Governments are already using the WikiLeaks release of a trove of US diplomatic traffic to bolster their own international agendas, from Israel's push for military action against Iran, to Iran's effort to paint US engagement as insincere.
But the WikiLeaks intelligence fiasco could have far-reaching implications for US diplomacy, well after the initial shock waves subside. By sending a message to America's counterparts and confidential informants around the world that the US can't keep conversations private, the controversy could severely compromise the quality of information US policymakers receive, and America's own ability to coordinate its diplomatic and antiterror efforts.
"This is immensely, immensely damaging," says Wayne White, a former senior official at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) and now a scholar at the Middle East Institute. "You’ve got sources exposed out there ... many of them characterized as sources that need to be protected. So now we have governments who have been very frank with us who are no longer going to do so. If I were a foreign official I would be reluctant to ever be as frank with the American government as I’ve ever been before."
More damaging still, he worries, is that the leak could hinder intelligence-sharing reforms he helped push for after the 9/11 attacks. Those reforms – aimed at addressing the failure to share information across government agencies that often left key officials without the full picture, like a group of blind men describing different aspects of an elephant by touch – are seen as precisely what allowed WikiLeaks to obtain such extensive and sensitive documents, potentially from a low-ranking employee.
Many analysts have concluded that prior to the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, crucial information that could have headed off the plot were in US government hands – but compartmentalized in such a way that no one could put it together. Why was that done? To prevent leaks like the more than 250,000 documents now in the hands of WikiLeaks and a few news outlets, only a fraction of which have so far been released to the public.
The trade-off after 9/11 was more sharing between various arms of the government, such as the State Department information and the military, since the security of those documents was seen as less crucial than the security of the nation.
"I helped work on trying to end the suffocating stovepiping that led to flawed decisions," says Mr. White. "They’re going to re-stovepipe, which is precisely what we spent a decade trying to stamp out, with the US government's left hand often not knowing what the right was doing."
Starting in the early 1980s, White built his career around analyzing the contents of conversations and the cables they generate for the State Department. He served in Baghdad, as the intelligence briefer on Iraq and Iran to the Gulf States during those two countries' ruinous war; as the INR chief on Iraq, Iran, and the Arabian Peninsula for more than a decade; and head of INR's Iraq team for the first two years of the US-led war there.
He says a rollback of information sharing is going to be much worse in the long run than the chill in government-to-government candor.
"In the region, sources are simply going to be more secretive, and probably in dealing with other governments that use similar systems, like the French or the British or the Italians. Somebody else in one of those countries might decide he wants to be a cyberhero," says White. "But these sorts of things wear off, five to six years down the road we’ll be back to more frank and interesting chats. But any re-stovepiping in the government will be analytically destructive ... and once those things get in place, they're very difficult to remove."
Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for American Progress in Washington, said in an interview with the Monitor on Monday that the larger issue is not a shift in other countries' strategic decisions, but rather a dearth of diplomatic communication – including on the US side.
"No country is going to suddenly act against its own self-interest because of this,” he said. "The real issue here is whether our own diplomats now are going to be as forthcoming as they used to be."