By Marc A. Thiessen
Monday, November 29, 2010; 10:52 AM
Is the United States of America really powerless to stop a nomadic cyber-hacker - who sleeps on people's couches and changes his hair color to avoid surveillance - from causing enormous damage to our national security?
Apparently, in the age of Obama, we are.
Four months ago, the criminal enterprise WikiLeaks released more than 75,000 stolen classified documents that, among other things, revealed the identities of more than 100 Afghans who were cooperating with America against the Taliban. The Obama administration condemned WikiLeaks' actions. The Justice Department said it was weighing criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The Pentagon warned that if WikiLeaks did not stand down and return other stolen documents it possessed, the government would "make them do the right thing."
And then nothing happened.
Last month, WikiLeaks struck again - this time posting more than 390,000 classified documents on the war in Iraq. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded with a Twitter post: "Another irresponsible posting of stolen classified documents by WikiLeaks puts lives at risk and gives adversaries valuable information." Mullen was right - but, with all respect to the chairman, a tweet was not exactly the cyber-response the WikiLeaks disclosures warranted.
Now, WikiLeaks has struck a third time with what may prove to be its most damaging disclosures yet - a cache of more than 251,287 American diplomatic cables and directives, including more than 117,000 that are classified. According to the New York Times, which was given advance copies of the documents, many cables "name diplomats' confidential sources, from foreign legislators and military officers to human rights activists and journalists, often with a warning to Washington: 'Please protect' or 'Strictly protect.' " Other documents detail confidential conversations with foreign leaders, including Arab leaders urging the U.S. to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Still others could hamper U.S. counterterrorism efforts - such as a cable in which Yemeni leaders say they lied to their own parliament by claiming that Yemeni forces, not Americans, had carried out missile attacks against al-Qaeda. If Yemen responds to this revelation by restricting U.S. efforts to hunt down al-Qaeda, the results could be devastating.
What action did the Obama administration take to prevent the impending release of such volatile information? State Department legal adviser Harold Koh sent a strongly worded letter urging WikiLeaks to cease publishing classified materials. I'm sure that made Assange think twice.
Is the Obama administration going to do anything - anything at all - to stop these serial disclosures of our nation's most closely guarded secrets? Just this past week, the federal government took decisive action to shut down more than 70 Web sites that were disseminating pirated music and movies. Hollywood is safe, but WikiLeaks is free to disseminate classified documents without consequence.
With this latest release, Assange may now have illegally disclosed more classified information than anyone in American history. He is in likely violation of the Espionage Act and arguably is providing material support for terrorism. But unlike leakers who came before him, Assange has done more than release information; he has created a virtual system for the ongoing collection and dissemination of America's secrets. The very existence of WikiLeaks is a threat to national security. Unless something is done, WikiLeaks will only grow more brazen - and our unwillingness to stop it will embolden others to reveal classified information using the unlawful medium Assange has built.
WikiLeaks' first disclosures caught the Obama administration by surprise. But how does the administration explain its inaction in the face of WikiLeaks' two subsequent, and increasingly dangerous, releases? In both cases, it had fair warning: Assange announced what kinds of documents he possessed, and he made clear his intention to release them.
The Obama administration has the ability to bring Assange to justice and to put WikiLeaks out of business. The new U.S. Cyber Command could shut down WilkiLeaks' servers and prevent them from releasing more classified information on President Obama's orders. But, as The Post reported this month, the Obama administration has been paralyzed by infighting over how, and when, it might use these new offensive capabilities in cyberspace. One objection: "The State Department is concerned about diplomatic backlash" from any offensive actions in cyberspace, The Post reported. Well, now the State Department can deal with the "diplomatic backlash" that comes from standing by helplessly, while WikiLeaks releases hundreds of thousands of its most sensitive diplomatic cables.
Because of its failure to act, responsibility for the damage done by these most recent disclosures now rests with the Obama administration. Perhaps this latest release crosses a line that will finally spur the administration to action. After all, the previous disclosures harmed only our war efforts. But this latest disclosure is a blow to a cause Democrats really care about - our diplomatic efforts. Maybe now, finally, the gloves will come off. Or is posting mournful tweets about the damage done to our national security the best this administration can do?
Marc Thiessen is a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and writes a weekly column for The Post.