Extremely smart questions about the Wikileaks #cablegate

Dan Gillmor's commentary on the Wikileaks #cablegate release takes the form of a series of questions -- questions for governments, for Julian Assange, for the media, and even for Sarah Palin. The questions form a thought-provoking analysis of the larger context of Wikileaks -- is the US government right to stamp "Secret" on every bit of gossip it sees? Is Wikileaks prepared for disinformation leaks? When will Wikileaks dump the diplomatic cables of a secretive, totalitarian state like China or Syria? Why hasn't the press been getting at this stuff on its own, and what kind of deals are news outlets cutting with Wikileaks in exchange for access? Will the Wikileaks organization ever be as transparent as it is forcing the US government to become?
For journalists who get the documents directly from WikiLeaks:
* You are treating WikiLeaks as much as a partner as a source, no matter how much you might deny this. How comfortable are you in this bargain?
* Why does it take WikiLeaks to get the information you agree is so worthy of public exposure? Why aren't you doing your own jobs better in the first place?
* Why aren't you stressing, in your voluminous coverage, that these cables are not the final word on what has happened. They are often pure gossip. Do you have an obligation to provide more context for the material you're publishing and discussing?

(Update) For Sarah Palin, who (or, perhaps, a staffer) tweeted today: "Inexplicable: I recently won in court to stop my book "America by Heart" from being leaked,but US Govt can't stop Wikileaks' treasonous act?":
* Treason is an act against one's own country. Are you aware that WikiLeaks is not based in the United States, and that Assange is not a U.S. citizen?
* Are you saying you could have stopped Web and newspaper reports from other countries with U.S. court order? Can you find even one lawyer who agrees?

A few questions about the WikiLeaks release

(Image: Wikileaks #cablegate Process Documentation, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from blprnt's photostream)


  1. “* Treason is an act against one’s own country. Are you aware that WikiLeaks is not based in the United States, and that Assange is not a U.S. citizen?”

    Would it be treasonous if it was done by an American organization, or a U.S citizen? If so, are there any American’s that work for or with Wikileaks that could be accused of treason?

  2. The tag “Secret” is based on the material contains information which can damage the United States. This information may not only be the content of the document, but the format as well. Part of the Pentagon Papers furor was the full plain text was released. Those documents had been encrypted and transmitted, no doubt being recorded by the Soviets at some point. Any time you have an encrypted copy and the plain text of that encryption, you can reverse engineer that encryption scheme and so break that code. Release of the Pentagon Papers likely revealed all messages ever sent using that code form.

    Today, with much more powerful computers, the whole body of the WikiLeaks release has compromised every code form for every diplomatic cable related to the release, and so most everything everywhere.

    Colossus was able to break Enigma because one German telegrapher screwed up and re-transmitted a message using abbreviations for the second copy, thus breaking the code sequence. The Navy was able to break JN25 and Purple because one Japanese telegrapher got sloppy. Encryption is a balloon, not a dam. One hole and it all goes poof.

    1. The soviets? Which decade do you live in? We call them Russians now and have done for a very long time. Also regarding cryptography – at a guess the US uses a known algorithm – working out the cipher for these texts is unlikely to compromise very much IMHO (look at the ubiqitious X.509 cert standards). Also pls remember that really juicy stuff is transmitted on a completely seperate network, probably using different encryption.

  3. Let’s not mis-use a dynamite word like “treason”. That would be untreasonable.

    The modern US is so inured to hyperbole that the average mind exists on some kind of meta-plane of linguistic meaning, where it has simply accepted the barrage of falsehoods, exaggerations and twists in meaning, and laps at the lake of self-perpetuating mis-meaning.

    Sarah Palin may be dumb as a brick, but she’s smart enough to know that if you shout “treason!”, then at least some of the villagers will light torches and wield pitchforks, without ever actually understanding the risks inherent, if any, in the danger they are being called to.

    Starting point for treason in the US (which hasn’t given my mind a sure-footed attack point against Wikileaks):


    Section 3. Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court. The Congress shall have power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.

