Palin: Obama Administration’s Incompetence in the WikiLeaks Fiasco
Sarah Palin has taken to her Facebook page to issue a proclamation raising “Serious Questions about the Obama Administration’s Incompetence in the Wikileaks Fiasco.”
First and foremost, what steps were taken to stop Wikileaks director Julian Assange from distributing this highly sensitive classified material especially after he had already published material not once but twice in the previous months? Assange is not a “journalist,” any more than the “editor” of al Qaeda’s new English-language magazine Inspire is a “journalist.” He is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands. His past posting of classified documents revealed the identity of more than 100 Afghan sources to the Taliban. Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders?
What if any diplomatic pressure was brought to bear on NATO, EU, and other allies to disrupt Wikileaks’ technical infrastructure? Did we use all the cyber tools at our disposal to permanently dismantle Wikileaks? Were individuals working for Wikileaks on these document leaks investigated? Shouldn’t they at least have had their financial assets frozen just as we do to individuals who provide material support for terrorist organizations?
Most importantly, serious questions must also be asked of the U.S. intelligence system. How was it possible that a 22-year-old Private First Class could get unrestricted access to so much highly sensitive information? And how was it possible that he could copy and distribute these files without anyone noticing that security was compromised?
The White House has now issued orders to federal departments and agencies asking them to take immediate steps to ensure that no more leaks like this happen again. It’s of course important that we do all we can to prevent similar massive document leaks in the future. But why did the White House not publish these orders after the first leak back in July? What explains this strange lack of urgency on their part?
These are actually more interesting questions than I expected when I saw the headline.
I had anticipated this one: “How was it possible that a 22-year-old Private First Class could get unrestricted access to so much highly sensitive information? And how was it possible that he could copy and distribute these files without anyone noticing that security was compromised?” Any my answer, outlined in a New Atlanticist piece titled “Plugging The WikiLeaks,” is that we over-corrected after 9/11, going from a system with too many stovepipes to one with too few. Under the Bush Administration. But I don’t blame Bush or Obama. Setting up security protocols is several steps below their paygrade, neither within their technical competence or span of control. Our intelligence community screwed this one up and has been slow to correct their mistakes.
But Palin actually has a point when she asks, “But why did the White House not publish these orders after the first leak back in July? What explains this strange lack of urgency on their part?” Crisis management after a disaster is indeed the president’s job. And the reaction has been too slow. (Although it’s quite probable that all of the theft happened at one time, in which case new protocols wouldn’t stop these dumps by Assange and company.) While Obama’s coolness and refusal to make knee jerk statements — or, indeed, statements at all — in the day or three after a crisis breaks has often served him well, this may well be a case where umpteen committee meetings over a span of months won’t do.
The questions asked in the first two paragraphs excerpted above, though, are far more fundamental. Essentially, she’s arguing that the United States is at war and WikiLeaks is a de facto enemy spy service and we should act accordingly. While my strong instinct is that Assange and company are non-combatants pushing the envelope on free speech, I’m not entirely sure Palin’s wrong. Certainly, her viewpoint has resonance with many.
The Pentagon Papers case and others seem to have established that journalistic entities may publish classified documents as part of their protection under the 1st Amendment. While publication of certain information may be actionable in court after the fact, there can be no prior restraint. The duty to protect classified information falls on the government and its agents.
That said, there’s growing sentiment that Assange has violated the Espionage Act. The salient legal distinction, I gather, is whether the publication is done with intent to harm the United States. The NYT and WaPo, publishers of the Pentagon Papers, clearly had no such aim. WikiLeaks, arguably, does. But it’s very hard to prosecute under the Espionage Act, for legal and practical reasons. And it’s particularly difficult in the present circumstance, where you have a foreign national hiding out in a country that has very little proclivity to extradite criminals to the United States and using servers all over the world to store and publish the information in question.
Regardless, the Espionage Act is a criminal statute. Assange would have to be arrested, charged, and convicted in a court of law. Palin seems to be implying — she stops short of asserting directly — that Assange should simply be hunted down and shot. And she does seem to be advocating conducting cyber war against his servers. She’s right that we wouldn’t hesitate to do that in the case of an al Qaeda website that was publishing damaging information. But, while I find his actions reprehensible, Assange isn’t a terrorist. Nor is there any evidence that he “has blood on his hands.” Granted, that’s a happy accident in that he seems blissfully uncaring about the consequences of his actions.