots” that might have prevented 9/11 . Broad inter-agency access to classified material became paramount. 

6     Due to an order (around end 2008, beginning of 2009) from then commander of the U.S. Central Command David Petraeus to share information about improvised explosive devices (and other threats) with allies, the Command Center allowed the download of military information from their SIPRNet on removable data carrier, to be transported to computers with connection to the allies’ secret networks where the data would be uploaded . It was this regulation that allowed Pfc. Bradley Mannings (or whoever it was) to facilitate and accomplish the download of the documents on a removable data carrier like a CD which could then be transported out of military areas and sent (directly or as copy) to Wikileaks.

In short: The USA government and its agencies had a policy of sharing classified information that allowed 2.5 million people to have access to the material Pfc. Bradley Manning is charged with downloading and leaking. The Armed Forces of the United States gave even their very young service members clearance to highly sensitive material; seemingly, they were often not overseen as to what extent and how they fullfilled their tasks. Nobody in the military seemed to have noticed that Pfc. Bradley Manning (or somebody else, or several other people) browsed, read, copied, and downloaded masses of material for about 8 months. The possibility to download sensitve information (without oversight) and the use of removable data carriers for transportation ( and ) are the direct consequences of orders given from the top of Central Command. Nobody seems to have thought about the possibility of leakage entailed in this order. However, it proved to be the Achilles’ heel in the chain of events. Add to this a tiny platform like Wikileaks with five or six full-time staff members (plus supporters) and the upshot is a truely embarrassing situation for the USA, her Government, her Armed Forces, her Intelligence Community. No wonder that the government of the USA tries to quell the leaks with such a fury. It’s more about resolve an awkward situation than of being directly endangered. It’s about the image of the USA and her own self-perception. Being an amateur can be a somewhat inconvenient truth, and it’s tempting to shoot the messenger rather than face one’s own dilettantism. 

In fact, allowing the use of removable data carriers to download classified information for upload on a different network is the single most important mistake on the side of the US agencies that enabled Pfc. Bradley Manning (or whoever did the leakage) and Julian Assange to do what they allegedly did. After placing the jewels on the window board, everyone got astonished that someone stole them. But nowhere do we find a public discussion of this gross carelessness on the part of the US Government, the Armed Forces, and the Intelligence agencies. Instead the whole apparatus goes after two persons: Pfc.
Bradley Manning (on good legal grounds) and Julian Assange (on bad or none legal grounds). [1] But is General Petraeus reprimanded?  Are charges brought up against former president Bill Clinton whose Executive Order 12958 gave permission to 20 persons (including the president) to classify documents “top secret” but entailed the provision to delegate classification to subordinates (“derivative” classification) that enlarged the numbers of persons with right to classify and in need of clearance? With 2.5 million persons cleared for access to documents marked “secret”, wasn’t it simply a question of time when a leak would occur? More and more it looks like scapegoating in an embarrassing situation, like deflecting attention from the real scandal that consists in a lack of care, lack of oversight, ignorance, pride, and diletantism on the side of those whose task it was to prevent such things from happening. [2]

But the public looks in a different direction. For the public it’s now an “infowar”. [3] The drama involves investigations on the part of US Attorney General Eric Holder, reactions to Wikileaks from the provider of domain names EveryDNS, from Amazon, Paypal, PostFinance, Visa, Mastercard, Moneybookers, retaliations from associations like Anonymus – Operation Payback, and activists on behalf of transparency, freedom of speech, and anti-censorship.  Taking part (and sides) in this drama is a divided press – some embarrassed, some gleeful. [4] The whole conflict is now about the alleged wrongdoing of Wikileaks in providing news agencies with the documents and in publishing them on websites throughout the globe. US Attorney General Eric Holder does everything he can to get a hand on Julian Assange. [5] Interestingly, there are no charges against Assange whatsoever, on the contrary, there are extreme difficulties to find anything in the lawbooks that could be thrown at him. [6] For that reason, politicians like Joe Lieberman (the one, by the way, who killed the Public Option in the Health Care Debate), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, introduced the SHIELD Act (Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination) as an amendment to the Espionage Act from 1917 that would make it illegal for everybody to publish the names of intelligence sources. . This suggestion and the attempt to create a law post factum to prosecute someone is so embarrassing for a democracy that no-one in the near future will believe any longer that the USA is some beacon or what. Clay Shirky rightly wrote: 

The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us “You went after Wikileaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.”

Embarressment is, obviously, a bad counsel. And it is this game-level that most participants and the audience breathlessly watch.

