It’s been over two years since the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks released a trove of once classified US State Department cables. According to the State Department’s former chief spokesman, the WikiLeaks episode had less of an adverse impact than originally feared at the time.
Philip J. (P.J.) Crowley, a former Assistant Secretary at the Department, offered his assessment of the cablegate during a recent seminar at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Overall, “the sky did not fall,” Crowley said. “But … in certain cases, in certain consequential countries, has it caused damage to national security? Absolutely!”
Two countries where the WikiLeaks cables created problems for US diplomacy are Pakistan and Afghanistan. WikiLeaks worsened US relations with Afghan President Karzai “once he got authoritative cables where he learned what [US Ambassador to Kabul Karl W.] Eikenberry was reporting back about him,” Crowley noted.
At the time when the WikiLeaks cables were originally released, Crowley said the State Department grouped its response into “three baskets of issues of concern.” The first category was “what this would mean in terms of US daily interaction with different foreign governments?”
According to Crowley, who left office in March 2011, the foreign response was mixed. “In some cases there was no reaction because there was no coverage--in particular [in] autocratic countries--of what was released.” In other cases, sometimes the reporting concerned a previous administration, so there were no problems with the incumbent government. But in other cases, some foreign officials warned that “we will not give you the good stuff [information] anymore.”
The second issue for the Department was a “real genuine concern about the safety of those people cited in the cables,” Crowley said during the April 18 seminar. Some of the individuals referred to in the cables were subsequently jailed, injured, or killed, though Crowley acknowledged that it was often hard to draw a direct causal effect to the illegally released State Department cables, since many of the individuals who suffered were already the subjects of scrutiny for foreign governments.
The State Department’s third concern was that the WikiLeaks scandal would impair future reporting by American diplomats around the world, and otherwise reverse the gains made in information sharing since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In Crowley’s view, “in some cases, they [American diplomats] are still writing great cables. He called the one of a Dagestan wedding “my own personal favorite.”
Crawley emphasized that the US government is still able to protect its most sensitive information, citing the fact that there was no damaging information in the leaked cables regarding the Middle East peace process. He further noted the secrecy surrounding the preparations for the 2011 commando raid against Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
These days, ambassadors seem more inclined to communicate the information in an email, or in a phone call, rather than in a cable, Crowley suggested. “So in that sense the reporting is still happening, but it is not necessarily done with the same breadth that it had before,” he said.
As a result, he feared that the US government is giving back some of the advances made since 9/11, in terms of sharing information. He expressed concern that the United States will “end up with a situation where fewer people have the right perspective to inform the policy-making process” and “information is once again getting silo-ed, and it is not available where it needs to be.”
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.