THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Globe Editorial

Security breach is disturbing — so why did US make it easy?

November 30, 2010

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THE FIRST batch of diplomatic documents released by the website WikiLeaks will no doubt embarrass various governments and leaders — most prominently, the United States and Barack Obama. But the world can probably handle the news that US diplomats consider French President Nikolas Sarkozy to be arrogant, or German Chancellor Angela Merkel to be risk-averse.

There will be potentially more serious implications for those informants whose names are not deleted — among them dissidents, human rights defenders, and journalists who helped provide information to the State Department. Some may now face arrest or even assassination. Governments, such as that of Yemen, that are secretly cooperating with the United States could face backlashes at home, and all American diplomats could be damaged by the revelation that some are gathering confidential information about the people they meet. All in all, the WikiLeaks documents represent a serious breach of security. The Obama administration is right to condemn WikiLeaks, but it should also accept some blame itself.

There is a reasonable argument that a government shouldn’t be able to hide its misdeeds or sweep its failures away by making them secret. When government wrongdoing is alleged, whistleblowers might be justified in releasing leaked information. But that’s not what’s happening here. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sees himself as pulling back the curtain on the diplomatic trade. But did anyone ever doubt that diplomacy involved developing critical assessments of world leaders, and engaging in back-channel negotiations over delicate issues? In these cases, the curtain should rightly remain closed.

The US government owes its allies an assurance of confidentiality. And it would be a mistake for the State Department to blame Assange and his website alone. Too many people had access to the files that were downloaded and given to WikiLeaks. There is an obvious need to restrict access. Bradley Manning, the military intelligence analyst who is suspected of transferring earlier files to WikiLeaks, has shown that it is far too easy for low-level insiders to throw open a back door to the government’s most valuable secrets.

About half of the diplomatic files now being disclosed were unclassified, and most of the rest were given the lowest possible classification — “confidential.’’ Not only is something wrong with the criteria for classifying potentially embarrassing materials, but cyberspace is an inherently vulnerable repository for reports about private chats with foreign leaders or data on foreigners in contact with American diplomats.

Every week, the Defense Department is subjected to millions of efforts to hack into its computer networks. The State Department is also a target. When it comes to national-security secrets, cyberspace should be viewed as an extremely dangerous neighborhood. Whether the would-be violators are the Chinese military, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, or Assange and his collaborators, the US government still bears the ultimate responsibility for keeping the nation’s secrets.