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Former US Government Officials Assess Wikileaks Damage

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Dec 16, 2010 (file photo)
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Dec 16, 2010 (file photo)

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The website WikiLeaks continues to publish confidential documents, many of them apparently obtained from a U.S. Army intelligence officer.

Two months after the website WikiLeaks began releasing diplomatic documents,- many of them classified "secret," experts say it has published more than 2,600 U.S. State Department cables - just over one percent of its cache of more than 250,000 documents.

The impact

U.S. government officials have been working to assess the damage done to American diplomatic and military operations by the publishing of those documents.

Retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni says the release of those cables is a tragedy.

"Those who view this as a matter of transparency, freedom of speech, freedom of the press are mistaken because they don't understand the implications for this and what it means in terms of international diplomatic engagement, in terms of lives that could be threatened, people that have taken great risks, in challenging human rights issues, very sensitive security issues."

Zinni says the action by WikiLeaks places lives in jeopardy.

"Those who in confidence express views that may have put them counter to their own government, to their own society, those who are trying to reform, those who provided intelligence information - they become at risk, our soldiers become at risk," added Zinni.  "It may create a hostile environment that we would find some of our military and diplomatic personnel at risk."

But former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger disagrees.

"If jeopardy means loss of life, I'm not so sure that is the case," noted Eagleburger.  "But if what it means is that some diplomats won't be able to do their jobs because they will have been - shall we say 'outed' in something they've done that puts them in an awkward position in terms of their reputations - it may be that there will be some diplomats who will have to seek other employment because nobody will want to talk to them or use them. But I don't think it's life-threatening, let's put it that way."

An embarrassment?

Some of the WikiLeaks cables dealing with the United States, show that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instructed American diplomats to obtain a wide variety of information about senior United Nations officials, including credit card numbers, fingerprints and computer passwords.

Eagleburger says the documents show normal diplomatic activity.

"It's revealing some of our secrets," added Eagleburger.  "It's revealing some of the ways in which we do business. When people say how could the Secretary of State be involved in encouraging us, to encourage spies and so forth - I would have to tell them that if she weren't encouraging our recruiting of spies, I would think that she should be fired.  If we want to act like we've never hired a spy or should never hire one, that's about as absurd as you can get."

Long term consequences

The publication of the WikiLeaks documents created a diplomatic uproar around the world when the website began releasing them late last year. But Eagleburger questions what impact the cables will have in the long term.

"It's an awkward issue for us right now, but in a year or two from now we will barely remember it," Eagleburger said.  "I do not think it is going to have a major impact on the way we do business. I hope we will have found ways to avoid it ever happening again. But I don't think it is going to have a major impact over a longer period of time. It's not going to prove to be the big issue that we think it is right now."

Some experts say the WikiLeaks disclosures were possible because some barriers to sharing information among the various U.S. government agencies were brought down following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Analysts say that gave many more people access to classified documents.

Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft says there may be a backlash.

"In sharing information, there needs to be some monitoring of unusual activity which could reveal that the system is being misused," Scowcroft explained.  "And one of the dangers of the WikiLeaks [revelations] is that all those barriers will now go back up again. And therefore, we will suffer by each agency protecting its important documents and not sharing across the board."

Scowcroft says the information-sharing system must be fixed so that people who need the access could have it and people who don't need it don't get it. The former national security adviser says that should not be an overwhelming challenge.

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