    The Constitution defines treason as specific acts, namely “levying War against [the United States], or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” A contrast is therefore maintained with the English law, whereby a variety of crimes, including conspiring to kill the King or “violating” the Queen, were punishable as treason. In Ex Parte Bollman, 8 U.S. 75 (1807), the Supreme Court ruled that “there must be an actual assembling of men, for the treasonable purpose, to constitute a levying of war.”[7]

    If modern America weren’t so Machiavellian (which, I recall in my dotage, it wasn’t at initiation), then none of this would matter a whit.

    Besides, besides learning that the US ambassador to Lagos thinks the locals don’t smell so good, there is precious little of enormous significance here.

    Check out New Zealand’s secrecy policy – something to learn there!

    And as for encryption – with all these powerful computers, why hasn’t someone got it right yet? Sheesh. Laziness.

    1. Sarah Palin may be dumb as a brick…

      You owe every brick in the world a heartfelt apology for that comparison.

  4. There is nothing so powerful as the idea whose time has come. Simply – and weakly I might add – attempting to villify an embarrasing idea(s) does not diminish it or obviate it any more than more scans at airports of vast numbers of unlikely… civilians has caught even the first terrorist. Zero squared =0 and stupid ^2 = stupid also. And I hope that math reference did not throw the commenter for a loop. Nothing to do with patriotism (omg not again, not another Palin moment). So – yes, Wikileaks is the voice of the world (just watch twitter trends as dataset) and well, the odds are in the world’s favor. Adapt or be swamped, with massive public embarrassment.

  5. My main concern at this point is that so many of the leaks published are uninteresting at best. Instead of publishing everything they find, wouldn’t they be doing more good by publishing the few nuggets they have, and saving the boring bits offline somewhere?

    By only publishing the most damaging information, Wikileaks would be making fewer enemies and (possibly) having a greater effect overall.

    You might argue that they can’t easily determine what’s interesting, but Wikileaks is already making value judgments about the documents they leak out. They’re a 3rd party between the leakers and the press, so they have the responsibility to decide what’s important and what’s not.

    1. “You might argue that they can’t easily determine what’s interesting, but Wikileaks is already making value judgments about the documents they leak out. They’re a 3rd party between the leakers and the press, so they have the responsibility to decide what’s important and what’s not.”

      Are they? When? If they leak *everything* they get, how’s that making value judgments?

      Filtering out the fluff and extracting the content is the presses’ job, not theirs. Or is the press just a dumb pipe nowadays?

  6. Atomicsnarl: Known plaintext shouldn’t impact the security of a well-designed cryptosystem.

    For example, there are currently no publicly disclosed “known plaintext” attacks against full AES. If there were, the cipher would be broken and a new standard would be adopted.

    Known plaintext does let you known when you’ve found the right key, but that should take an inordinately long time.

  7. I think the wikileaks cables were leaked directly by the Obama administration. Nothing so far has really done them much damage. The suggestion that China wants to stop supporting North Korea seems calculated to provoke another hissy fit from the NK leadership. This comes right after the revelations about the N Korean uranium facility and the shelling of a few days ago. Reading between the lines it looked to me that South Korea provoked that one with the calculated firing of weapons close to the border.

    On the other front there is the reminder about the Arabs and Persians being at each other throats. I think this is a message from the US to Iran: The Arabs just have to wait six years for Carl Fiorina to be president. They double the price of gasoline to US consumers and the Iranian leadership gets obliterated.

    Obama wants to Get Stuff Done and doesn’t mind getting a split lip in the process (another hint?). The best way to break a stalemate is to provoke your opposition and the best provocation is one which comes in waves. We have seen three waves against North Korea in less than two weeks.

  8. Gillmor’s point about context is an important one.

    Of course, the leaked documents tend to have a pro-USA bias. They’re all written by the US goverment.

    They’re still very interesting because they’re a pretty candid look into the workings of the US State Department, military, etc. But keep in mind who’s writing them, and what their personal biases are.

