Julian Assange, proprietor of the WikiLeaks website, on which he has already published about 76,000 classified documents relating to the Afghanistan war, says he will within weeks publish another 15,000. Assange hopes these disclosures will lead to war crimes trials to punish Americans.
The initial disclosure was comprised of raw battlefield reports and other materials classified at the “secret” level. Many of the documents reportedly contained the names and locations of Afghans who have aided U.S. and NATO troops. The Taliban took note and promised punishment of those people. Other damage done by the publication of these documents is still being assessed.
The second round of disclosures may be worse. The Obama administration seems content with chest-thumping threats of possible prosecutions of Assange. Which, even if they are brought successfully, seems a long shot given Assange’s life beyond U.S. courts’ jurisdiction and thus won’t prevent disclosure.
This isn’t another “Pentagon Papers” case. In that 1971 case, the Supreme Court denied the Nixon administration’s effort to restrain the New York Times from publishing secret papers on the Vietnam War. The court said, specifically, that although it ruled against that case, there were circumstances that a court would block publication.
And now, given Assange’s actions are based outside the U.S., in nations where Assange is safe from U.S. court action, another “Pentagon Papers” case or even an attempt at prosecution would be pointless. But we have a right to act to protect our secrets. And act we must. So what should be done to prevent Assange from publishing them?
A friend of mine, a more-or-less retired CIA paramilitary operative, sees the solution in characteristically simple terms. “We should go get him,” he said, speaking of Assange.
When my friend says “get him,” he isn’t thinking of lawsuits, but of suppressed pistols, car bombs and such. But as heart-warming as it is to envision Assange surveying his breakfast cereal with a Geiger counter, we shouldn’t deal with him and WikiLeaks that way.
At the risk of abusing the Bard, let’s “Cry havoc, and let slip the geeks of cyberwar.” We need to have a WikiLeaks fire sale.
A “fire sale” (as those who saw Die Hard 4 will remember) is a cyber attack aimed at disabling — even destroying — an adversary’s ability to function. Russia did this to Estonia in 2007 and Israel apparently did this to Syrian radar systems when it attacked the Syrian nuclear site later that year. The elegance of this is that if we can pull off a decisive cyber operation against WikiLeaks, it can and should be done entirely in secret.
Plausible deniability, anyone?
And it’s easier said than done. WikiLeaks functions, according to one expert I conferred with, through a network of computer servers in several countries. Moreover, Assange has a small army of “supporters” helping to hide and distribute information. The servers’ network is hidden behind a wall of anonymous communications links. That makes a cyber attack hard to do, but not impossible.
There are legal restrictions that could prevent our military cyberwarriors from holding the fire sale. Could, but perhaps — if interpreted aggressively — wouldn’t. This would be a good time to follow the military motto that it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. However, STRATCOM (Strategic Command) hasn’t — according to one source — taken on any offensive missions yet. And the new CYBERCOM boss, Gen. Keith Alexander, hasn’t even set policy for how and when such offensive operations could or would be done.
Which brings us back to the spooks. They have the capability, but will they use it?
Probably not. The intelligence community is now ruled by the Department of Justice with the backing of the White House. Attorney General Eric Holder’s iron grip even overrides the legal obligation the IC has to advise congressional intelligence committees of its activities. One senior intelligence community source told me that no information goes to Congress unless and until Holder’s crew reviews and approves it.
As that source told me, Holder is interested in prosecuting terrorists, not gathering intelligence. It stretches credulity to believe that he — or Obama — would allow a fire sale attack on WikiLeaks.
Over the past decade, America has been unwilling to defend its secrets and punish leakers. Under Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, fear of media reaction prevented the investigation of some of the most damaging leaks in history, ranging from the New York Times‘s publication of the NSA Terrorist Surveillance Program to the Washington Post‘s publication of the CIA’s secret prisons for terrorists. The people who leaked those secrets were left unpunished by Gonzales’s Justice Department refusal to subpoena the reporters and force disclosure of their sources.
In Unrestricted Warfare, the highly controversial 2002 book by two active duty Chinese People’s Liberation Army officers, Cols. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiansui pose the difference between historical warfare and modern warfare by the juxtaposition of two concepts. First, to “fight the fight that fits one’s weapons”; second, “making the weapons to fit the fight.” They insist that the modern battlefield is everywhere, from distant nations to the streets of every city. And every computer network.
China has probably invested more time and resources to cyberwar than any nation. Its cyber attacks — espionage and disruption — on our military, intelligence and defense contractors occur every day. Liang and Xiansui note that computer hackers “…are adopting a new tactic which might be styled ‘network guerilla warfare.'” Just so.
The WikiLeaks publication of secret information is just the beginning. There will be more leakers sending more secret information to offshore websites for publication. Unless we interdict and disrupt them, WikiLeaks and its progeny will have free rein to publish any secrets that may fall into their hands, or which they can convince or pay people to give them to publish. The courts are not agencies of national defense. The military and intelligence communities are and it is through them we should act.
Our government has the obligation to act aggressively to protect our secrets. We need to, as Liang and Xiangsui wrote, make the weapons to fit the fight. That includes development, deployment, and use of every cyber weapon our computer scientists can devise to protect our secrets.
WikiLeaks should be hit with the cyber equivalent of napalm. Let’s have that fire sale. Burn, baby, burn.