Over the last decade, WikiLeaks has heedlessly published sensitive diplomatic cables, classified military files, secret trade documents and politically explosive emails. Last week, it dumped thousands of new files it says are from the Central Intelligence Agency. If authentic, as seems likely, it may prove the most destructive disclosure yet. Most of the new material relates to tools used by the CIA to spy on terrorists or foreign adversaries by gaining access to smartphones, messaging applications and so on. The dump revealed little that was surprising to technologists, and nothing that was improper or abusive on the part of the agency.
The implications for national security, however, are alarming. Either the CIA has been infiltrated at a high level, or someone was extremely careless with secret material. Either way, the agency will have to expend substantial time and money investigating the leak, assessing the damage, and developing or buying new tools.
More worrisome is that the leak could severely harm the ability of American spies to do their work. People who cooperated with the CIA overseas in planting or using these tools may now be in danger. Operations that relied on them are in jeopardy. Collaboration with the agency will become riskier. And the technical details the leak divulged will offer adversaries an illuminating glimpse into how the CIA and other U.S. spy agencies do business.
That creates problems throughout the US government, from the State Department to the White House. When espionage can no longer be counted on to inform policy making, diplomacy and negotiation become harder. Confusion and miscalculation become more likely. Tensions escalate, and lives are put at risk.
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A final problem is that the leak may destabilize an already polarized electorate. Kooks and cranks across the internet have seized on the revelations to assert that the CIA was meddling in the 2016 election, while pinning the blame on Russia. Once upon a time, that kind of thing could safely be ignored. These days — with conspiracy theories ascendant and the kooks unusually influential — it really can’t be.
For all that, WikiLeaks has so far offered no plausible ideological or principled objection to what the CIA was doing. When Edward Snowden began leaking National Security Agency secrets in 2013, he claimed it was to expose mass surveillance of Americans. This latest trove shows just the opposite: highly targeted tools used to eavesdrop on individual foreign agents or terrorists. Exactly what spies are supposed to do, in other words.
So why would WikiLeaks want to publish highly classified material that harms U.S. intelligence agencies, aids terrorists, puts lives at risk and subverts American politics, all while exposing no evidence of wrongdoing? Perhaps more pertinently, what does the new White House think of all this?
“I love WikiLeaks!” Donald Trump exclaimed in October, just before he was elected president and just after the group released emails intended to harm his opponent. “It’s amazing how nothing is secret today when you talk about the internet.” It is indeed amazing. And it is now the president’s problem.