It is understandable for the administration to underplay the significance of the WikiLeaks State Department cables. But while it is wise not to go into a public panic, it is delusional to think that this is merely embarrassing gossip and indiscretion. The leaks have done major damage.
First, there's quite specific damage to our war-fighting capacity. Take just one revelation among hundreds: The Yemeni president and deputy prime minister are quoted as saying they're letting the United States bomb al-Qaeda in their country, while claiming it's the government's doing. Well, that cover is pretty well blown. And given the unpopularity of the San'a government's tenuous cooperation with us in the war against al-Qaeda, this will undoubtedly limit our freedom of action against its Yemeni branch, identified by the CIA as the most urgent terrorist threat to U.S. security.
Second, we've suffered a major blow to our ability to collect information. Talking candidly to a U.S. diplomat can now earn you headlines around the world, reprisals at home, or worse. Success in the war on terror depends on being trusted with other countries' secrets. Who's going to trust us now?
Third, this makes us look bad - very bad. But not in the way Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implied in her cringe-inducing apology speech, in which she scolded these awful leakers for having done a disservice to "the international community," and plaintively deplored how this hampers U.S. attempts to bring about a better world. She sounded like a cross between an exasperated school principal and a Miss America contestant professing world peace to be her fondest wish.
The problem is not that the purloined cables exposed U.S. hypocrisy or double-dealing. Good God, that's the essence of diplomacy. That's what we do; that's what everyone does. Hence the famous aphorism that a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.
Nothing new here. What is notable - indeed, shocking - is the administration's torpid and passive response to the leaks. What's appalling is the helplessness of a superpower that not only cannot protect its own secrets, but shows the world that if you violate its secrets - massively, wantonly, and maliciously - there are no consequences.
Time to show a little steel - to show that such miscreants don't get to walk away.
At a Monday news conference, Attorney General Eric Holder assured the nation that his people are diligently looking into possible legal action against WikiLeaks. Where has Holder been? The WikiLeaks exposure of Afghanistan war documents occurred five months ago. Holder is looking now at possible indictments? This is a country where a good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. Months after the first leak, Justice's thousands of lawyers have yet to prepare charges against Julian Assange and his confederates?
Throw the Espionage Act of 1917 at them. And if that is not adequate, if that law has been too constrained and watered down by subsequent Supreme Court rulings, then why hasn't the administration prepared new legislation adapted to these kinds of Internet-age violations of U.S. security? It's not as if we didn't know more leaks were coming, and that more leaks are coming still.
Think creatively. The WikiLeaks document dump is sabotage, however quaint that term may seem. We are at war - a hot war in Afghanistan, where six Americans were killed just last Monday, and a shadowy world war, in which enemies from Yemen to Portland, Ore., are planning holy terror. Franklin Roosevelt had German saboteurs tried by military tribunal and shot.
Assange has done more damage to the United States than all six of those Germans combined. Putting U.S. secrets on the Internet, a medium of universal dissemination that is new in human history, requires a reconceptualization of sabotage and espionage - and the laws to punish and prevent them. Where is the Justice Department?
And where are the intelligence agencies on which we lavish $80 billion a year? Assange has gone missing. Well, he's no cave-dwelling jihadi ascetic. Find him. Start with every five-star hotel in England and work your way down.
Want to prevent this from happening again? Let the world see a man who can't sleep in the same bed on consecutive nights, who fears the long arm of American justice. I'm not advocating that we bring out of retirement the KGB proxy who, on a London street, killed a Bulgarian dissident with a poisoned umbrella tip. But it would be nice if people like Assange were made to worry every time they go out in the rain.