WikiLeaks list of 'critical' sites: Is it a 'menu for terrorists'?

WikiLeaks releases a 'secret' US diplomatic cable on 'critical infrastructure' around the world. Was it an overlong 'raw list' of obvious key sites, or a menu for 'every extremist group in the world'?

By , Staff writer

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    Wikileaks released what some are calling "a to-do list for terrorists," Sunday. The secret list exposes what US embassies consider to be the most "critical infrastructure" on the planet, including power stations, pipelines, undersea cable landings, and vaccination plants. But some say this list is about as secret as a Google search or your average atlas.
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Undersea cable landings off Japan, Hong Kong, and China; vital energy terminals in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait; natural gas pipelines from Canada to United States population centers; transformer plants in Mexico; vaccine manufacturers across Europe.

It's a laundry list of "critical infrastructure" – a global grab bag as big as the world ­– hundreds of sites listed in a cable marked "secret." It was compiled by US embassies and sent to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as a cable in February 2009 – but released over the Internet by WikiLeaks Sunday.

In all, the list includes well over 200 energy pipelines, undersea cables, strategic metal mines, vaccine suppliers, dams, ports, and power generators along with the names of 35 companies spread across 59 nations. The cable sought to identify "critical US foreign dependencies" that "if destroyed, disrupted or exploited, would likely have an immediate and deleterious effect on the United States."

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Just how much damage will this list do to infrastructure security or US relations with the countries where these sites reside? Will terrorists benefit a lot – or not much at all – from knowing what the US considers critical, a list some say could be pulled together by just about anyone using Google, or even an almanac and an atlas?

For instance, Saudi Arabia’s Ras Tanura port, which processes more than 4 million barrels of oil each day, the biggest oil-exporting port in the world, made the list. So did the Abqaiq Processing Center, considered the biggest crude oil processing plant in the world. Yet anyone could have found this out years earlier just by reading "Sleeping with the Devil," a bestseller by former CIA operative Robert Baer.

"Much information today that is classified as 'secret' is often available publicly (online or otherwise), even without WikiLeaks," writes Terry O'Sullivan, a University of Akron researcher who has analyzed global critical infrastructure for the Department of Homeland Security. "It's not the items on that list that are secret, per se. It's the fact that someone in the State Dept. thinks they are worthy” of that designation.

The real value to a terrorist, would be "if that list were prioritized, with specific vulnerabilities outlined," he says. "Absent that, I'd say this publication of a raw list, at least, is not any grand threat to the security of the nations involved or the United States."

Others could not disagree more.

"It's a menu for terrorists that is probably one of the most overtly destructive things WikiLeaks has done," says Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "This has given a global map – a menu, if not a recipe book – to every extremist group in the world. To me it would be amazing to see how WikiLeaks could rationalize this."

US officials condemned the release of the list.

"This is really irresponsible. It is tantamount to giving a group like Al Qaeda a targeting list," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told the Washington Post.

Even if it is just a country listing, it is in essence a prioritization with political meaning valuable to terrorists, Dr. Cordesman argues. Once the US flags something officially, you are creating a target and helping with their planning, he says.

"You are providing instructions for people who don't intuitively develop it on their own," he says. "There's an incredible amount of data in the world today, but most people in the world don't know how to use it. Terrorists aren't economists, infrastructure experts, or planners. They tend to repeat past patterns. If this was a James Bond novel and we were talking about some brilliant terrorist scientist, that's one thing. But the reality is quite different."

Others who have seen the State Department cable say the list appears to be a compendium of important but perhaps not critical sites – some mines, for instance – whose absence would not be quickly felt in the US and elsewhere. There are also a number of omissions that make it appear that junior officials simply pulled names together without a terribly thorough vetting of their importance.

Terrorists break down into three groups: those wanting to inflict damage locally, those looking for regional targets, and those with a global strategic outlook, says John Daly, a non-resident Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

"There's nothing in this cable that indicates a revised wish list for the third group – the global strategists," Dr. Daly says. "But it is profoundly embarrassing to the American government.... It doesn't take a genius to figure out that impeding ship traffic through the Suez Canal would make life difficult."

There are likely some major omissions in this list, Daly notes, that make him believe that it is not a well-vetted list – more of a global "wish list" far too big for the US to police – and many targets would not have an immediate impact on the US.

"It's a list generated by gophers in various government departments and sent up the food chain and not sufficiently modified," he says. "It's not a good list in part because it's so big it would be impossible to defend them all. We can't be everywhere at once."

It also includes numerous ports and straits that would, indeed, be a problem for the US if they were blocked or compromised but are hardly unknown to terrorists, including the Strait of Hormuz and Straits of Malacca near Malaysia.

"None of the names on the list in the Gulf are news," says James Russell, a national security expert and professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. "There is a system wide effort to work with other countries to protect this infrastructure. Would it disrupt oil traffic to block the Strait of Hormuz? Very definitely. But if you're the terrorist, [the targets] are a lot easier to identify than they are to disrupt."

Malaysia, with the help of the US and other countries navies has "pretty much cleared out" the pirate problem that has plagued the Strait of Malacca, he notes.

"I can't see how it would be a blow to national security that we identified the Ras Tanura as a critical node in international energy," Dr. Russell adds. "All this cable shows is that our government is doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing – create an awareness of these important places. Out of this WikiLeak phenomenon, our government is seen to be doing in this case exactly what it’s supposed to be doing."

Other security experts agree that the release of the list is disturbing and certainly not helpful to US interests, but that unlike other WikiLeaks, for instance, the embarrassment level is far lower.

"It's a little different with this list than with diplomatic cable leaks that were private conversations that breach the trust," says Alistair Millar, director of the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation. "In this case, this is largely information available to everyone if they really wanted to look."

But even if the information is not a revelation to a terrorist, it is not helpful to the US or other nations, Dr. Millar says.

"Helping organize and collate information for people who can't do it themselves isn't doing a good thing," he says. "If you're doing the homework for some of these homegrown terrorists it's not helpful – it's dangerous to our security."

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