While it is certainly at least embarrassing and in many cases dangerous that US diplomatic cables have been leaked to the press, if one looks deeply enough, it is hardly surprising. The access granted by the US government to the cables which have been released in the past couple of days numbers into the millions of people. That revelation makes it hard to imagine that the information wouldn't end up being leaked.
As much as the US would like to deny it, this is a security failure, plain and simple. As the UK's Guardian reports:
More than 3 million US government personnel and soldiers, many extremely junior, are cleared to have potential access to this material, even though the cables contain the identities of foreign informants, often sensitive contacts in dictatorial regimes. Some are marked "protect" or "strictly protect".
Remember, it was an Army Private First Class, about as junior as one can get, who is responsible for the leaks. PFC Bradley Manning, awaiting trial for leaking classified documents, had both access and then the opportunity to download and pass along all of the military communication on Iraq and Afghnistan as well as this trove of diplomatic cables. The obvious question which needs to be asked is "why was he able to even access these archives"?
According to a state department spokesman, the reason is to be found in pre-9/11 intelligence sharing, or the lack thereof:
"The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath revealed gaps in intra-governmental information sharing. Since the attacks of 9/11, the US government has taken significant steps to facilitate information sharing. These efforts were focused on giving diplomatic, military, law enforcement and intelligence specialists quicker and easier access to more data to more effectively do their jobs."
He added: "We have been taking aggressive action in recent weeks and months to enhance the security of our systems and to prevent the leak of information."
But one has to question a system which went from poor or non-existent intelligence sharing to one which is open to even those as junior as PFC Manning. It was a system begging to be compromised. While it is certainly important to ensure intelligence is shared among the various agencies, throwing open the door to highly sensitive material, which if leaked has the potential to damage US foreign policy and compromise foreign intelligence sources, borders on criminal. It is obvious that little thought was given the ramifications of such leaks the US is now suffering, but if what the Guardian is reporting is true and potentially 3 million people had access to this information, the only surprise is it took this long for someone to leak it.
The damage these leaks have done are, in fact, incalculable. Der Spiegle sums up some of that damage:
Never before in history has a superpower lost control of such vast amounts of such sensitive information -- data that can help paint a picture of the foundation upon which US foreign policy is built. Never before has the trust America's partners have in the country been as badly shaken. Now, their own personal views and policy recommendations have been made public -- as have America's true views of them.
Diplomacy is a funny game - one which has a public face and another private and more honest face. That private side is the one which must never see the light of modern day, at least not until much later when the players are no longer on the scene and the revelation of that private side won't have any diplomatic repercussions. Thanks to these leaks American diplomats must now work with their foreign diplomatic partners after having their private thoughts about them revealed for all the world to see.
But unfortunately, given the wide access granted to this information, it is hard to understand how the powers to be figured something like this was unlikely to happen? While most agree that Wikileaks actions are damaging and some claim them to be criminal, any fair observer would also have to conclude the US government's safeguards on this potentially explosive information was poor at best.