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A Newbie’s Guide to Deciphering the WikiLeaks Scandal

3 Dec 2010

On November 28th, an outpouring of classified information from Washington D.C. erupted in the media–it was a big deal, but what exactly happened? Hundreds of related reports, blogs, and news stories have flown off the press, yet many (including myself) have become more confused as more coverage bombard our screens. Here’s an attempt at flushing out the meat of the story.

Who?

Apparently, this guy:

Bradley Manning, a 23-year-old American solider from Oklahoma, has been accused of and arrested for disclosing national secrets.  Manning was stationed in Iraq when he discovered access to SIPRNet, a collaborative system that the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of State use to store sensitive materials, much of which relates to national security. An entire archive dedicated to documents labeled “SECRET”? Of course it’s tempting to steal a glance–and Manning did just that.

How?

Lady Gaga CDs. If that doesn’t sound believable, read Manning’s own explanation:

“I would come in with music on a CD-RW…erase the music…then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing. [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s Telephone while ‘exfiltrating’ possibly the largest data spillage in America history.”

At the time, Manning was chatting with a correspondent named Adrian Lamo, who was the first to learn about Manning’s data excavation. In an “act of conscience,” Lamo turned Manning over to the authorities. Unfortunately, by then, Manning’s doctrine of free and open information had already manifested in global media. He had sent the cables to WikiLeaks, who immediately started to disseminate all 250,000+ government secrets to the public.

What?

The leaked documents mostly pertain to the U.S. government’s foreign activities, but here’s the shocker: This set of state cables turned out to be seven times larger than the “Iraq War Logs”, which were previously the world’s largest release of classified info. Imagine the goodies that we don’t have access to. “The cables cover from December 28th, 1966 to February 28th, 2010 and originate from 274 embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions” (WikiLeaks).

Given the overwhelming number of questionable topics and events that our government clearly wants to keep in the dark, feel free to download and explore the archive on your own time; a blog piece certainly won’t do them justice.

But here’s a sneak peek of a few revelations:

1) A suspicious act by one of Afghanistan’s vice-presidents, Ahmed Zia Massoud, who allegedly carried $52 million with him in cash on a visit to the UAE last year: In a cable from the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan declared that Massoud was “ultimately allowed to keep [the large sum of money] without revealing the [its] origin or destination.” Even stranger, when approached by the Drug Enforcement Administration and local authorities in the UAE, Massoud denied carrying any cash out of Afghanistan at all.

2) In January, a contact informed the American Embassy in Beijing that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was planning a comprehensive into Google systems in China as part of a national security campaign. Cables revealed that the team of experts recruited by the government have broken into American government computers before too. In fact, the CCP’s internet infiltration has been a continuous project, starting from 2002.

Why should we care about all this?

John Locke was a believer in ‘tacit consent’, an unspoken agreement between individuals in society to empower a representative government under democratic values. It’s part of the broader idea that we give up some individual freedoms in order to rely on those who will make the best decisions–for all of us. Yet, even here in the freest of free lands, public distrust in the system is becoming a beastly contender to political credibility.

How, if ever, can we ameliorate this?

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