The Effects of WikiLeaks on Those Who Work at the State Department

The Effects of WikiLeaks on Those Who Work at the State Department

Samuel Witten is counsel at the law firm Arnold & Porter LLP. He worked at the State Department for 22 years, including six years as Deputy Legal Adviser (2001-2007) and three years as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration (2007-2010).

The world’s attention has been riveted on the potential foreign policy implications of the recent WikiLeaks disclosures. How will the disclosure of candid comments by Saudi leaders about Iran affect the political and military dynamic of the region? Will U.S. cooperation with Yemen become even more complicated by disclosures of cables about U.S. dialogue with President Saleh? What consequences might there be for current tensions on the North Korean peninsula if sensitive discussions about the region and the Six-Party talks are disclosed to the general public? What can be done to better secure this kind of sensitive information in the future? The answers to these questions have serious consequences and the leaks are a legitimate cause for concern for U.S. policy makers and diplomats.

This post focuses on another aspect of the WIkiLeaks developments — the effects of disclosures on the ability of the men and women of the State Department to do their jobs.

The Place of the Diplomatic Cable in American Foreign Policy

The diplomatic cable, a tool used by many governments, provides an official channel for U.S. diplomats abroad to report back to Washington and for Washington to instruct diplomats on how to approach relationships with foreign governments, the public overseas, international organizations and many other audiences. Many cables to and from our diplomatic posts include analyses of complex issues of foreign policy and diplomacy. Others provide candid recommendations of ways to advance U.S. interests against steep odds in dangerous and uncertain places. Some seek urgent guidance and identify sensitive information and options to address contingencies. Others offer insights into the character and motivations of foreign leaders, potential U.S. allies and opponents, opposition political parties, human rights activists, and dissidents.

Cables are a fundamental part of the State Department’s core culture, an essential component of how State Department diplomats and lawyers do business. The process of obtaining “clearance” on a proposed cable within the State Department (or from other concerned federal agencies) ensures that messages and instructions reflect all of the interests at stake and have the benefit of cumulative experience. Cables also create an official, historical record of the U.S. Government’s international actions and help ensure accountability for decisions.

During 22 years in the Department as a lawyer and a policy official, I drafted, edited, cleared and read countless cables. When overseas, I sent cables discussing and analyzing meetings or negotiations I attended or seeking guidance from Washington on possible options and instructions. When in Washington, where I was based, I made every effort to ensure that our outgoing cables were clear and detailed enough that colleagues around the world would benefit from precise analysis and assistance.

Damage from WikiLeaks disclosures go well beyond the immediate consequences reported in the media. The releases undermine the essential ability of our foreign affairs professionals to do their jobs. The leaks compromise the acquisition and flow of information around the world, reduce the effectiveness of our international outreach, and may put lives at risk.

Consequences of the Cable Trove

Proponents of WikiLeaks disclosures have put forward a number of arguments in favor of making these cables public. Putting aside the anti-Americanism of some supporters, there are those who suggest that the leaks promote a kind of openness, giving the public a better understanding of how diplomacy operates and clarifying the interests and goals of the United States and foreign governments. Some may argue that the knowledge of a potential leak – which always exists – may enhance the analytic and reportorial rigor of our diplomats abroad. In this respect, some suggest that the cables, overall, provide an advertisement for a State Department full of excellent professionals advocating and defending American interests around the world. There is certainly much truth in the latter. But to the extent there is any value in these public disclosures, that value, in my opinion, is far outweighed by the substantial negative impacts.

Some of the most striking consequences for State Department professionals include the following:

Information from non-public sources will be harder to obtain. Our foreign affairs professionals can do their jobs properly only when they can exchange information in confidence with foreign leaders, would-be leaders, academics, non-governmental organizations, and private citizens. Many interlocutors are willing to engage with American diplomats only because of implicit or explicit understandings that the exchanges will be kept confidential. The high profile firing of a senior German official whose non-public contacts with the United States were revealed for the first time by WikiLeaks can only be seen as a harbinger of similar damage to other U.S. relationships. It seems inevitable that many officials from foreign governments or international organizations, not to mention private persons at risk, will be more reticent in their contacts with the United States. The releases already made thus are likely to put a chill in our normal diplomatic dialogues; in some cases, it may take years to restore confidence and underlying relationships. Under Secretary of State William Burns spoke articulately about the consequences of Wikileaks at a recent press event in Santiago, Chile:

I think the Wikileaks disclosures have done significant damage to our diplomacy. Confidentiality and discretion and trust really are the core of what we do as diplomats. It’s not unique to diplomacy, it’s true for journalists, it’s true for lawyers, it’s true for doctors, it’s true in a number of other professions. Our ability to understand other societies and to have conversations and be able to protect the confidentiality of those conversations is essential to sensible policies and it’s essential to healthy relations.

Candid analysis and recommendations will be undermined by undue risks of disclosure. Diplomats are asked from the first day of their training to think critically. Their job is not merely to report on what they see and hear, but to evaluate, challenge conventional wisdom, and recommend strategies for advancing U.S. interests in complex situations. In this connection, difficult problems in foreign affairs rarely have obvious or easy answers. Rather, for each problem there are options, many of which require a complex series of actions to achieve, some of which will be sensitive and require maneuvering. In addition, experts in Washington benefit from “atmospheric reporting” (such as reports of what people are saying informally or what the public mood might be in some locations) because it helps them put other information in context. Candor and creativity in reporting and analysis could well be casualties of the shadow cast by WikiLeaks.

