Newspapers around the world have started publishing some of the thousands of American diplomatic cables which they were given by Wikileaks. It has been reported that Wikileaks’ source was “a disenchanted, low-level Army intelligence analyst who exploited a security loophole.” While I haven’t seen anything definitive, that sounds like a description of Bradley Manning, the same malcontent who gave Wikileaks thousands of documents relating to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Manning should never see the outside of a federal penitentiary, but how about Wikileaks and the newspapers that have published the diplomatic cables? From a quick look, it appears to me that the criminal statute most likely to apply is 18 U.S.C. Sec. 793(e), which provides:
Whoever having unauthorized possession of, access to, or control over any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, or note relating to the national defense, or information relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation, willfully communicates, delivers, transmits or causes to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted, or attempts to communicate, deliver, transmit or cause to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted the same to any person not entitled to receive it, or willfully retains the same and fails to deliver it to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it…Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.
Do the diplomatic cables “relate to the national defense”? Some of them certainly seem to. So a criminal prosecution of those involved in the leaks who are within federal jurisdiction (e.g., the New York Times) may be possible. Scott has studied these issues more closely than I have and may have more to say on the subject.
The Times explained its rationale for publishing the leaked cables here. The paper’s most persuasive argument is that a number of foreign newspapers also have the documents and are sure to publish them, so the Times might as well join in.
The paper needn’t have much fear of criminal prosecution, since it uses the leaked cables as an opportunity for a paean to the Obama administration’s foreign policies. Here, the Times reviews cables relating to Iran’s nuclear program. Not surprisingly, they record the fact that pretty much everyone in the region urged the U.S. to do something to stop Iran from getting the bomb, by military action if necessary. The entertaining part of the story, however, is the Times’s defense of the Obama administration’s policy of “engagement” with Iran:
The election of Mr. Obama, at least initially, left some countries wondering whether the sanctions push was about to end. Shortly after taking office, in a videotaped message timed to the Persian New Year, he reiterated his campaign offer of a “new beginning” — the first sustained talks in three decades with Tehran.
The United Arab Emirates called Mr. Obama’s message “confusing.” The American Embassy in Saudi Arabia reported that the talk about engaging Iran had “fueled Saudi fears that a new U.S. administration might strike a ‘grand bargain’ without prior consultations.”
In Europe, Germany and others discerned an effort to grab market share. “According to the British, other EU Member states fear the U.S. is preparing to take commercial advantage of a new relationship with Iran and subsequently are slowing the EU sanctions process,” the American Embassy in London reported.
The administration, though, had a different strategy in mind.
The Times explains that Obama sent an emissary to meet with “more than 70 Middle East experts from European governments.” His mission was to explain that the administration wasn’t really serious about engagement (my paraphrase). This stratagem, the Times tells us, worked like a charm:
The decoding of Mr. Obama’s plan was apparently all the Europeans needed, and by year’s end, even Germany, with its suspicions and longstanding trading ties with Iran, appeared to be on board.
The paper details how the administration went on to secure support from Russia and China, which is where the story ends. Of course, what has happened since then is not encouraging, as Iran continues its nuclear weapons and missile development apace. Still, President Obama could hardly ask for a gentler treatment of one of his administration’s central foreign policy frustrations. Leaking, evidently, isn’t what it used to be.
UPDATE: DId the leaks damage America’s security? Don’t take my word for it; here is what Germany’s left-wing Der Spiegel, which also received the documents from Wikileaks, had to say:
251,000 State Department documents, many of them secret embassy reports from around the world, show how the US seeks to safeguard its influence around the world. It is nothing short of a political meltdown for US foreign policy. …
Never before in history has a superpower lost control of such vast amounts of such sensitive information — data that can help paint a picture of the foundation upon which US foreign policy is built. Never before has the trust America’s partners have in the country been as badly shaken.
Our thanks to all those involved. Someday, our government will have to figure out how to tighten up security, but it is too much to expect any such effort from the Obama administration.
SCOTT adds: I tried to summarize the law governing the disclosure of classified national security information in the Weekly Standard column “Exposure.” Given its outrageous behavior during the Bush administration, the Times’s profession of good faith this time around is striking:
The 251,287 cables, first acquired by WikiLeaks, were provided to The Times by an intermediary on the condition of anonymity. Many are unclassified, and none are marked “top secret,” the government’s most secure communications status. But some 11,000 are classified “secret,” 9,000 are labeled “noforn,” shorthand for material considered too delicate to be shared with any foreign government, and 4,000 are designated both secret and noforn.
Many more cables name diplomats’ confidential sources, from foreign legislators and military officers to human rights activists and journalists, often with a warning to Washington: “Please protect” or “Strictly protect.”
The Times has withheld from articles and removed from documents it is posting online the names of some people who spoke privately to diplomats and might be at risk if they were publicly identified. The Times is also withholding some passages or entire cables whose disclosure could compromise American intelligence efforts.