The greatest purported damage caused by WikiLeaks’ disclosure of over two hundred and fifty thousand United States Embassy cables has been the “chilling effect” the release caused, according to witnesses from the State Department who have testified in the sentencing phase of Pfc. Bradley Manning’s trial.
Manning, who was found guilty of nineteen offenses related to his disclosures to WikiLeaks, possibly faces twelve years in prison because of his decision to provide a cache of cables to the media organization. He could be put in prison for ten years for stealing the cables and two years for exceeding authorized access on his computer.
Under Secretary of State of Management, Patrick Kennedy, testified, “These disclosures had a chilling effect on foreign officials,” government and non-government, who “engage in frank discussion with us.” He also maintained that the State Department has had situations in which individuals have felt they “don’t have the same ability to engage in the level of full and frank discussion” prior to the disclosures.
This “chilling effect that will go on for some time,” Kennedy stated. “People have long memories.”
Military judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, asked Kennedy about this “chilling effect” and how frequently it had been felt. Kennedy told her it was a “relatively small number of people actually expressing it, but more of our colleagues have a sense that dialogue” is not “as full as it was before.” There’s a feeling diplomats are “not getting the kind of exchanges they had before WikiLeaks.”
The judge followed up asking when these “feelings” were expressed. Were they in 2011? Were they in 2012? Were they in 2013?
Kennedy replied that he believed they started in 2010 but that “colleagues abroad are still feeling” this chilling effect.” He also said, it is “impossible to know what someone is not sharing with you, and that is in itself I believe a risk to national security.”
How much should some speculative “chilling effect” factor in to Manning’s sentence, especially if only a few diplomats have expressed this feeling of being “chilled?”
Former State Department employee and whistleblower, Peter Van Buren, recalled from his time at the department that there was concern about a “chilling effect,” but that the focus was on “more hardcore” effects caused by the leak, such as people picked up by secret police and thrown out by a local legislator.
Van Buren suggested the fact that the State Department had settled on “chilling effect” as the greatest purported damage was because they could not find much specific damage over time so they fell back on this overarching idea of a “chilling effect.”
Of course, how can the State Department demonstrate this “chilling effect” is a result of WikiLeaks? How can they show that what is, perhaps, affecting relations with various countries has anything to do with something that happened two or three years ago?
The State Department had a formal response to the publishing of cables starting on November 28, 2010, that, according to testimony by Kennedy before a Senate committee in March 2011, included establishing a 24/7 WikiLeaks Working group “composed of senior officials from throughout the Department, notably our regional bureaus,” creating a group to “review potential risks to individuals [the WikiLeaks Persons at Risk group] and suspending access to the cables from the secret Defense Department network of which Manning had access.”
A draft damage assessment that was the result of all the various bureaus and missions in the State Department reviewing the material reached Kennedy’s desk in August 2011. He did not sign off on the report as a completed assessment because at that time a “second major tranche of documents” that were diplomatic cables moved into the press. Kennedy said it became clear that the draft damage assessment was a “snapshot based on earlier material, which was certainly not comprehensive when you took material that was published and then added to it that second major tranche that was about to be released.” He also claimed the “second tranche” had a larger percentage of classified material than the “first tranche.”
The defense pressed Kennedy on the fact that, after the release of the rest of the cache of cables in August, the State Department did not update the report or put together an additional report. David Coombs, Manning’s civilian defense attorney, wondered if it was possible the State Department would miss damage if the “snapshot” was not being updated.
Kennedy suggested that it was “very labor intensive activity” to engage in damage assessment. He contended that “damage” continues to “roll on.”
When Coombs asked if there should be a final damage assessment in order for State Department to have an official position on the damage, Kennedy responded that snapshots were not valuable tools when there was ongoing damage.
The State Department believes damage from WikiLeaks releases could be perpetual. (This is actually similar to what Defense Department officials might be willing to articulate, but they still managed to put together finalized damaged assessment reports through a task force.)
So, why won’t the State Department complete a State Department damage assessment report on the leaks? Coombs wondered if it could be because the State Department might look bad. The department might find that there was not any damage occurring and it would conflict with what the department had hoped to find.
“I would not stop the investigation just because it would make the State Department look bad,” Kennedy claimed. He also said he would not lower his standards “by doing something that’s inappropriate.”
Coombs followed up by asking if someone had written to the State Department Inspector General that he had halted an investigation that might have made the State Department look bad. He was referring to his alleged role in covering up what happened with a US ambassador accused of “patronizing prostitutes” in a park in Belgium.
Kennedy responded that he did not know what the allegations were. Yet, wildly, he stated they happened to be “entirely false.”
Van Buren said it would not be surprising if Kennedy was covering up for the State Department. He suggested that everyone at the State Department owes Pat Kennedy, is afraid of Pat Kennedy or needs Pat Kennedy. He is one of the key people in allotting resources for the State Department and nobody wants to piss him off. He also can order investigations, indicate what should be looked for and can squash such investigations if he doesn’t think people should continue certain investigations.
Finally, the State Department does not publicly think that WikiLeaks published actual diplomatic cables. They still use the word “purported” to describe what WikiLeaks published. Van Buren believes this is because the cables are the State Department’s “crown jewels” and they don’t want to admit they were compromised.
Van Buren also thinks they still want to maintain a bit of deniability. If a foreign government were to become angry, they could simply tell that government that WikiLeaks tweaked the cable to make the State Department look bad.
Essentially the State Department comes out looking more duplicitous and conniving than the Pentagon, which is prosecuting Manning.
The State Department wants it various ways: they want to openly claim that the cables show diplomats doing the right thing, that the release of cables caused great damage and that they are not really authentic Embassy cables because they want deniability.
Someone could potentially spend the rest of his life in prison and officials at the State Department refuse to decide where exactly they stand. The State Department is perfectly willing to exploit Manning’s act and blame him for why there may be tension or a deteriorating climate for diplomats in key countries. They want to claim that this “chill” is not the result of regular normal US foreign policy but the result of Manning’s leaks, two to three years later.
And while “persons at risk” were moved or relocated to safety, the circumstances are unknown and, unfortunately, it is hard not to believe they are sketchily twisting evidence to suit the narrative they want to push. They have refused to declassify examples of specific damage or harm for the purpose of the trial, as they should have done in fairness to Manning’s right to a public trial.