Wikileaks' CIA Dump and the Erosion of Democracy

Julian Assange
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange makes a speech from the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy, in central London, on February 5, 2016. Assange has been holed up at the embassy for five years after skipping bail. Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Block by block, snide release by snide release, Wikileaks is eroding the ability of a state to protect itself and society, an act of sabotage that yet many view as heroic. I can tell you, as one who devoted his life to serve the Constitution of the United States from within the national security establishment, one should view Wikileaks as a public danger, not as the little guy's hero.

The damage to U.S. security and intelligence capabilities from Assange's release of what are supposed to be—and which appear legitimate—CIA programs to conduct cyber espionage appears at least as serious as the last catastrophic leaks by the likely-traitor, Edward Snowden. The malign hand of Russian intelligence also seems quite clear, even if out of sight and, as yet, unprovable. Western intelligence services—and for that matter, private but alert observers—have long since come to view Wikileaks as a tool of Russian intelligence operations, whatever Wilileaks' possible libertarian origins.

It takes thousands of man hours, and probably many millions of dollars, to develop such capabilities; it will take longer to replace them, and indeed, many capabilities may never be replaceable. For a long time going forward, the U.S. intelligence community, and therefore U.S. policymakers, will be substantially blinder and dumber than before; and the United States will be that much more at risk from hostile parties, ranging from terrorists, to ISIS, to criminals, to states such as Russia and North Korea. The self-satisfied Wikileaks (and Russian-aided) triumph—which seems to have evoked a smirk as a response from the current titular Commander in Chief of the United States—has placed many lives, and the safety of the nation, at greater risk.

Wikileaks Sells a Myth About the CIA

The mission of the CIA is to learn the plans and intentions of foreign individuals and countries that can affect the well-being of the United States. Obtaining information from technical means, which is what cyber intelligence does, is one of a range of approaches intelligence services take—human sources and satellites are others—to provide policymakers with an understanding of "what is on the far side of the hill." If a policymaker does not know, sometimes someone nasty comes thundering out of the blue over the ridge. Yet, a cardinal principle in intelligence is that a secret shared is a secret lost, a capability revealed is a capability neutralized. The type of capabilities exposed can cost billions of dollars to develop, and are as insubstantial as a whisper in the wind. The purported reason given to commit such a breach of the CIA's secret practices is so that the public can decide whether these programs are justified. But every operation the CIA takes, every capability the CIA develops, is assessed for its legality in advance of the operation, or the deployment of the capability.

The CIA and the entire U.S. intelligence community are profoundly law-abiding institutions. This seems a contradiction, if not a lie, to many private citizens: The CIA exists to break laws, doesn't it? Don't play us for fools, runs a common perspective. But this defensive cynicism is wrong. A standard, weary and frustrated observation of my colleagues and me in the field was that an officer could not even sneeze without first obtaining authorization. The CIA is careful and oh-so-accountable; the "rogue" CIA of legend, and the dark, dangerous-to-civil-liberties CIA that Wikipedia claims to call to account is a myth—a myth sincerely believed by many good citizens, but also one fomented by Russian intelligence, so as to weaken the United States.

Of course, the rejoinder immediately comes: Look at all the excesses, the lawlessness, the lack of accountability of the CIA! The CIA tortured! The CIA taps people's phones! Even the man sitting in the White House right now has made such allegations (the horrifying associations of the man now in the White House with Russian intelligence, and therefore the origin and purpose of his absurd and America-weakening allegations, are shocking and important, but are an issue for another day.) There is also another bias that underpins Wikileaks' sanctimony, and that resonates among many people: a libertarian conviction that the CIA and government institutions endanger personal freedom, rather than protect them. This view dangerously exalts the individual over the needs of all individuals, over society itself.

These anti-CIA charges and beliefs amount to smoke and errors: The critical truth that Wikileaks ignores, and undermines, is that the CIA and the U.S. intelligence community are held accountable for all their acts and programs —including cyber penetration capabilities—by the country's laws and elected representatives in intelligence oversight committees in Congress; by incessant inspector general reviews of CIA operations and practices; by the laws of the land and the U.S. separation of the legislative, judicial and executive branches, and by placing budgetary control out of the hands of the institution itself. And, yes, also by a free press which recognizes the legitimacy of democratic controls on executive institutions, and does not set itself up as judge, jury and hangman, self-appointed representative of the general will. It is correct that the CIA on occasion has grievously erred: The CIA did torture; but it does not tap phones illegally; it never conducts espionage against American citizens; it is, in the end, always accountable before the law, which represents the will of the people. The allegation that the CIA—part of the "deep state"—is working to undermine the president by tapping his phones (made by the man sitting in the White House himself) are based upon the conspiracy theories of the fascistic, anti-democratic and profoundly un-American far right, which demonizes institutions of law and democracy in favor of, well, what in another country and time was referred to as the mythical volk—the "people," which, so goes the "theory," only the "leader" can represent. But, there is no "deep state." There are public institutions, responsive to and held accountable by, our elected representatives, our laws, and our separation of powers.

Nunez Undermines Faith in Government

The Wikileaks crisis and the denigration of the integrity of the U.S. system of government brings us to an even larger issue for the United States than the manipulations and lies of Wikileaks and Russian intelligence. The legitimacy of oversight, and of our government, is undermined when the legislative branch (and potentially the judicial branch) oversight process is no longer separate from the individuals it is intended to oversee or from the executive branch, when individuals charged with the oversight function take actions that destroy the separation of powers between the Congressional oversight function and the executive branch that guarantee our democracy.

Representative Devin Nunes, chairman of the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, briefs reporters at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on March 24. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, has undermined the integrity of the oversight process by serving as a buffer and surrogate for the White House in the investigation of White House involvement with Russian intelligence. His recent surreptitious trip to the "White House grounds" to receive—so he claims—intelligence on the investigation into the associations of members of the Trump entourage with Russian intelligence which—again, so he claims—he then briefed to the president but refuses to share with the House Intelligence Committee, has endangered the investigation, compromised the independence and impartiality of Congressional oversight of the Intelligence Community and executive branch. Worse still, his actions undermine the credibility of the separation of powers and the trustworthiness of the U.S. government. In comparison, the matter of Congressional oversight of the intelligence community fades to a secondary crisis. His shocking action surely constitutes a "high crime and misdemeanor" of official conduct calling for removal from office.

Nunes' actions, however, are part of the larger institutional, constitutional and even existential crisis in our government, of which the Wikileaks publication of the CIA's technical capabilities is only a small part. Caesar divorced his wife because her behavior had to be beyond even doubt; there is no doubt about what Devin Nunes has done. As a result, the arguments of the cynics and critics of American democracy and intelligence services seem to be proven: Our institutions, branches of government, and even democracy cannot be trusted.

So, the Wikileaks publication of what appear to be CIA cyber capabilities is a catastrophe. It weakens the CIA and endangers the safety of American citizens, and the capability of the state to protect American blood and treasure. Far worse, it plays into the narrative that erodes the institutions of and faith in representative democracy in favor of a mishmash of libertarian selfishness, Russian intelligence disinformation, and fascist-based hostility to the organs of government (actually emanating from the White House!), that sap the strength of the United States, and of democracy itself.

No, Wikileaks is not your friend.

Glenn Carle, a retired CIA officer, was deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats on the National Intelligence Council, responsible for the intelligence community's most senior terrorism analyses from 2003 to 2007, and author of The Interrogator, which detailed his involvement in the interrogation of one of the top members of Al-Qaeda.