The king of Saudi Arabia may have been offended by Wikileaked documents, saying he favored a US attack on Iran. If so, it didn't stop the monarch and a large entourage from checking into the luxury wing of a New York hospital last week for an operation on a reportedly slipped disk. Russia's prime minister was so upset that he promptly appeared on Larry King Live to denounce Wikileaks, then used the media moment to lobby for US approval of the latest START nuclear non-proliferation treaty. And Iran's President managed to accuse the US and Israel of manufacturing documents to fuel the Wikileaks fiasco.
For all the hubbub, there may be little the US can do about the incontinent release of sensitive information. Cyber-attacks of an
unknown origin partially closed down Wikileaks last week, but the options appear limited from a legal perspective. In arguments surrounding the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, US courts found that the government could not stop publication of material that is simply "embarrassing." The situation could change, of course, but no one is so far known to have been killed or even injured as a result the disclosures.
Wikileaks supremo Julian Assange insists he is engaged in whistleblowing. The only problem is that Assange didn't leak the materials; he merely provided an effective platform for their dissemination. As a result, it's difficult to distinguish his role from that of traditional media, which enjoys the protection of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
At this point, it's even difficult to tell which nations most object to the effusion of secrets: America, her allies, or sworn enemies? In authoritarian venues, including China and the Arab lands, government-run news media have taken matters into their own hands, preventing awkward Wikileaked material from reaching the public. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it, "This disclosure is not just an attack on America -- it's an attack on the international community" -- including more than a few dictatorships.
In Washington, a division of the Dept. of Homeland Security announced that it was carrying out a court-approved seizure "against 82 domain names of commercial websites engaged in the illegal sale and distribution of counterfeit goods and copyrighted works." As for Wikileaks, the Dept. of Justice is "investigating." That probably translates into brainstorming legal theories that could justify Assange's extradition or charging in the US.
But that could prove a distraction. If Assange is knocked out of action, others could easily replace him. The Australian national allegedly received his classified handoff from Private Bradley Manning, an American kid stationed in Iraq whose military chain of command was unable to restrict his arguably inappropriate access to reams of sensitive, unencrypted cables. Without the young Private, Assange might have had nothing to post on his website.
As international opinion feasts on the guilty pleasure of US diplomatic communications chockablock with not particularly surprising revelations, one is reminded of a French philosopher's definition of 'schadenfreude': "In the misfortunes of even our greatest friends we take a certain pleasure." Wikileaks' next reported target is Bank of America, revelations that could prove mercifully free of national security implications.
Meanwhile, the damage so far wrought by Wikileaks is decidedly ambiguous. To deal with one obvious danger, the compromise of US intelligence sources and methods, the New York Times and even foreign media have redacted names from documents prior to publication. We are also told that allies and foreigners will now hesitate to speak freely with American diplomats. Of course non-US officials can go right on sharing dark secrets among themselves. DoD's Robert Gates may have parsed that conundrum best when he said, "Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve and it has for a long time."
Adam Zagorin is Former Senior Correspondent at TIME magazine.