The Wikileaks Cables: Damaging more than reputations?

The damage to US and allied interests lies less in the embarrassment the leaked cables may have caused and more in the real intelligence they have provided to well-organised and sophisticated international terrorist groups.

By Valentina Soria for

Throughout the recent Wikileaks saga, Julian Assange and his whistleblowing organisation have maintained that they have acted entirely responsibly, culling from the leaked documentation any details that could jeopardise the national security of the United States or of any other country mentioned. There is nothing included in the cable traffic, they claim, that could assist a terrorist group targeting the US and its allies. But Washington is nevertheless considering the relocation of some of those named in the cables for their own safety. This applies not only to foreign contacts but to other high-profile figures who took part in sensitive meetings.[1]

What has not been publicly discussed so far, however, is what an international terrorist group could make of the collection of leaked documents as a whole. The measures taken by Wikileaks to ensure no lives are put at risk through the publication of leaked material does not prevent these documents from providing a significant amount of intelligence that would have been difficult or impossible for international terrorist groups to obtain otherwise.

Acutely aware of the need to maintain a responsible stance when discussing the Wikileaks affair, it is a matter of some sensitivity to point out the help the cache might potentially provide to terrorists. This analysis has looked at the detailed content of a number of the cables (in particular those graded as classified, classified/noforn, secret, secret/noforn) under seven categories of potential terrorist intelligence. It refers to the cables, however, only generically. 

Of the seven categories identified below, the first two have already been discussed in media and specialist comment. The other categories of potential security breaches have so far not been clearly identified.

Two Well-Publicized Security Breaches

The debate on how much damage Wikileaks may be doing has mainly focussed on the list of critical infrastructure facilities outlined in the US Secretary of State's cable of February 2009. The document identifies facilities in host countries around the world whose disruption or destruction 'would have a debilitating impact on the security, national economic security, national public health or safety' of the US. A cable transmitted by the US embassy in Stockholm a month later added Sweden's communication infrastructure and a local pharmaceutical manufacturing company to the critical infrastructure list. Wikileaks argued that the host countries had taken appropriate action to protect such sites, and stressed that, in any case, no specific locations had been provided.[2] It is not possible to verify directly the extent to which security measures to protect these sites have in fact been improved, but the removal of specific locations is meaningless.  Along with the name of the host country, the nature of the facility in question and the town where it is located are clearly specified in the cable. No professional terrorist cell would fail to identify the reconnaissance advantages provided by this.

The February 2009 cable is hardly the only potential target list available in the collection. Cables from Doha and Riyadh identified energy facilities in Qatar and Saudi Arabia that were critical to US supply and the sectors of US investment in Qatar that seek to maintain energy security, given the likelihood that around one third of Qatar's LNG productions could be destined for the US market by 2012. It would be no surprise to an international terrorist group that the Mesaieed port services, specifically, are a sensitive US facility, but disruption to it would also directly hinder the supply of vital equipment to US and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a likely knock-on effect on theatre-wide combat and airlift operations. The detail provided in the cables here easily compensates, by inference, for what Wikileaks may have taken out.

These details are accompanied by references to specific vulnerabilities and related protection. Two cables in particular provide a clear picture of poor protective measures in place around critical facilities in two troubled countries. The vulnerabilities of the Sangachal oil and gas terminal in Azerbaijan have already been widely discussed. A 2007 cable from the US embassy in Baku, for instance, revealed discussions between stakeholders to improve security around the terminal, offered operational details of protective measures in place and provided suggestions for ramping up security - suggestions that may or may not have been adopted.

Likewise, a 2010 cable from US diplomats in Sana'a raised alarm over Yemen's main radioactive materials storage site. It has been claimed that sensitive material has since been moved to a secure location,[3] but this missive suggests how relatively easy it might be for a terrorist organisation to get hold of Yemen's nuclear material given the generally poor security infrastructure in place.

