the strange world of wikileaks

The diplomatic world was aghast this week as Wikileaks began releasing over 250,000 purloined US diplomatic cables, ranging from routine to SECRET/NOFORN. SECRET is not the highest classification, but still covers pretty sensitive stuff.

The diplomatic world was aghast this week as Wikileaks began releasing over 250,000 purloined US diplomatic cables, ranging from routine to SECRET/NOFORN.

SECRET is not the highest classification, but still covers pretty sensitive stuff.

The “NOFORN” bit means it’s not to be shared even with the US’s closest foreign allies, which means that everyone is now reading those cables first.

The contents include the titillating (Libyan President Khadafi’s Ukrainian “nurse” who accompanies him everywhere is reported to be a “voluptuous blonde”) to the serious (locations of US nuclear weapons in Europe) to the embarrassing (Canadian security service chief Jim Judd describing Canadians’“Alice in Wonderland” attitude to counterterrorism in what he thought would be a private conversation with a US diplomat).

The Wikileaks servers are being inundated by download requests, from curious websurfers to Chinese intelligence analysts.

One of the amazing things about the Wikileaks episode is how absurdly easy it was for a very small group of people to share so much secret information with so many people.

It appears that US Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, a 23-year-old junior intelligence analyst, downloaded the 250,000 cables at an advanced base in Iraq and gave them to Wikileaks. We are not talking about a big, sophisticated organization. Basically, all Wikileaks has is a server connected to the internet. And now everyone from Yukonomist to the secret police thugs hunting Amnesty International sources in Burma has the cables.

In contrast, consider the Cambridge Five, perhaps the most successful spy ring of the 20th century. Starting in the mid 1930s, Kim Philby and his four upper-crust Cambridge friends successfully penetrated the upper levels of the British Foreign Office, nuclear program and spy agencies.

For over 15 years, before being unmasked, they fed their Russian masters reams of secret documents. The Russians spent enormous sums of money and effort to obtain the documents and get them to Moscow secretly, where they were treated like gold. Yet according to the recently published official history of MI5, Britain’s counter-intelligence outfit, the Cambridge Five handed over just 20,000 pages of material.

Wikileaks may be 10 to 100 times bigger and took a fraction of the effort, although not all the documents are as sensitive as the ones the Cambridge Five risked their lives to betray.

Oscar Wilde joked that “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” No doubt some world leaders are pleased to find out how much time Hillary Clinton spends thinking about them, even if some of the private opinions shared by US diplomats with headquarters will puncture some big egos.

The US diplomat who described Russian President Medvedev as “playing Robin” to ex-President Putin’s “Batman” will not be getting invited to Kremlin tea parties any time soon. Perhaps there is even a car accident in his future.

The people who won’t appreciate Oscar Wilde’s joke are the confidential sources for the US diplomatic reporting. A former colleague of Yukonomist in the foreign service wrote today in the Globe and Mail about how the lives of his sources on human rights abuses in East Timor would have been put at risk if his telexes had been leaked.

Of course, officials have always been wary of writing too much on paper.

Yukonomist served at the Mission to the European Union in Brussels during the 1995 Quebec referendum.

The activities of Quebec’s top delegate in Brussels in the lead up to a very close vote was, of course, high on the agenda back in Ottawa, where the Privy Council Office was said to be working on “Plan B” in case of a “oui” vote.

So one had to tread the fine line between sharing useful information, and writing down something that would be politically damaging if leaked.

If in doubt, take it out, as they say. There’s always the secure phone.

The Wikileaks phenomenon is likely to further accelerate this trend towards self-censorship. Already wary of Access to Information Requests, officials will be dumbing down their written communications even further. They will also be compartmentalizing access, although this risks the kind of communications breakdown that occurred before 9/11 where various parts of government have all the puzzle pieces, but no one is able to put together the full picture.

So what’s next for Wikileaks? There are rumours they have lots of juicy stuff on Russian corruption, although it will take some courage to publish given what has happened in recent years to some other Kremlin critics. A cup of tea with a dash of Polonium-210, anyone?

Wikileaks is probably on safer ground with US banks. Apparently it has five gigabytes from the personal hard-drive of a senior executive at one of America’s top four banks. If so, it is strangely similar to that popular Swedish thriller Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that everyone seems to have been reading. Goth hacker Lisbeth Salander easily downloads the hard-drives of anyone she doesn’t like, from annoying real estate agents to corporate villains, and sends the embarrassing bits wherever they will do the most damage.

Who knows how many of us have suffered data thefts without knowing it. Yukonomist is no IT expert, but apparently hackers like the way Google Desktop indexes your hard-drive and keeps deleted items. If you don’t want it on the front page of the Yukon News, you probably shouldn’t have it on a hard-drive connected to the internet.

So what does all this mean for the Yukon? So far, we are failing the “Oscar Wilde” test. The word Yukon has only been mentioned either by US diplomats likening the Kazakh mine permitting process to our territory in 1898, or for Task Force Yukon, the code name some Alaskan army units use during missions in Afghanistan.

But there’s still hundreds of thousands of pages to come. Maybe next week.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.