But there is indeed a good reason for the USA to get at Julian Assange, and this point is lost in the public perception as well. Assange has stated publicly in July 2010 that there is an encrypted file, “insurance.aes256” with unredacted classified information that can only be opened with the passphrase to the very strong AES 256-bit-encryption. The file will be automatically released if something happens to him [7] I’d guess that the Intelligence agencies of the USA are very eager, even desparate to get information on its content or any means like the passphrase to open the file (it is available via bit-torrent), although I don’t know how that would help pre-empting its release and publication. But having Assange in US-custody would at least help to extract some information from him about this “thermonuclear” file before it is released.

In a sense Cablegate is of minor importance. The leaks’ being done, the intelligence agencies and the military changed their policies with regard to access to and download of classified information , even US Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated on November 30th 2010: “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.” . If at all, it’s the “thermonuclear” file that is the real thing now. Besides that everybody concentrates on issues like freedom of speech, censorhsip, or securing one’s business interest and reputation. The re-establishing of trust between the USA and her allies is another issue at bay. But over and above this conflict has a weird air of irreality. Somewhat like the question: Is it really possible that such a tiny crowd can push a world power on the defensive? 

I think this is the main reason why Robert Gates isn’t right in his estimate. It is the same reason why worldwide the solidarity is with Wikileaks (and only to small degree with Pfc. Bradley Manning who already pays dearly): When was it ever possible to have the world superpower on the run? Something like that seems to be at work. It explains the fury of the USA and the fierce reactions of activists like Anonymus – Operation Payback. But to call this an infowar is a bit preposterous, to think it is primarily about freedom of speech and censorship is a folly. One can see such things happening here. But these things are means, not ends in this conflict. The real events are rather banal: The USA showed the world that it wasn’t able to prevent a second 9/11. This time, it’s home-made. Her reactions are helpless, no foreign terrorists to blame here. Besides the “insurance.aes256”-file this charade is about shame, about deflecting responsibility, about castigating the child that dared to point out that the emporer has no clothes. It’s about old men being poked by little children. Sad how embarrassment can lead to crazy actions, but seeing more at stake is dreaming. But that’s what the web is all about – dreaming things into existence.


[1]  This doesn’t mean that there are not good reasons to be critical concerning Assange’s motifs. A very good summary of his intents can be found in zungu zungu “Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible Government””, Nov. 29, 2010, .
[2]  The Intelligence Community spent $75 billion in the year 2009, employing  200.000 people worldwide (including the 100.000 people employed in the national intelligence activities) .
[3]  John Perry Barlow was the first to use this silly term in a tweet on the 2nd of December: “The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops.#WikiLeaks” .
[4]  Samuel Davis from The Atlantic has a valuable piece here: “The Shameful Attacks on Julian Assange”, Dec. 03, 2010, .
[5]  With regard to Wikileaks and Julian Assange US AG Eric Holder said on December 6th, 2010: “I authorized just last week a number of things to be done so that we can get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable.” . On the other hand, neither did he investigate alleged war crimes of members of the former Bush administration, nor does the Obama administration relinquish its views that it has the authority to target and kill Americans all over the world it has deemed to be a threat  or that it can abandon Habeas Corpus at will  and . Accountability seems to be rather a matter of taste and degreee than of law.
[6]  The latest surview is Jennifer K. Elsea, “Criminal Prohibitions on the Publication of Classified Defense Information”, CRS Report for Congress, Dec 06, 2010, Congressional Research Service 2010 . Some excerpts and appraisals can be found on the website of the Electronic Frontier Fondation: Kevin Bankston, “Information is the Antidote to Fear: Wikileaks, the Law, and You”, Dec 08, 2010 . This post links to the CRS Report.
[7]  Infos on the encryption of “insurance.aes265” here: .


Update 2011.02.02 : Lax supervision in the Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility (SCIF) in Baghdad, where the downloads took place, and insufficient supervision of subordinates are now seen as necessary conditions for the leakage of the classified material: “If proper security procedures had been in place, the acts Manning is accused of committing would have been impossible, the second official said.” (page 2)
Update 2011.05.29 : In their article WikiLeaks accused Bradley Manning ‘should never have been sent to Iraq’ (as in the accompanying video The madness of Bradley Manning?) Maggie O’Kane, Chavala Madlena and Guy Grandjean point to a security environment in Forward Operation Base Hammer in Iraq (where Manning was stationed) that borders on the grotesque. Many computers with connection to the SIPRNet had their passwords posted on sticky notes on the machine or nearby. No security oversight was in place, many people came and went, logged on and off the SIPRNet-connected computers. The video explicitly reports that service members whose clearances weren’t checked accessed the computers for fun and entertainment. – With this environment, how is it possible to place the burden of the leakage on just one soldier? How could this even possibly be verified or proved? It literally could have been anyone.
There is a follow-up to this post: Free Manning, Arrest Petraeus!



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