State Department headquarters (Photo by APK)

Three State Department witnesses testified on how the department responded to the crisis the department experienced when WikiLeaks began to release over 250,000 US State Embassy cables. The testimony was heard in the court martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of releasing classified information to WikiLeaks. They were called by Manning’s defense to testify on evidence, a damage assessment report, which the defense requested from the department.

Marguerite Coffey, the former director of the Office of Management Policy, Right Sizing & Innovation Policy, appeared in person. She explained in the summer of 2010 a series of cables went out to embassy and consular posts that advised them of the WikiLeaks disclosure that was to come. The cables asked the embassies and consulates to have procedures in place for when the leak began. Following that, in November, the Office of Management & Budget asked federal agencies to review their procedures in place and make sure that security safeguards for electronic information were what was needed for information assurance security.

On November 28, Cablegate swung open and embassy cables began to be published by the New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde and Der Spiegel. By this date, the State Department had established a WikiLeaks Working Group that was tasked with operating 24/7 to respond to the leaks. Its purpose was to “stay ahead of public disclosures,” according to Rena Bitter, director of the State Department Operations Center—the department’s main crisis center.

Bitter said, “One of the things that precipitated immediate response” and “impacted” the State Department worldwide was the fact news organizations were publishing articles. The State Department had twenty-five people in this group who came from each regional bureau and then also functional bureaus (such as bureaus that deal with refugees, human rights, international organizations, public affairs, etc).

The Working Group released situational reports twice daily. These reports were put together to provide “a snapshot of what the current situation was in order to give a common operating picture.” The Working Group attempted to “stay ahead of the release of information of reported cables and try to make sure that we could understand what was public.” It was tasked with making State Department officials aware of what might need a response, which was critical because at the time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was traveling overseas, Bitter said. It was not the job of the WikiLeaks working group to become familiar with the “body” of cables but there were instances when the Working Group accessed the cables. And over the course of three weeks, the group went from working all day to 12 or 18-hour shifts to completely standing down on December 17 because the situation was not a crisis anymore.

There also was a WikiLeaks Persons at Risk group. Contrary to how the poorly named group sounds, it was not a support group for people linked to WikiLeaks that have been targeted by the US government. The group looked at cables released and examined both the “universe of actual information that may have been compromised” and “important cables” now in the “public domain.” It stood up when the Working Group stood down in December and was to address the ongoing issue of WikiLeaks, since all the cables had not been released yet.

According to Bitter, who participated in the Persons at Risk group, the group would go through the NetCentric diplomacy database, which was on SIPRNet, of which Manning is alleged to have leaked information. They’d identify people potentially at risk. Each person was handled individually. Embassies overseas reviewed their reporting and made a judgement about whether or not to draw those people to the attention of the Persons at Risk group.

The Persons at Risk group consisted of all regional bureaus and then “five other bureaus” of twelve to fifteen people. There were two representatives from each bureau. In the time of operations, Bitter testified the group did not disseminate information on people at risk widely, though it did put together information memos. The group also maintained a matrix on a Sharepoint server of people potentially at risk. The group ceased to operate in May 2011 but informally still meets occasionally.

A mitigation group was created as well. This stood up the same time the WikiLeaks Working Group was created, according to Coffey. The mitigation team looked for deficiencies in information management. They had to make sure information assurance, management and policies for disclosure of information were up to date. They were given a timeframe for making adjustments or reforms by OMB.

“I don’t think at the time foreign affairs manuals contained a word such as ‘thumb drive’ but it does now,” Coffey stated.

And there was a “chiefs of mission” review that Coffey said involved “chiefs of missions or ambassadors in posts” conducting reviews of “foreign policy implications of any disclosure of information” by WikiLeaks. Perspectives were sent to the State Department and included in a damage assessment report.

The damage assessment report was put together and a “draft” was completed by August 2011. Catherine Brown, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence Policy and Coordination (IPC) in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) at the State Department, testified telephonically on her role in putting this report together.

She testified the report includes ”input from embassies/consulates” and prepares summaries that present some inputs provided. The Director of the Office of Counterintelligence and Consular Support (OCCS) helped her put it together. Undersecretary of State for Management, Ambassador Patrick Kennedy, asked this person to take on this responsibility of combining reactions into a single consolidated document. Brown then reviewed and edited the document from beginning to end and provided it to Kennedy before anything else was done. (Brown would not give the name of person from OCCS.

Coombs asked if the “draft” was the latest version. He mentioned the fact that WikiLeaks had released all the cables without redactions in August 2011. He wanted to know why the State Department would not have bothered to update that report after this happened, especially since all names in the cables that had been previously censored were now known to the world.

According to Brown, the State Department “never attempted to update the document.” It had taken a long time to put together. It took several weeks for Brown to go through it. Kennedy never asked her or the OCCS guy who shall not be named to do anything.

Oddly, however, as Coombs continued the line of questioning, Brown testified that this OCCS guy who shall not be named was still collecting “additional input” and was sticking it into a file. If something was heard that was believed to come from a “purported” State Department document, he filed it away for access at a later time. For example, if someone sent a letter saying their negotiation was “just totally screwed up because of this WikiLeaks thing, he might file it away.” This has been undertaken on a “voluntary basis.” The way Brown talked about it one might think there is a person in the State Department now pursuing a hobby that involves keeping on top of WikiLeaks disclosures. It seems like something he is doing all by himself and one might want to ask if he really even has departmental approval. But, as one considers this detail a bit more reasonably, this is just a typical bureaucratic happening. The State Department, for whatever reason, wants to be done with officially tracking the disclosures but doesn’t want to be caught off-guard if something does happen in the future. So, unofficially, this person is collecting this information.