    It’s not a conspiracy (well it could be, but that’s not the simplist explanation).

  9. Atomicsnarl says “Any time you have an encrypted copy and the plain text of that encryption, you can reverse engineer that encryption scheme and so break that code” but that simply isn’t the case. If it were, then all public key encryption systems would be easily breakable since given the public key you can create as much plain text and encrypted copy as you want.

    For some encryption having the plain text is helpful, but not in the general case.

    Enigma was cracked not because something was repeated once, but some plain text was known (or guessed) every day (and also because periodically the allies captured code books and enigma machines). Every day the key was changed and the code breaking had to start virtually from scratch again. When the Germans changed the weather codes that were being used as a crib the Naval Enigma was uncrackable until the new weather short codes were retrieved from a captured U-boat.

  10. Don’t feed the Alaskan trolls, Cory.

    Clearly, they are Americans since the website is written in American.

    that said — interesting questions for the press. I give the US Corps 1 year before disinformation starts “leaking” — it’s out of control right now, but the spin doctors are working on it, for sure. As soon as these leaks adopt any kind of predictable cycle, it’ll get tainted.

  11. “Why aren’t you stressing, in your voluminous coverage, that these cables are not the final word on what has happened. They are often pure gossip. Do you have an obligation to provide more context for the material you’re publishing and discussing?”

    This question is really key, and WikiLeaks does itself a disservice by ignoring it. These leaks aren’t proof of much of anything beyond attitudes. If they are genuine then they prove that certain opinions are held, not that those opinions are necessarily true.

    They also show us where we ought to be looking. If we see something interesting in there, we can’t take it at face value and run with it. We’ve got to dig deeper and figure out whether it’s an opinion or a fact.

    If we don’t, then the first time one item in one leak is shown to be false, then that’s it. It’ll be over. The people who hate WikiLeaks will point to it as evidence that the information is bad, or fabricated, or propaganda. These leaks will be worth no more than the latest conspiracy theory about chemtrails or 9/11 being an inside job.

    I don’t know how I really feel about these leaks, whether they should be done or not, whether they’re safe to do or not. All I know is that the ship has sailed on that one. We’ve done it. Now we need to make sure we do it right.

  12. Inexplicable: I recently won in court to stop my book “America by Heart” from being leaked,but US Govt can’t stop Wikileaks’ treasonous act?

    God damn it, that woman is stupid. Or just cynically using the story to pimp her ghost written POS. Or both.

  13. I think it’s too generous to assume Sarah Palin has any idea what treason really means, or knows it’s a political ploy to shout “treason” whenever possible. She is a good example of the dumbing down of American politics and political discourse, calling Wikileaks treasonous is similar to calling Wikileaks a terrorist organization; it’s just angry unthoughtful people hurling epithets. Palin probably has no idea that Julian Assange isn’t an American, that the internet is global, that Wikileaks didn’t just leak US information, or that Wikileaks is not related to Wikipedia. I bet she doesn’t even read the newspapers beyond a cursory glance at the headlines, let alone get deep into a long article wherever it appears. Like a lot of the Tea-Party, know-nothing stream of American politics, she probably gets all her info through word of mouth, the conservative zeitgeist that insists Obama raised taxes, the health care bill has a provision for “death panels”, and building a cultural center in Manhattan will lead to “the Islamization of America.” This is one of the reasons it’s nearly impossible to have a reasonable political discussion in America anymore, citing facts is meaningless to a large portion of the population.

  14. I also suspect Sara Palin assumes the entire universe revolves around the USA, and never really thinks about the rest of the world, so when something like the Wikileaks story appears in the news, naturally it must be completely an American issue, and “treasonous.”

  15. #>The soviets? Which decade do you live in?
    The Pentagon Papers were during the Vietnam era when the USSR was quite alive, thank you.

    #>Known plaintext shouldn’t impact the security of a well-designed cryptosystem.
    True, but it does supply a bulk of test material for your ongoing cracking efforts.

