Monday, November 29, 2010

Wikileaks Latest

I spent the early morning hours catching up on the fascinating revelations resulting from the latest efforts of Wikileaks, which involved publishing a quarter of a million US diplomatic cables.  (See NYT coverage here, and Guardian here).  Obviously, the fallout from this incident will be going on for quite some time.  A few quick reactions:

  • As a matter of operational security, this is an extreme humiliation for the United States.  Having candid communications of its diplomats released will ruffle feathers in just about every relationship the US has.  The picture appears to be that a single US private had access to all this material, presumably meaning that millions of others do also.  From a computer security perspective, it is absolutely crazy for a single low-level individual to have that kind of access, and I'm amazed that it wasn't obviously crazy to US leaders ahead of a time.  The US needs an absolutely major root-to-branch rethink about how it secures its information in order to be able to guarantee to its allies and its people that it can operate with a minimal level of competence.  One wonders how many more venal Private Mannings have sold out similar caches of information to foreign governments.
  • Anyone who thought that the United States government and military are competent to deal with computer security threats has now learnt otherwise.  If foreign governments weren't already spending heavily to penetrate US networks, they're obviously missing out.  Also, they better learn to wear gloves and contact lenses when meeting with US diplomats.
  • This obviously adds a lot of color, detail, and proof to suspicions about the relationship between Iran and the Gulf states.  Clearly, the Gulf leaders all hate Iran, and think the Iranians are trying to undermine them with their own people, and are actively urging US military strikes. It also adds new details on Iranian capabilities (eg long range missiles).
  • It seems to me that the best case scenario to be hoped for in the Middle East is a gradual evolution into a cold war with a nuclear armed Iran in a mutually-assured-destruction standoff with nuclear armed Israel and similarly armed Gulf States.  The worst case is a hot war (with the attendant massive global energy shock).  The possibility of a surgical strike removal of Iranian nuclear capability that makes a permanent difference without major collateral damage seems like a pretty long shot.  It also seems that the current campaign of sanctions and diplomacy has pretty poor chances of success - the Iranians are just stalling for time, while continuing to work on their armaments program.
People can feel free to add other points of interest in comments.


Burk said...

Wikileaks has lost my support at this point. What is the point of their operation? Is it to expose everyone else's secret information, but not their own? Do they not rely on secrecy for their own operations? Are they not at this point becoming a non-state cyber-military threat to the US, if not to others?

The question is whom they attack. Are they attacking worthy targets, or exposing secrets just because they can? The original idea was to help whistleblowers expose corruption, and we are all on board on that, I think.

If Wikileaks devotes itself to taking down the US particularly, it has become an adversarial entity. For all the problems of our country & government, it remains the expression of our (American's) collective needs, diplomatic, security, etc. If Wikileaks fails to exercise basic curatorial / editorial responsibility, it will rightfully be a target for adverse attack from us in turn.

kjmclark said...

- There aren't many PFC intelligence analysts, or PFCs with top-secret clearance, either. Manning seems to have slipped through their psychological profiling. It doesn't look like any other top-secret holders did anything like this, or we would have had leaks before. It's much harder to secure a system from a motivated insider than from the outside.

- I'd say it's crazy for them to do all of that through one secure network. Manning was a military analyst in Iraq. He should have had access to military intelligence about Iraq, to do his job. State Department transmissions should have used a separate network that this guy had no access to.

- Looks to me like Stuxnet was the attack, and was probably successful at setting back the Iranian program a year or two. Hopefully, while it was sabotaging the Iraqi centrifuges, it was also collecting data that can be used for future attacks. It's a much better method than airstrikes.

- The best case scenario in the Middle East is for Iran's government to be overthrown by moderates and turned into a Democracy, and for a two-state solution for Israel/Palestine. (I'm still hoping for those :-) Of course, the best case scenario for the OECD is to move away from oil before the Middle East gets worse. The most likely solution is a cold war in the Middle East.

Brett said...

To be fair to the US government, none of the stuff that was leaked in the Cables is rated "Top Secret". The worst it gets is "Confidential/NOFORN" or "Secret/NOFORN". That's probably part of the reason why Manning had access.

Anonymous said...

What would be the effect of a nuclear attack on the Ghawar oil field?

An econ text from a course I took in the mid 80s mentioned in passing the possibility of natural resources being destroyed in place at huge scale.

Might take KSA out of the picture rather rapidly. The US is not going to nuke Tehran in retaliation. Russia would be helped by the huge rise in oil prices. Might not be that bad for China either.

It's also possible the resource would not be destroyed, just inaccessible for years.

War is a deeply technical business and full of surprises. The Cold War was very fluid beneath the surface at times. I can't imagine it being a stable conflict in the the cramped Middle East.

Brian Hayes said...

@"Wikileaks has lost my support at this point. What is the point of their operation?"

Yo. Methinks I'll wait a bit.

Wikileaks pledged today their next round is Wall Street. Now that might be terrific fun.

Anonymous said...

Some of the leaked cables reveal stuff that has positive possibilities:

WikiLeaks: Ayatollah Khameni has terminal cancer

Wikileaks cables reveal China 'ready to abandon North Korea'

Adam Schuetzler said...

I guess I'm the only one who considers this leak interesting only in that it sparks discussion and news. Realistically, I don't think much was harmed, because those involved already know about and expect all of the things reported. The only thing wounded by this particular batch of leaks so far is the pride of the powerful. Seriously, the Arab states hate and distrust Iran? Is this news? Nearly every country wants somebody else to "do something" about Iran, but is unwilling to attack themselves! Diplomats are also spies! Are these items even remotely shocking? Embarrassing, yes, but hardly near as harmful as they are being blown up to be. Even the last leak (the Afghan war logs) sparked brief discussion followed by a massive yawn - it had no lasting political effects at all that I can discern, and even the US military and intelligence organizations can't point to any specific harms, and that leak was much more ethically questionable.

Wikileaks is doing a useful service of humbling the powerful and shedding light on the realities of politics. I do think their recent focus on the US government has been somewhat overdone, but then it's what has made their name, despite the long history of incredible leaks they have published from around the world (and mostly greeted with a yawn).

Wikileaks is not a morally pure organization, but their work is necessary, at least as necessary as the work of diplomats... It is absolutely essential for the powerful to be exposed in order for any semblance of equality, liberty, and democracy to exist. If the people are in the dark about real politics, they are very easily controlled.

Gary said...


In light of the continued attacks on Wikileaks, and your experience in the computer security field, I wonder if you have any thoughts on the viability of this organization, and the ability of presumably powerful interests to stop them?