- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
The latest dump of classified information stolen from the U.S. government is extraordinarily damaging to U.S. national security, but not in the way that WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, apparently intended. (If the summer leak was a gusher what does that make this latest round, a tsunami?)
Assange is a garden-variety anti-American who believes that the United States is a malevolent actor which engages in all sorts of shameful secret activities that, if revealed, would discredit all aspects of American power. Prior to earlier dumps of classified material, Assange claimed that the secret files would document massive war crimes by the United States. They did not.
Based on the depictions of the cables in the media (the New York Times coverage begins here, the Guardian coverage begins here, and Der Spiegel‘s coverage begins here, it appears the same thing is true for this latest batch. The media apparently found no instances of shameful behavior — I am assuming that if they had done so, they would have led with those stories. Instead, the cables document that American diplomats have been doing what they are supposed to be doing: collecting information, reporting their opinions and insights back to headquarters, and trying to build international cooperation in pursuit of core American foreign-policy goals.
The cables document that diplomats often relay information that would be, well, undiplomatic to say publicly. Diplomats often get foreign interlocutors to be more candid when they believe their discussions will remain confidential. Diplomats also opine on a range of topics — the limitations of current lines of U.S. policy or the weaknesses of allies — that would compromise an administration’s effectiveness if shared with a general audience, but not because the views were dishonorable, or indicated that the United States was engaged in reprehensible behavior.
Assange’s damage to the United States is not in what he discovered about the past, but rather in the peril he has placed our diplomats, our friends and partners, and our policies in the future. The massive security breach has made every bilateral relationship more difficult and likely lowered the quality of diplomatic reporting. Will our interlocutors be as candid now that they have seen what happens? Ironically, Assange’s attack on our diplomats has meant that our statecraft may be more dependent on cruder instruments of state power, especially brute force. (Elsewhere on FP, Dan Drezner reads the situation just as I do and notes one further likely result: an uptick in intelligence failures as the bureaucracy responds by stove piping information to prevent future espionage of this sort.)
If WikiLeaks had uncovered evidence of gross misdeeds, I suppose reasonable people could debate the balance of interests the dump might have served. Outlandish claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the leaks have done nothing of the sort. Instead, they have damaged the United States and in doing so achieved no higher purpose than the damage they have done. To fervent anti-Americans, weakening the United States is an end unto itself.
In wartime, we should expect enemies to seek to damage us in this way. How will President Obama respond to an enemy attack of this sort?