Many news outlets have commented on the Wikileaks phenomenon, but none to my knowledge have commented on how the official classified State Department cables displayed on Wikileaks will aid al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups in their war against us, and how, in a bizarre twist of fate, these documents should now be considered a key American counterterrorism resource.
First it is important to put the quality of intelligence in perspective. Intelligence comes in various forms, such as conversations intercepted by human sources, communications intercepted through technical devices, via the reports of a spy, by the revelations of a defector, and on and on.
For all intelligence collectors, however, the Holy Grail is to recruit a source that can provide complete copies of official classified documents. I spent a career recruiting foreign spies who I pushed to provide me with this exact type of documentary intelligence, and this is precisely the kind of intelligence that PFC Bradley Manning provided to Julian Assange and Wikileaks.
To put the volume of intelligence displayed on Wikileaks in perspective, in the war on terror, every time we capture an al-Qaeda lap top computer that contains a couple hundred tactical documents, our officials declare that we’ve uncovered a “treasure trove” of intelligence that will severely impact al-Qaeda and be a boon to our understanding of how the organization operates.
Now compare this to the 260,000 official State Department cables revealing both tactical and strategic policies by documenting specific conversations between foreign leaders and senior American officials such as the president’s national security advisors and military leaders like General David Petraeus, and you get a perspective on this truly massive hemorrhage.
To put the damage into perspective, the leaked cables cover key American policies that span the entire world. If we take a sample, however, of just the cables that address the Middle East, we find an embassy assessment stating that we cannot win against al-Qaeda in Pakistan, the dangers posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, the cooperation between Shia Iran and Sunni terrorist groups, our plans, actions, and intentions to contain Iran, our Middle Eastern regional counterterrorism strategy, our plans to monitor al-Qaeda in Africa, the physical vulnerabilities of crucial energy nodes, and our fears that Pakistani nuclear material will fall into terrorist hands.
Having been an intelligence insider, I can assure you that our key competitors around the world such as Iran, Russia, North Korea, China, and the like, will have their ministries of foreign affairs and ministries of intelligence pore over and analyze these documents for years to come.
There is no doubt that al-Qaeda is already hard at work analyzing these cables, too, and, if it just limits its analysis to cables from the Muslim countries, it will be able to make its operations more secure and largely negate some of our communications interception techniques, it will uncover the physical vulnerabilities of strategic energy nodes, and it will obtain information that will provide content for its propaganda machine to discredit our government and our Middle Eastern partners.
I will guarantee that in the near future you will see some of these secret cables prominently referred to on al-Qaeda videos and displayed in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s new Inspire magazine, and they will be exploited by Salafi-Jihadi mosques and organizations throughout the world for some time to come.
In an ironic twist, these publicly available classified cables, once considered compartmented information that could only be shared with other American officials on a strict “need to know” basis, must now be considered a key American counterterrorism resource.
This is true because a standing counterintelligence requirement in the ongoing analysis of al-Qaeda is to understand what it knows about us and how that knowledge might enable it to protect itself from our operations, support its ideological narrative, and help it choose targets.
As unpleasant as it is, these cables, while still officially classified, are now completely and utterly in the public domain and are being studied by our key adversaries. As a result, it is vital that our own counterterrorism institutions and officers conduct a robust damage assessment by reviewing these cables through the enemy’s eyes, if only to be forewarned about what our enemies know about us and how they might utilize this knowledge to their advantage.
Unfortunately, just the opposite appears to be true. On December 4, the Office of Management and Budget circulated a memo to all federal agencies prohibiting them from accessing the Wikileaks material, and the Defense Department issued a similar statement to its contractors and employees.
The OMB memo stated:
Except as authorized by their agencies and pursuant to agency procedures, federal employees or contractors shall not, while using computers or other devices (such as Blackberries or Smart Phones) that access the web on non-classified government systems, access documents that are marked classified (including classified documents publicly available on the WikiLeaks and other websites)…
This prohibition not only takes all federal counterterrorism personnel out of the loop, but, by extension, all state and local police counterterrorism personnel too.
Moreover, this memo has had a chilling effect even on non-governmental organizations.
According to a Washington Post article titled “OMB: Wikileaks off-limits to federal workers without clearance,” Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs sent an email that “urged students not to post links to the documents or make comments on social media Web sites,” because “engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government….”
While it is reprehensible that these cables have been leaked, it is equally true that this particular genie cannot be put back into the bottle. If our counterterrorism officials are the only ones left in the dark, they will be put at a dangerous disadvantage vis-a-vis al-Qaeda and its associates, and our country will be less safe as a result.