Although the novelty of the WikiLeaks debacle is beginning to wear off, and the American media is predictably getting tired of reading the state department’s mostly routine classified correspondence, the impact of this disastrous security breach seems likely to be with us for far longer than most seem to realize. And while now readily available secret documents have produced considerable praise for U.S. diplomats at home, their effects abroad have been much more destructive—and seem likely to get worse. Unfortunately, though the Obama administration has correctly worked hard to limit the damage in key relationships, the president and his team have not done nearly enough to try to stop the flow of leaked cables or to deter others from similar conduct.
Lost in the extensive discussion of WikiLeaks is the fact that the embattled web site has so far released only around 1,500 of the 250,000 U.S. State Department cables it is believed to possess. Assuming that Wikileaks releases cables at roughly the same rate moving forward, an average of fewer than one hundred per day, the exposure of new cables could continue for years. This in turn means that American diplomats will be coping with the steady trickle of cables for quite some time. As a result, WikiLeaks is fundamentally different from many past security breaches; it is not just one event, but a long ongoing process.
Moreover, WikiLeaks presumably has a strategy for releasing the cables. If the strategy is sophisticated, and there is no reason to assume that it is not, the group would probably seek to make an initial splash (which it certainly has done) but also to sustain attention through the judicious release of further titillating cables over time. Only the U.S. government, WikiLeaks, and foreign governments given advance warning can have any sense of what is in the 248,500 cables that have not yet been posted on the internet.
Yet even if the state department knows what is coming, the volume of data at WikiLeaks’ disposal makes it extremely difficult to assess the consequences of its public exposure. This is a problem of both timing and information overload. It is clear that the impact of releasing a particular secret varies over time; the U.S. exposure of Iran’s secret enrichment facilities, for example, had a significant effect because it came after other key partners had already become frustrated with Tehran. Because WikiLeaks has so many cables, the order in which it exposes the most sensitive ones might matter. Finally, though it might be relatively simple to assess the consequences of a handful of disclosures on a particular relationship, it seems next to impossible to evaluate the damage from 250,000 cables on America’s relations with dozens of governments and tens of thousands of individuals (or more). It could take decades for historians to sort out the mess.
Publicly, the Obama administration made a visible effort to reach out to foreign leaders and governments both in before and after the initial WikiLeaks releases to repair diplomatic ties. This is helpful, but ultimately cannot be more than a band-aid on a gaping wound from which blood continues to pour as the other 99 percent of the WikiLeaks cables make their online debuts.
Many have thrown up their hands at the WikiLeaks problem, especially in view of large numbers of so-called mirror sites duplicating the materials already online as well as reports that WikiLeaks has distributed hundreds of copies of its un-posted files on a global basis, with instructions to dump the data if anything happens to WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange. This is a legitimate concern; it is impossible to put a million fingers into the bursting dam holding back the WikiLeaks cables. But it is also a little misplaced—it is people, not cables, who need to be stopped.