Special Report: Could Wikileaks cause World War III or the end of the world?

Summary:Trust can be all that stands between us and terrible circumstance, whether that's the breakup of a family or total, nuclear Armageddon.

Trust.

It's a simple, one syllable word. If you think about it, trust is all that stands between us and terrible circumstance, whether that's the breakup of a family or total, nuclear Armageddon.

Trust is vitally important to the operations of nations and governments, as well. Not everyone, for example, is entrusted with America's nuclear codes. Not everyone is entrusted with the command of virtually independent nuclear ballistic missile submarines. And not everyone is entrusted with secret government documents.

For many things, trust has to be selective. It's not a good idea, as an example, to put controlling nuclear weapons on the honor system. My friends worry enough when I get around a good fireworks store or wax poetic about plasma torches -- they wouldn't feel comfortable if I had nukes.

Yet, we have to trust some people. It's not possible to do everything yourself. Working parents must trust someone to watch their newborn. Bosses who can't do everything themselves, or be in multiple places at once must put some trust in their employees.

Because the United States is a large nation with many interests all over the world, our military and diplomatic leadership must put some trust into the lower-level men and women who move and analyze tremendous amounts of information the world over. Even if they're only 22.

And so it came to be that the great nation of the United States of America entrusted Bradley Manning -- a young Private First Class of the U.S. 10th Mountain Division in Iraq, a former school dropout and pizza greeter -- with handling message traffic considered confidential and not for foreign eyes.

While most American soldiers are more than worthy of our trust, respect, and thanks, young Bradley was not. Manning, without any formal training or education in geopolitical affairs, without the ability to see all the national security ramifications, and without the ability to understand (or possibly even care) about the lives that would inevitably be lost, took it upon himself to betray the sacred trust granted him by the United States military.

There are always people willing to take advantage of naive young people in positions of trust.  So it came to pass that Manning's betrayal had an outlet, in the person of an ambitious foreign narcissist named Julian Assange, a man so amoral he tried to blackmail Amnesty International.

But naivety and audience can't act alone.

There must also be opportunity.  Beyond the need to entrust our diplomatic security to 22-year-old dropouts -- we have another serious security flaw. We allow removable media, iPods, smartphones, and thumb drives behind the firewall.

I have been banging on this drum for years now. Over and over, I have told politicians, military leaders, homeland security professionals*, and the American people that these tiny handheld devices pose a tremendous security risk.

For a while, it seemed like the Pentagon, at least, was going to take some action. They put a ban on USB drives in the military. But then, after only a year, they substantially reduced the ban's effectiveness.

I'm telling you this because, according to The Guardian, Manning stole more than 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables (all of 1.6 gigabytes of data) by smuggling a thumb drive and a re-writable CD labeled "Lady Gaga" into work, filled them, and then forwarded them to a waiting Assange.

While it's not clear whether or not Manning's betrayal could have been prevented by better security procedures, it certainly could have been made more difficult. Even so, now we're left with the fallout.

I'm not going to recount the sordid details of what was contained in those not-for-foreign-eyes diplomatic cables. First, I don't believe they should be public and, second, many other publications, including The New York Times, are publishing the leaks.

I'm also not going to tell you that nothing contained in those cables was disturbing. Instead, I'll tell you why we (and every other nation) keep some information to ourselves, or release information only in carefully controlled circumstances.

International diplomacy is a precise dance.

Although some nations are vastly larger and vastly wealthier than others, it is a facade of diplomatic protocol that all nations and all leaders are treated as equals -- at least in public. Many nations (and the U.S., in particular) maintain protocol offices to make sure that every diplomatic interaction goes according to plan, stays on message, and doesn't offend (unless, of course, it's time to not be nice).

Internal national politics, on the other hand, is a gutter fight.

Nations must communicate with other nations according to an established protocol, but the leaders who make that national policy must always answer to their constituents. If the leaders can't seem to maintain an upper hand, can't demand respect, and aren't seen to be getting things done, those leaders are usually replaced.

The challenge is that diplomacy is always a give-and-take sort of thing. When nations bargain with other nations, sometimes it goes smoothly, sometimes there's horse-trading, and sometimes there's pressure to be applied. Whenever two leaders negotiate, each wants to come back to his or her country and brag about how he won the negotiation. Neither wants to lose face.

As we all know, people will do incredibly idiotic things to protect their honor. So will leaders.

I've written previously about how the documents leaked by Wikileaks could cause people to die. Wikileaks hasn't redacted the information about confidential informants, and it's likely that these informants -- in large numbers -- will be executed by their factions over the coming weeks and months.

That's bad enough. But many national leaders would prefer to project bravado, send people to war, and engage in years-long conflicts with other nations rather than lose face or admit a mistake.

Here is where the Wikileaks risk is extreme. Manning and Assange "outed" confidential negotiations (and, yes, pressure) about nuclear defense issues. They "outed" defensive tactics America was taking against cyberwarfare advances by certain other nations. They "outed" the procedures we're going through to find "homes" for Guantanamo prisoners. They "outed" discussions about protecting Americans from terrorists.

Each of these disclosures will likely cause leaders to do damage control. Because diplomacy always involves more than one player, the damage control will be different from nation to nation. Nations that were in some level of agreement (whether coerced or not) will now find that, for political reasons, they must agree to not agree.

For some nations, the fact that this information is now public will prevent them from being able to compromise. For some nations, the fact that this information is now public will prevent them from being able to trust.

Trust.

If you think about it, trust can be all that stands between us and terrible circumstance, whether that's the breakup of a family or total, nuclear Armageddon.

Read also:

*Sadly, some of these articles are in print, only.

Topics: CXO

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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