The last decade has been interesting in the clandestine world of international diplomacy and espionage, largely due to the rise of WikiLeaks. Founded in 2006 by Julian Assange, WikiLeaks has become notorious for its periodic dumps of classified information on the Internet. WikiLeaks highlights the power of the information era, and has sparked revolutions and perhaps fueled the rise of populist nationalism worldwide. It’s amusing to watch as some journalists rush to examine files dumped online before they’re expunged, while other reporters still confuse “WikiLeaks” with “Wikipedia.” Proponents say WikiLeaks forces governments to act more transparently; detractors say the website endangers lives, and unfairly targets countries such as the United States while ignoring abuses by China and other human rights violators. Here are 5 key reveals from WikiLeaks during the past decade.
5. WikiLeaks Helped Spark Arab Spring
In November 2010, WikiLeaks began releasing classified cables dispatched between the U.S. State Department and embassies and consulates worldwide. This became known as Cablegate, and the dump of 251,287 cables into the public domain was the largest until that time. The Cablegate releases created a diplomatic nightmare for the U.S., as they described how the country propped up many totalitarian regimes in the Arab world. Egypt and Tunisia soon banned WikiLeaks, but by late 2011, the damage had been done to standing governments on their way out. Syria suffered the most, as Arab Spring caused the country to sink into an ongoing civil war.
It’s no surprise that many government officials around the world fear WikiLeaks, and Cablegate underlined the challenges the website faces. A U.S. federal court issued a subpoena regarding the Twitter accounts of WikiLeaks and Assange in late 2010 pertaining to Cablegate downloads (WikiLeaks today has 4.63 million followers on Twitter). Currently, Assange is under asylum at the Embassy of Ecuador in London. The challenges continue for WikiLeaks; it must move its hosting periodically to stay one step ahead of Denial of Service attacks, and it also maintains a Deep Web presence accessible via Tor browser.
4. Leaks Detail Deadly Iraq, Afghanistan War Activities
WikiLeaks has sparked public outrage over Department of Defense attempts to cover up civilian deaths after U.S. military attacks. During Cablegate, one video that later became referred to as “Collateral Murder” showed footage of a July 2007 helicopter attack over Baghdad that killed a dozen civilians, while the crew laughed off the event. The attack also killed a Reuters photographer and his driver, and the Pentagon originally denied a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the video. WikiLeaks managed to break U.S. encryption to release it. This occurred shortly after the admission by U.S. special forces in Afghanistan that soldiers attempted to dig bullets out of three civilian women killed in an attack.
3. U.S. Diplomatic Cables Reveal Embarrassing Secrets
WikiLeaks info dumps have given us a fascinating look at how the U.S. conducts diplomacy, to a level that makes Watergate look tame. Often, it’s enlightening to note how even friendly allied powers often spy on each other. For example, those Cablegate cables revealed the Britain and the United States routinely eavesdropped on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the weeks leading up to the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003. WikiLeaks also revealed how U.S. officials tried to pressure Spanish prosecutors into heading off an investigation of U.S. troops believed to be involved in torture, extraordinary rendition and the killing of a Spanish journalist in Iraq. WikiLeaks has also shown us that not all classified information is a truly groundbreaking revelation, and much of the truly fascinating stuff is still buried in a pile of largely pedestrian affairs.
2. Documents Show CIA’s Ability to Hack Smart Devices
Can the CIA spy on you via the smart devices in your house? A cache of 8,700 documents dropped by WikiLeaks in early 2017 code named “Vault 7” alleges that the CIA possesses tools to hack phones, routers and even smart TVs. That includes the iPhone’s vaunted and supposedly “unbreakable” encryption, which has been the center of controversy following terrorist attacks such as the San Bernardino incident. The CIA can also read messages over encrypted networks usually touted as secure, such as Signal, Telegram and the popular WhatsApp recently acquired by Facebook. The Weeping Angel virus can even hack certain models of Samsung TVs, causing them to go into a fake “sleep mode” while listening in on a room using the TV’s built in microphone. Of course, the CIA won’t confirm or deny any of the “Vault 7” allegations … it really shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the CIA can actually do any of these things; the lesson should be that nearly any type of electronic communication, or any device connected to the Internet, must be treated as potentially insecure.
1. Did Hacks of Democratic Officials Sway Election?
Not only has WikiLeaks revealed sensitive international diplomacy issues, but it may have swayed the 2016 U.S. presidential election as well. On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks published almost 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee, mostly concerning candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The leaks highlighted the DNC and the Clinton campaign’s financial standings and interaction with the media, both on and off the record. The leaked emails also highlighted how the DNC attempted to actively undermine the Sanders campaign, instead of maintaining strict neutrality toward both candidates. For example, an email between DNC chief executive officer Amy Dacey and chief financial officer Brad Marshall suggested painting Sanders as an atheist, and another from DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz simply states, “he isn’t going to become president.” Schultz resigned as DNC chair in the aftermath of the leaks. Clinton has cited the WikiLeaks revelations as one of the factors in her loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
More: Will WikiLeaks Herald a New Era of Diplomacy?
What does this all mean for the future of intelligence and how agencies conduct business? WikiLeaks proponents say this might herald a new day where states (including the U.S.) need to “act right.” Detractors merely say, however, that covert agencies will find ways to subvert, bypass or even exploit WikiLeaks. The site also doesn’t often reveal its sources, and its reach is now perhaps becoming larger than life. There are outlandish ideas out there, for example, that Assange and the U.S.’s exiled Edward Snowden possess still more revelations that could topple superpowers, or bring worldwide financial institutions to a grinding halt. One thing is certain: it’s a new day for cloak-and-dagger diplomacy.