The fat lip President Obama received last week on the basketball court is similar to the fat lip America has received from the latest WikiLeaks release of sensitive State Department communications. Both are embarrassing because they reveal vulnerabilities and actions best not made public. Neither is a debilitating injury when properly treated. The president’s fat lip only required a few stitches. America’s fat lip, however, requires major surgery.
Reactions to another dump of classified information by an Australian anarchist with a funny name and a penchant for targeting the United States have been all over the park. Liberal political commentator Alan Colmes defended WikiLeaks and downplayed its affect. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is not the principal culprit, it’s that PFC Bradley Manning guy, already cooling his heels in the brig, and whoever else may have passed information to WikiLeaks.
Obama administration officials responded predictably. As White House spokesman Robert Gibbs phrased it, “We’re not scared of one guy with a laptop.” Attorney General Eric Holder opened an investigation and vowed to “aggressively pursue” those behind the leaks. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “This disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community: the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.” President Obama has said next to nothing.
On the other side of the spectrum are those who equate Assange with foreign spies and al-Qaeda terrorists. Newt Gingrich called him an enemy combatant, suggesting even sterner ways of dealing with him. According to Gingrich, the U.S. should prosecute Assange under our espionage laws.
If all this leaves you a bit confused, if you don’t have strong feelings one way or the other, there are a couple of time-tested rules to fall back on — when in doubt, assume the worst; and it’s not what we say about a problem, it’s what we do about it that counts.
The debate over how much damage the WikiLeaks disclosures may cause will continue. It shouldn’t get in the way, however, of decisive action to prevent more leaks. And if there is any question about whether they endanger the lives of human-rights activists or others in foreign countries, we must do what we can to protect them. State Department spokesmen have said it will do that. Let’s see if it does.
As for what damage the leaks may do to U.S. credibility and trustworthiness, we can’t view them in isolation. We must consider them in the broader context of U.S. foreign relations. Increasingly, the United States is looking like a paper tiger to nations around the world. We appear incapable of doing anything about Iran’s nuclear weapons program or North Korea’s nukes and its belligerent actions against South Korea. President Obama’s economic proposals were flatly rejected by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group and the G20. Despite his popularity abroad, world leaders view him as a weak leader. Failure to react aggressively to Julian Assange’s elbow to the American lip will only further support that assessment.
There are several steps the Obama administration can and should take immediately. Obviously, how the U.S. government disseminates and protects classified information needs an overhaul. If it’s going to have a massive data base where multiple agencies can share classified information, it needs numerous firewalls with decreasing levels of access and alerts and shutouts that prevent unauthorized downloads.
Whatever the obstacles to a successful prosecution on whatever charge, the U.S. Department of Justice should issue an arrest warrant for Assange. ABC News reports, “Sweden’s Supreme Court today (Dec. 2) upheld an arrest order for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on allegations of sexual assault, a move that will further pressure police in the U.K. to detain the elusive Australian hacker in the country where he is known to be hiding.” The Justice Department should inform the U.K. and Swedish authorities that we seek his extradition to the United States pending the outcome of their judicial processes.
While we’re waiting for foreign courts to take action, we should use our cyber-war capabilities to shut down WikiLeaks. It’s not necessary to acknowledge we’re doing that publicly. The goal is simply to take WikiLeaks offline and keep it offline. We may be reluctant to use that capability because of the inevitable criticism from the left and other countries, and because it may be difficult to deny. So be it. The benefits of taking down WikiLeaks outweigh the disadvantages of leaving it alone.
It’s time our enemies who aren’t hiding in caves along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border or in Yemen began to fear the U.S. again. Assange not only views the U.S. government leadership as “lying, corrupt and murderous,” he doesn’t fear it in the least. He believes he can hide behind First Amendment protections and do as he pleases. Allow one bully to give you a fat lip, and others will line up behind him.
There are several reasons, however, why President Obama may not want to order the latter two actions. First, by making Assange the target of a U.S. criminal prosecution, he prolongs the story and the bad publicity that goes with it. No doubt he hopes the Swedish government will solve the Assange problem for him. Second, he doesn’t want the heat and criticism he will take from the left at home and abroad; to them Assange is just a whistleblower, not an agent of destruction. Finally, I’m sure he’s hoping that WikiLeaks is running out of classified U.S. government documents, and once it does it will turn its attention elsewhere. Reportedly, WikiLeaks already has begun to focus on U.S. banks, a target that might even suit Obama’s purposes.
It might have been a successful strategy for an up-and-coming state senator from Illinois to vote present on thorny issues. It’s not an acceptable or successful strategy for the President of the United States.
Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.