WikiLeaks has yet again flooded the internet with thousands of classified American documents, this time state department cables. More troubling than WikiLeaks’ latest revelation of US secrets, however, is the Obama administration’s weak, wrong-headed and erratic response. Unfortunately, the administration has acted consistently with its demonstrated unwillingness to assert and defend US interests across a wide range of threats, such as Iran and North Korea, which, ironically, the leaked cables amply document.
On 29 November, secretary of state Hillary Clinton lamented that this third document dump was “not just an attack on United States foreign policy and interests, [but] an attack on the international community”. By contrast, on 1 December, the presidential press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said the White House was “not scared of one guy with one keyboard and a laptop”. Hours later, a Pentagon spokesman disdained the notion that the military should have prevented the WikiLeaks release: “The determination of those who are charged with such things, the decision was made not to proceed with any sort of aggressive action of that sort in this case.”
Clinton is demonstrably incorrect in being preoccupied with defending the “international community”, whatever that is. Her inability to understand WikiLeaks’ obsession with causing harm to the US is a major reason why the Obama administration has done little or nothing in response – except talk, its usual foreign-policy default position.
At least Clinton saw it as an attack on someone. The White House/defence department view was that the leaks were no big deal. Obama’s ideological predecessors welcomed publication of the Pentagon Papers, and suspected subsequent presidencies of nefarious clandestine dealings internationally, capped by Bush administration “intelligence cherry-picking” on Iraq. The prior WikiLeaks releases were largely military information, which made the Pentagon’s earlier rhetoric more high-pitched, but the outcome for all three was the same: no response. What does it matter if half a million classified US documents become instantly unclassified and downloadable by friend and foe alike?
This sustained, collective inaction exemplifies the Obama administration’s all-too-common attitude towards threats to America’s international interests. The president, unlike the long line of his predecessors since Franklin Roosevelt, simply does not put national security at the centre of his political priorities. Thus, Europeans who welcomed Obama to the Oval Office should reflect on his Warren Harding-like interest in foreign policy. Europeans who believe they will never again face real security threats to their comfortable lifestyle should realise that if by chance one occurs during this administration, the president will be otherwise occupied. He will be continuing his efforts to restructure the US economy, and does not wish to be distracted by foreign affairs.
The more appropriate response is to prosecute everyone associated with these leaks to the fullest extent of US law, which the justice department at least appears to be considering. Next, we must stop oscillating between excessive stove-piping of information, as before 9/11, and excessive access, as demonstrated by WikiLeaks. There is no one final answer, but the balance must be under constant analysis. Finally, the Pentagon’s cyber-warriors need target practice in this new form of combat, and they could long ago have practised by obliterating WikiLeaks’ electrons. Had we acted after the first release in July, there might not have been subsequent leaks, and lives and critical interests would have been protected.
But that was not to be under Obama. His secretary of state does not comprehend that America is the subject of the attack, his department of defence is not interested in defending us, and the president himself seems utterly indifferent to the whole affair.
All of this underscores the real problem. It is not WikiLeaks that ultimately imperils our national security, but the failing Obama administration, which ignores the nature and extent of threats we face, and which is too often unwilling to act to thwart them. While our economic difficulties have dominated the national debate for two years, national security will inevitably again come to the fore, as Americans see the full extent of the devastation left by Obama’s policies. That shift cannot come too soon.
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was US ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006.