Altogether, the witnesses from the State Department that testified helped the defense figure out that there are minutes and agendas from working group meetings, situational reports that were sent out twice daily from the working group, and persons at risk information memo(s) with a matrix to track individuals that the State Department has in its possession. These were all put together during the response to the crisis the State Department experienced. It is this kind of material the defense sought to discover so it could have a better chance of forcing the government to hand over evidence it wants in order to put together a case. It is also possibly material the prosecution should have been doing a “due diligence” search for; however, it had not begun to search for these documents before today. There is no guarantee that it will turn over any of this material that the defense now knows exists after today because the prosecution plans to invoke every military rule or guideline it has available to make sure very little of this information gets into the hands of the defense.

*

Brown said, “We will continue to see reporting on damage from WikiLeaks conceivably for many years to come.” She said, with regard to the “persons at risk issue,” that if cables were out there with names redacted, one might report on what damage this could cause if a name stayed redacted. If a name became public, the damage would be worse. A person might decide to stay at their post and survive the damage. However, six months or a year later, that person could say “bad stuff is happening to me.” She added it is not like “everybody’s life is hunky-dory.” The State Department is going to attempt to protect people from these disclosures whether they ask for help today, a year from now or later.

Here are some of the people who lost their jobs or faced political pressure because of the cables were released: Helmut Metzner, the German foreign minister’s chief of staff; Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe opposition leader; Gene Cretz, US ambassador to Libya; Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, former Tunisia leader; Pieter de Gooijer, Netherlands would-be ambassador to the EU; Berry Smutny, former CEO of OHB-System; Peru presidential hopefuls; Howard Davies, former London School of Economics Director; Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister; Carlos Pascual, former US ambassador to Mexico and Heather Hodges, US ambassador to Ecuador.

If one focuses on the people affiliated with the State Department, many of these people experienced complications because of the content that was revealed. The content revealed corruption, wrongdoing, or something questionable. Few of these people faced problems at their post because average day-to-day operations were reported. They ended up having complications because people found they had been engaged in underhanded dealings.

Just why did Pascual have to leave his post? He “questioned whether President Calderon could win his war on drugs, saying the various security agencies were often at odds.” Why did Hodges have to leave her post? She alleged “widespread corruption within the Ecuadorean police force.” Ecuador’s foreign minister thought the US knew this because the US had infiltrated the police.

One can argue both were just doing their jobs, but the argument that they were being duplicitous as diplomats can also be made as well. It’s far more complex than lives were endangered and they needed help to get out.

But, that aside, if State Department officials like Brown really think they are in for more years of damage as a result of the leaks, why is the department so lazy? Why wouldn’t it have a second or third damage assessment report by now? When one considers how former State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley reacted in August 2011 when all the cables were released, it just does not add up. He was in the department when the crisis began and saw what the department was doing to respond. He likened the cable publication to “pestilence” and condemned how WikiLeaks had wrecked hundreds of lives. But apparently, something akin to a disease can cease to be contagious whenever the State Department wants. Or, perhaps, if no real damage or harm was done, it can stop pretending to be infected after it can be certain the public got the point that WikiLeaks did “significant damage.”

Finally, what did not come up in the testimony was anything specific on how the State Department was tracking media coverage. Marcy Wheeler covered how the State Department had tried to learn what cables would be published by contacting the media it knew would be publishing cables. The New York Times told the State Department ahead of time in negotiations what could be expected:

Because of the range of the material and the very nature of diplomacy, the embassy cables were bound to be more explosive than the War Logs. Dean Baquet, our Washington bureau chief, gave the White House an early warning on Nov. 19. The following Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, Baquet and two colleagues were invited to a windowless room at the State Department, where they encountered an unsmiling crowd. Representatives from the White House, the State Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the C.I.A., the Defense Intelligence Agency, the F.B.I. and the Pentagon gathered around a conference table. Others, who never identified themselves, lined the walls. A solitary note-taker tapped away on a computer.

The meeting was off the record, but it is fair to say the mood was tense. Scott Shane, one reporter who participated in the meeting, described “an undertone of suppressed outrage and frustration.”

Subsequent meetings, which soon gave way to daily conference calls, were more businesslike. Before each discussion, our Washington bureau sent over a batch of specific cables that we intended to use in the coming days. They were circulated to regional specialists, who funneled their reactions to a small group at State, who came to our daily conversations with a list of priorities and arguments to back them up. We relayed the government’s concerns, and our own decisions regarding them, to the other news outlets. [emphasis added]

The note-taker in the meeting is something that should be of interest. There may still be records from this meeting with the Times. It may reveal what the State Department was most concerned about in terms of possible damage. This would help as the defense deals with a prosecution that accuses Manning of “aiding the enemy” and causing “injury” to the United States.

The testimony today suggested the main crisis came when media reported on the cables. When coverage died down around the end of December, the State Department did not have to fight so hard to stay ahead of the leaks. And then by April 2011, there really wasn’t much to worry about. Barely any publications were covering the cables (though they still appeared in stories on current events in US foreign policy as context).

What was critical for the State Department was to immediately make it seem as if the releases could cause the imprisonment, torture or death of people. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the release an “attack” on the United States. They had to hype it up and make people believe WikiLeaks had blood on its hands. And even though nothing severe has happened, they don’t have to go back and say they were wrong because they don’t really care what happened. They just care that there was a potential that something major could have transpired.

Should the world expect the State Department to use WikiLeaks as an excuse when something goes wrong over the next couple years? Given today’s testimony, it seems quite possible. But if the State Department makes any public statements, now it will be known that the department stopped being overly concerned about the leaks nearly a year ago. Anything said will be stated publicly to make it clear the State Department still hasn’t forgotten how a media organization of people dedicated to truth and transparency fully exposed the inner workings of US diplomacy for the world to see.