    Re: Duncan — Thank you. German message headers were usually the same format throughout a series of message giving the code breakers 50 or more characters known at the start of the plain text, again making decryption that much easier. Known text makes testing easier. And the opposition is always busy collecting information about those codes one way or another, as you pointed out.

    Also, as in “The Quest for Karla,” the details of known exchanges can reveal who was where doing what, which in turn can reveal the actions of those around them, etc. This is part of Sun Tzu’s “Know your enemy” objective.

    Finally, Re: Sarah Palin — How comforting it must be to know that all your opponents are fools. It’s almost as if you’ve carefully reviewed their goals and reason for those goals objectively and rationally determined them all to be worthless. How aggravating it must be to see them succeed anyway.

    1. AtomicSnarl, please sleep tight and don’t worry too much about cryptography. The types of crypto attacks that you describe don’t apply anymore to the encrypted civilian goverment traffic.

      In the past life I used to work on a contract that used the decomissioned crypto equipment from some civilian branch of the US government (or their contractors). The vendor was Cylink/Hylink/WTF-link, don’t recall the exact name anymore.

      One of the essential functions of that equipment was that in the absence of the actual traffic it would continuously generate fake random traffic to deprive eavesdroppers of a knowledge if anything is even sent over the encrypted channels.

      The crypro attacks you describe are not feasible over such channels.

  16. You know, considering that the USG has violated my trust, and my privacy, and the 4th amendment, by reading my emails and banking information and other digital papers, all I have to say about these “leaks” is: the USG defined the playing field, now they get to live with what they claimed was acceptable.

    No privacy for me from the USG? Fine. Then no privacy for the USG, either. If they don’t like it? Then they need to start playing by the rules themselves.

    It used to be that what made us different — I’ll even say better — than other countries was defined by the things we would not do. Torture. Crush personal liberty. Search without warrants. Confiscate property without due process or cause. Aggress against other countries. Jail people indefinitely, or hold them without trial, or hold them incommunicado.

    We are no longer that country.

    Respect is not given; it is earned. And our government has only been spending. So when they bluster about having been “attacked” by wikileaks, I feel absolutely no sympathy. They deserved it. They deserve far worse.

  17. Can Wikileaks, as an entity, not a natural person, even be guilty of “treason” — which is a crime? And where is it based? Is it based anywhere? Is it based where the servers are, or where Julian Assange is? What about Manning, and others who have been complicit, purportedly, in Wikileaks’ activity… are they part of the organization, so if the organization can be guilty of a crime, they provide some kind of jurisdictional hook on which to hang a charge of treason? I’ll bet half the people commenting here just to say how ignorant Palin is for her tweet are ignorant of the answers to these questions. But it’s just so much fun to call someone stupid, and thus demonstrate your superiority — even when you don’t really know jack sh*te either, isn’t it?

    1. @gravytop

      Since neither Wikileaks nor Julian Assange hold any allegiance to the United States, they cannot commit treason against to it. Treason is to espionage as suicide is to murder: one cannot ‘suicide’ someone else just as one cannot commit treason against a foreign government.

      1. Wikileaks is a group of people, right? So you’re telling me none of them have U.S. Citizenship? (BTW, allegiance has nothing to do with it. If it did, you could just renounce your allegiance to the United States, and be thereafter immune to any prosecution for treason, right?)

        1. @gravytop

          I am saying nothing about the individual contributors, employees or other associates of wikileaks. Julian Assange is a foreign citizen. Wikileaks is a foreign organization. (To answer one of your original questions, no, an organization can’t commit treason, so wikileaks as an organization is doubly exempt from the accusation.)

          Allegiance has everything to do with it. If you (assuming you are american) successfully renounce your citizenship then you would not be committing treason if you were to spy on the united states – you would be committing espionage and perhaps several other crimes, but not treason.

  18. The points about encryption are completely irrelevant… no one is suggesting that someone hacked into the diplomatic network and they didn’t have good enough encryption. The cables were leaked by someone with legitimate access to the network, so the type of encryption used wouldn’t make the slightest difference.

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