In a Twitter post yesterday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, declares:
Another irresponsible posting of stolen classified documents by WikiLeaks puts lives at risk and gives adversaries valuable information.
Mullen is right—the release of these documents was irresponsible and dangerous. But, with all respect to the chairman, a twitter posting is not exactly the cyber response that these WikiLeaks disclosures warrant.
It has been nearly three months since WikiLeaks released more than 75,000 classified documents from the war in Afghanistan, revealing the identities of Afghans who were cooperating with NATO forces against the Taliban. At the time, WikiLeaks warned that it was preparing to release many thousands more. This weekend, they finally followed through, dumping more than 390,000 classified documents on the war in Iraq onto the Internet, and promising that more classified documents on Afghanistan are forthcoming.
What has the Obama administration done to prevent these disclosures which Mullen says “put lives at risk”?
As I pointed out in the Washington Post in August, the administration has a wide variety of options for dealing with WikiLeaks and its increasingly erratic founder, Julian Assange. Assange can be arrested and prosecuted under the Espionage Act. And because Assange is a non-U.S. citizen operating outside the territory of the United States, the government could employ not only law enforcement but also intelligence and military assets—such as U.S. Cyber Command—to put his criminal syndicate out of business and bring Assange to justice.
A few months ago, the Obama administration hinted it was preparing to take some action to stop Assange. The Justice Department said that it is weighing bringing charges against him under the Espionage Act. And Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell warned in August that if WikiLeaks does not stand down, return stolen documents it possessed, and promise not to solicit further materials, the government will “make them do the right thing.” WikiLeaks just told the administration what it could do with such threats.
The ball is now in Obama’s court. Indeed, it has been for a long time. Obama should have acted sooner to stop the document dump that took place this weekend. The full extent of the damage caused by the unlawful release of more than 390,000 classified documents—the largest in history—will take time to assess, but this much is clear: it could have been prevented. WikiLeaks has said it has more documents on Afghanistan that it intends to release. Will the administration stand by and let them get away with it, and then issue mournful tweets about the damage done to our country? Or will it finally act to stop them?
The first release came without warning, and the administration was caught off guard. Fair enough. But they saw this release coming a mile away. The time for action against WikiLeaks has long passed. Responsibility for any risk to lives from this most recent release—and those that may be forthcoming—lies not just with Assange, but with the administration that lets him continue to get away with it.