Our ability to help persons at risk could be diminished. We do not yet know how many candid conversations with foreign opposition groups, NGO leaders and private citizens are in the leaked cables or in other cables that have not yet been leaked. The concerns already expressed by NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First about the safety of dissidents and human rights advocates are real. People at risk need to know that their communications with the United States are secure and that we will do nothing to undermine their safety. I know from my prior experience managing the U.S. refugee assistance program that many of those who come to U.S. embassies for help are often the most vulnerable and in need of protection. If confidence in the integrity of our private communications is lost, the ability of our professionals to help those in need will be undermined and lives will be endangered.

Communications relating to U.S. negotiations could be undermined. Cables are both vehicles for instructions to our negotiating delegations and part of the record of our negotiations. They typically reflect a range of options under consideration (often with candid assessments of the benefits and problems of particular proposals for U.S. national interests), and include plain language assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of other delegations and their proposals. While disclosure of a whole negotiating record would of course be damaging, the disclosure of discrete cables from that record also would be damaging because they are so easy to take out of context or might reflect positions taken strategically by U.S. teams. The integrity of these communications systems is essential to advance U.S. interests.

WikiLeaks releases undermine morale and affect careers. Many of the cables released so far have implicated the blunt and helpful reporting and analysis that make the U.S. foreign affairs apparatus work effectively. Candor, creativity and “out of the box” views are appropriately sought – and needed – by decision makers. Thanks to WikiLeaks, cable-drafters are now seeing their candid words, thoughts, and analysis, all intended for internal consumption, splashed on the front pages of newspapers and circulated around the world on the internet. Concerned for perhaps the first time in their careers that they have damaged U.S. interests, at least some of these employees could be more cautious in the future. The potential negative consequences on morale are profound, and the uncertainty of what releases lie ahead hangs over foreign affairs professionals around the world (American and non-American).

The Post-leak Future

Here are some thoughts, looking ahead:

  • The cable system, in my view, will not be phased out or substantially diminished. In the complex world of the State Department, other means of communications provide no substitute. Although having a cable “cleared” within the State Department can be difficult and time-consuming, the resulting language is often far sounder than would result from a closed exchange of e-mails or phone call without benefit of multiple stakeholders. Reduced use of diplomatic cables would be a blow for good decisionmaking, with no counterbalancing benefits for openness or otherwise. Cables are also a way for our foreign affairs staff to understand initiatives in other parts of the Department and develop a broader understanding of complex bilateral and multilateral relationships.
  • Changes in the State Department cable system are probably under active consideration, including enhanced controls on the distribution of information and improvements in information technology at the Defense Department and elsewhere to prevent the kind of scandalous downloading that took place here. In the review of possible changes, however, one should be concerned that an over-reaction could overly constrain the distribution of cables and undermine the communication necessary to achieve fundamental U.S. goals. A careful balance needs to be struck.
  • The United States is not alone in worrying about unauthorized disclosures. We know that other governments and international organizations are now evaluating the integrity of their communications systems. Indeed, many governments are likely sympathetic to the difficulties now faced by the U.S., since they also depend heavily on controls in their own systems.
  • State Department foreign affairs professionals need to be assured that their candor, creativity and critical analysis will continue to be respected by the leadership of the Department and indeed, the Executive Branch more broadly.

The U.S. has aggressively sought to contain the diplomatic and strategic damage resulting from WikiLeaks disclosures. In this respect, any negative consequences for U.S. foreign policy that have resulted from WikiLeaks could well be compounded by additional disclosures, but may be ameliorated in many cases by the passage of time and subsequent events. Similarly, some of the negative professional and practical consequences at the State Department and in our international relations will improve over time.

That said, the profound unease and anxiety about the breach in our system through the unauthorized leaks may never disappear entirely. For the foreseeable future, foreign officials and private persons will understandably be worried about whether their dialogues with the State Department will be secure. Some candor and critiques by our own professionals may go unwritten or held in narrow channels of distribution. Life at the State Department has, by any measure, become more complicated by these disclosures.

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You wrote the best two-paragraph definition of a cable that I’ve ever seen. If no one is willing to talk to us, we’re not going to be able to do much in the way of promoting mutual understanding. Or much of anything else. The impact of this simply can’t be over-stated. No one can possibly believe their identities and the information they provide us will be held in confidence. We simply will no longer be trusted to pass information to the right ears and no further. Any cable-drafter already knows that the potential readership of any given cable is quite large. Potentially, anyone within (and in some case outwith) the State Dept. possessing the right accesses could become a reader, either today or next week, next month, or next year. Cables are forever, communications-of-record; if nothing else their contents will become summarized and encapsulated in reports which trickle ever upwards. Nothing levels our side of the playing field quite so drastically as when our mail is being read, even long after the fact. Candor and plain-talking are essential or you’re just spinning your wheels. Time and again I’ve instructed report-writers to tell the facts, what they know and how they… Read more »


Response…What Assange has done is sabotage. It is an act of war against the US.  Assymetrical as all get-out!!  He and his people have injured an institution of the US which serves many vital governmental, public, and world interests, and has delivered a cut to it that shall not soon be repaired.  This is not merely an illegal act, it is an act of war, if one can get one’s head around that.  Perhaps this sort of action is not seen as being done by an enemy combatant, but the reality of the consequences of this are not those of “free speech” vs non “free speech…” on some level.  Rather they are pure self-defense against an aggressor.

Kevin Jon Heller

Thanks to Mark for illustrating the complete incoherence and hysteria of the anti-Assange crowd.


I don’t think Wikileaks has compromised any American diplomatic capabilities at all.

Any foreign official who talks to an American diplomat must know that their utterances will be reported back, otherwise why would an American diplomat wish to talk to them  if not to seek reportable information?

America will be forgiven the cable leak. However, the world is not going to forgive the attempted harassment of Assange or the suppression of Wikileaks.

It would be smart for America to immediately call off the wolves and for Obama to make an off the cuff remark to the effect that America values a free press – no matter how much it hurts sometimes.