Robert Gibbs may go down in history as the worst communications guy any White House has ever employed. This morning the by turns arrogant, abrasive, and annoying Gibbs took questions about WikiLeaks and, well, just watch his reaction to a question about the White House’s take on the docu-dump:
We should never be afraid of one guy who popped down $35 and bought a web address. … Our foreign policy is stronger than that. … We’re not scared of one guy, with one keyboard, and a laptop.
Ok, Bobby. Ask the Iranians how scared they have become of one guy with a flash drive. That one guy, probably with one keyboard and a flash drive, has managed to do a great deal of damage to Iran’s nuclear program.
Gibbs’ line here, no doubt authorized by President Obama and the administration’s brain trust, is either strategically risky, or just plain insane. It’s certainly clueless.
The fact is, the WikiLeaks drop gravely hurts the U.S., not so much in what’s in the documents but in the disclosure itself. Imagine the U.S., China, Iran, Russia, North Korea etc etc all around a high-stakes poker table. WikiLeaks just took America’s cards out of her hands and plopped one of them on the table, while keeping the rest of them for its own use. WikiLeaks has not done the same to the other players. This asymmetrical disclosure helps the other powers and hurts us, just by the fact that we don’t control our cards anymore, and they still control theirs. We should be afraid of the unforeseeable and unintended consequences that this disclosure is bound to have. To not fear this is to not be prudent in the job of statecraft.
Also in the soundbite above, Gibbs is taunting Julian Assange. That would be fine if the U.S. was in a position of power here, but we’re not. WikiLeaks holds the power cards right now. They have a quarter million documents that they’re dribbling out over the course of several days, and thanks to Amazon WikLleaks is robust enough to handle whatever cyber attacks come their way. And they’ve already dripped out some of the documents to the media anyway, so in the very unlikely event that Amazon itself gets taken out, at least some of the documents will get leaked anyway. This is all strategically clever on Julian Assange’s part. He has set up a sort of “can’t stop the signal” system, centered on himself, his keyboard, his URL, but more importantly, the documents that Pfc. Manning allegedly handed over to him.
As to the fear factor, consider: One disgruntled private with a rewritable CD or flash drive used a computer to download what was in essence the keys to the kingdom of U.S. foreign policy. He could have given them, or sold them, or used them in exchange for favors or whatever, with just about anyone. Just think how much the Chinese government would have liked to have had this docu-drop for their own private perusal. Or the Russians, or the Iranians, you name the world rival, and Manning could have named his price. We don’t actually know that he didn’t do this, either with these documents or others he may have had access to. We just don’t know.
We also don’t know how this compares to previous U.S. security breeches. We’re all reacting to the headlines and blog bursts while probably 90% of this story is happening far away from the media glare. The unknown unknowns are just too many to count here. And we’ll probably never be able to count them, at least until we know for sure how many others had the opportunity and ability to do what was done here. And the ability factor is quite low, if Manning turns out to be the sole source and the Lady Gaga explanation turns out to be the truth. And if there are multiple sources at work here? Then the ability factor is probably even lower.
The world we live in, the world of asymmetrical warfare, the world of the Army of Davids, is a world in which one man with a car bomb can fracture a government and trigger regional instability. In this world, a few men with box cutters and a plan can trigger war all over the globe. In this world, a well-placed nuclear scientist can hand over data that enables nuclear programs in one rogue state after another.
Or, one man with a grudge can download sensitive information and hand it over to everyone on the planet, harming the lone global superpower and creating chaos that will ripple on for years. This is the Joker, acting on a global scale, with no Dark Knight around to save the day.
The Obama White House, through Robert Gibbs, puts on a brave face and says it doesn’t fear that. It should. And then it should take strong steps to make sure that it can’t happen again.
Update: Amazon has booted WikiLeaks from its servers. But the signal isn’t stopped, it’s just hosted in Europe now.