Consensus seems to indicate that the Wikleaked cables are fascinating, hilarious, tragic, unsettling, and full of the pulpy stuff that makes diplomacy seem startlingly human. They’ve given ordinary people a rousing crash course in 21st century strong-arming, although many experts believe they’ve also done considerable damage to the United States’ diplomatic capital.
But what about the damage to the blogosphere? This morning, Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare—a blog on the legal dimensions of national security that regularly features commentary on sensitive areas of national security (read Nick Baumann on Wittes’ take on American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki here and here)—received an email from a JAG captain deployed in Iraq. The email inquired about a curious message that popped up on his computer screen when he tried to access the blog from his work computer.
The message reads (edited slightly for brevity):
*** YOU HAVE SELECTED A SITE THAT MAY POTENTIALLY CONTAIN CLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS *** Due to the recent disclosure of US Classified Information to public news and media sources, the site you are attempting to access may potentially be hosting US Classified . . . Downloading, copying, typing text into another document or email, printing, saving to a workstation, server, or any drive connected to a NIPR or Unclassified system is considered a compromise of that system. Additionally, printing, sending, transmitting or forwarding this information is also considered a SPILL and established SPILL cleanup procedures must be followed. . . Viewing these documents is not considered a spill in of itself; however, once a user identifies the information as classified or potentially classified, the individual should immediately cease viewing the item and close their web browser. . . . all personnel are to refrain from viewing any of the articles pertaining to Wikileaks releases on their DOD NIPR system. [emphasis added]
Unpleased, Wittes defends the integrity of Lawfare:
I cannot tell you how much I resent this. It’s not just the stupidity of the failure to distinguish between leaks and commentary on national security law–which inevitably will occasionally touch on leaks. . . . The most we have done is linked to a New York Times article that refers to some cables . . . We have actually taken pains over the life of this blog–and before–to avoid compromising sensitive material in the course of work that necessarily brings us into contact with it. On a few occasions, we have gone so far as to decline to post on sensitive matters that have come our way as a result of accidental disclosures. We write off of the public record here at Lawfare. Some of my press friends may not admire that, but that’s what we do. Glad to know the military appreciates the effort.
It’s not clear if this has been a problem for other sites like Lawfare, or if it’s simply a one-off shot across the bow. It is, of course, still early in the WikiLeaks game. But if this is happening to Wittes and his colleagues (who include former Bush-era Officer of Legal Counsel attorney Jack Goldsmith and the University of Texas’ Robert Chesney), it could happen to similar sites that frequently attract members of the government. For better and for worse, though the United States’ diplomatic guts have been spilled; the information is out there for all—including members of the military—to see.
But if civilians enjoy the freedom to roam free in those new pastures, why shouldn’t the military? Obstructing the military’s understanding of why they’re putting their asses on the line sets an alarming precedent, and shows that the Pentagon is in serious denial about the long-term impact of WikiLeaks.