On Sunday, the 28th of November, the web site WikiLeaks began releasing 250,000 confidential US Department of State documents covering diplomatic activities the US has been involved in over the past several years. Included in the release have been candid and often caustic appraisals of foreign leaders.
While the leaked documents have caused discomfiture to the US government - Secretary of Defense Robert Gates a few days ago called them "embarrassing" and "awkward" but also said they were not a "game changer" - the latest batch has caused a lot more heartburn and seemed to cross a line from causing embarrassment to possibly helping terrorists, unintentionally or not.
As reported in this New York Times article yesterday, one of the State Department cables now released was a February 2009 "... compendium of sites around the world - from hydroelectric dams in Canada to vaccine producers in Denmark - that, if lost, might 'critically impact' - public health or the national security of the United States."
"... includes well over 200 energy pipelines, undersea cables, strategic metal mines, vaccine suppliers, dams, ports, and power generators along with the names of 35 companies spread across 59 nations. The cable sought to identify 'critical US foreign dependencies' that 'if destroyed, disrupted or exploited, would likely have an immediate and deleterious effect on the United States.' "
The aforementioned Times article, for instance, says the list included "... BAE Systems plants in three locations where important components are made for the F-35 joint strike fighter and for guided munitions like the AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon."
No specific addresses are provided for the sites listed, although it probably would not be terribly difficult to find addresses and detailed satellite photos for most of them.
However, the Times also notes that the list "... appears largely limited to sites that any would-be terrorist with Internet access and a bit of ingenuity might quickly have identified."
Even so, US Government officials and politicians across the political spectrum - and some in other countries like the UK and Australia - condemned the move, saying the release of the list could be of use to terrorists.
"It's a menu for terrorists that is probably one of the most overtly destructive things WikiLeaks has done... This has given a global map - a menu, if not a recipe book - to every extremist group in the world. To me it would be amazing to see how WikiLeaks could rationalize this."
Others disagree. The same Christian Science Monitor article also quotes Professor Terry O'Sullivan, at the University of Akron who has worked with the US Department of Homeland Security on analyzing critical infrastructure around the world as saying that "... if that list were prioritized, with specific vulnerabilities outlined," there might be a real problem. He goes on to say:
"Absent that, I'd say this publication of a raw list, at least, is not any grand threat to the security of the nations involved or the United States."
There are news reports today that Julian Assange, editor in chief of WikiLeaks, has been arrested in London on a European Arrest Warrant from Swedish authorities for suspected rape. There is some speculation that the US will now try to file unspecified criminal charges against Assange in regard to the leaks. If arrested by US authorities, Mr. Assange has promised to release many more documents covering both government and commercial organizations.
So, what do you think of this WikiLeaks situation? How damaging are the release of the documents? Should the US Government seek to arrest Assange and bring him to trial, and if so, on what charges?
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.