The US Department of State took extraordinary steps to limit harm to foreign relations and individuals after an army private allegedly sent more than 250,000 classified diplomatic cables to the secret-sharing Web site WikiLeaks, two agency officials testified at a court-martial hearing.
One group of up to 25 high-ranking officials worked around the clock to try to get ahead of the problem before WikiLeaks began publishing the leaked cables on Nov. 28, 2010, said Rena Bitter, director of the agency’s operations center.
She said another working group tried to identify people around the world who might be put at risk by the disclosures that authorities blame on PFC Bradley Manning, who is charged with causing the biggest intelligence leak in US history.
A third team focused on improving computer security, said Marguerite Coffey, former director of the agency’s management policy office. She testified that the agency’s Foreign Affairs Manual “didn’t contain a word such as ‘thumb drive’ — but now it does.”
Manning is charged with knowingly aiding al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula by causing WikiLeaks to publish the diplomatic cables, more than 500,000 classified war logs and some sensitive video clips. Authorities say the 24-year-old Crescent, Oklahoma, native downloaded the files from a Defense Department network while working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010.
The Department of State officials testified on Thursday in a military courtroom at Fort Meade during a pretrial hearing for Manning, an intelligence analyst charged with 22 offenses, including aiding the enemy.
The officials were called as defense witnesses to help Manning’s lawyers find documents that they hope will show the disclosures did little harm.
The witnesses did not reveal anything about the extent of damage caused by the WikiLeaks disclosures, but their testimony provided a rare glimpse inside the Department of State in crisis mode.
Bitter said the “24-7 working group” was established in late November 2010 and disbanded about Dec. 17, three weeks after WikiLeaks posted the cables. By then, the group was working 12 to 18 hours a day, but still providing situation reports as often as twice a day, she said.
The “WikiLeaks Persons-at-Risk Working Group” involved officials from 12 to 15 Department of State bureaus, Bitter testified. It was created, she said, because “it was difficult to find a mechanism that already existed to deal with the issues” raised by the massive leak.
On the day before the cables were published, the Department of State released a letter it had sent to WikiLeaks frontman Julian Assange, warning that publication would “place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals” and threaten military operations and international cooperation.
In January last year, the Department of State said it had identified several hundred people thought to be at risk, and that a few had been moved to safer locations.
Another Department of State witness, Deputy Assistant Secretary Catherine Brown, said diplomats could continue to be affected by WikiLeaks’ publication of their unvarnished assessments of foreign governments and leaders.
“I would think we would continue to see reporting of damage from WikiLeaks conceivably for many years to come,” she said.
The US government claimed the disclosures endangered lives and security.