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How The National Security Community Continues To Debate The WikiLeaks Disclosures


The WikiLeaks disclosures started an intense debate about their impact. Supporters of Julian Assange said these were U.S. government secrets that needed to become public. The national security community argued that they could cause real harm, especially at a time when the U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre looks at the state of that debate today.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: So how much damage did Julian Assange do to U.S. national security? Here's P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman back when the WikiLeaks story erupted in 2010.

P J CROWLEY: Julian Assange has said many times that nobody was harmed by WikiLeaks. That's not true.

MYRE: Consider three broad areas affected to varying degrees by the WikiLeaks dumps - The military, the intelligence community and U.S. diplomacy. Crowley, who's also a retired Air Force colonel, says those most at risk from the disclosures were civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq who were secretly passing on information to the U.S. military.

CROWLEY: A number of people went into hiding. A number of people had to move, particularly those civilians in war zones who had told soldiers about movements of Taliban and al-Qaida. No doubt, some of those people were harmed when their identities were compromised.

MYRE: WikiLeaks has made multiple disclosures over the past decade. They included one in March 2017, when the group released what it said were CIA technical documents on a range of spying techniques. This revealed ways that a state-of-the-art television could serve as a listening device even when it was turned off. Larry Pfeiffer, a former CIA chief of staff, says these kinds of breaches can impose long-term costs, though they can be difficult to quantify.

LARRY PFEIFFER: It informs the potential enemies of a technique we use that they can now build up countermeasures against.

MYRE: And Pfeiffer, speaking via Skype, says the spy agency may be forced to go back to the drawing board.

PFEIFFER: Once invalidated, it now creates situations where the U.S. intel community is going to have to expend resources, both dollars and people, to develop new methods.

MYRE: On the diplomatic front, WikiLeaks shared many examples of U.S. diplomats writing in unflattering terms about foreign leaders, causing the U.S. plenty of embarrassment. More importantly, says Scott Anderson, a former State Department lawyer who served in Iraq in 2012 and 2013, some of these countries have vulnerable opposition leaders and human rights activists. Their private, sensitive discussions with U.S. diplomats suddenly became very public.

SCOTT ANDERSON: That can really chill the ability of those American personnel to build those sorts of relationships and have frank conversations with their contacts when their contacts are worried that information is not as secure as people thought they were.

MYRE: Anderson notes that the U.S. still has a program to bring Afghans and Iraqis to the U.S. in return for help they provided and the danger they still face. P.J. Crowley points to the impact of leaks that upset the former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

CROWLEY: We had one ambassador in Libya. We had to remove him from his post because he was directly threatened by Moammar Gadhafi's thugs.

MYRE: Some countries, Crowley adds, took a bemused approach to the disclosures.

CROWLEY: Another foreign minister told the secretary of state - don't worry about it; you should see what we report about you.

MYRE: Shortly after the WikiLeaks case broke in 2010, then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates offered this philosophical take.


BOB GATES: The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it's in their interest - not because they like us, not because they trust us and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.

MYRE: Three years later, Edward Snowden leaked even more explosive material from the National Security Agency. WikiLeaks helped Snowden flee to Russia.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.


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