A January 2009 communiqué from the US embassy in Madrid highlighted Spain's National Intelligence Centre report of 2006, which detailed many of the security measures around the country's nuclear facilities. Surveillance technologies adopted at the Cofrentes plant, following several past incidents, are extensively discussed, as are other measures designed specifically to protect nuclear reactors from sophisticated terrorist attacks. Such measures would have to be changed, or at the very least upgraded, following the Wikileaks affair.  

Inadvertent Leaks

As the possibility of a major terrorist attack on a Western city has increased, so discussions of likely sensitive targets and their recent security status have proliferated within the public domain. But five other categories of security breach can also be detected within these documents in ways that would make them of use to a reasonably well-organised international terrorist group.

Firstly, there is some material about diplomatic protection and surveillance methods that details the success of diplomatic security procedures in identifying potential terrorist behaviour before it becomes an overt threat. If a group is willing to learn from the mistakes of others, there is a significant amount of relevant material available from terrorist-sensitive countries such as Uzbekistan, Mali and India. Cables from countries not considered terrorist-sensitive also provide insight into diplomatic protection from the standard operating procedures. The US is reviewing and altering its procedures as a result, but the learning curve of the most professional terrorist groups and their ability to adapt has always been remarkable.

The cables also contain information on specific counter-terror measures and technologies employed in the protection of soft targets like stadia. In outlining ways of smuggling bomb-making materials through security, a 2008 cable transmitted from the US embassy in Beijing on the eve of the Olympics also described the kind of infrared technology which was to be used around the Olympic venues and other sensitive locations during the games. At the very least, it is a useful pointer for would-be terrorists on the way big events have defended themselves.

A third category concerns elements of diplomatic discretion, providing valuable indirect information for potential terrorist planning, and jeopardising counter-terrorist activities in a number of countries working with the United States.  There is a 2009 diplomatic security 'daily report', which provides information on counter-terrorist surveillance activities carried out on terrorist suspects in India. A similar report from 2008 details the Maldivian Police's efforts to investigate Al-Qa'ida associates' activities in that country.  A 2010 cable from the US embassy in Riyadh similarly focused on the monitoring activities carried out by Saudi Arabia's security services to keep track of Al-Qa'ida operatives based in Yemen, while another by US diplomats in Abu Dhabi explained the counter-measures adopted to uncover terrorists who used different aliases or passports to enter or exit the country undetected.

Similarly sensitive is a 2009 cable from the US embassy in Brasília, which made reference to a limited presence of Al Qa'ida operatives in the country who were known to have been involved in logistics, reconnaissance and recruitment support to terrorists.

Not insignificant is the information concerning the nature and substance of counter-terrorist co-operation between the US and unstable countries like Yemen. Cables transmitted by the US embassy in Sana'a, for instance, provide terms and conditions of US-Yemeni intelligence cooperation, with one, sent only months ago, detailing the kind of weapons to be provided by the US and employed by Yemeni security forces.

Furthermore, many of these documents reveal an approximate, yet somehow regular, pattern of diplomatic visits by US high-level representatives to specific countries within a region. In some regions a certain diplomatic tempo of visits is indicated as well as the stream of countries normally on the diplomatic itinerary.  

Finally, these cables often provide the names of individuals in charge of counter-terrorism and intelligence in countries partnering the US in the campaign against terrorism. Although it is true, as Wikileaks claims, that most of them are already publicly known to hold sensitive positions, at least three individuals are newly identified as working in countries where terrorist groups are known to operate.  

The sheer volume and nature of this documentation is virtually impossible to edit to the point where it provides no potential assistance to the enemies of the United States or some of its allies. Essentially amateur or local terrorist cells do not generally work at this level of sophistication and would find the material unrewarding. But well-organised, staffed and sophisticated international terrorist organisations will already have pored over this material, and it is difficult to believe that they will not find it helpful. It is also difficult to avoid the conclusion that the revelations in these documents will force the United States, and others, to yet again change their security systems and try to defend themselves in new ways.


The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI


[1] Catherine Philp , 'US to relocate Informants Named in WikiLeaks Cables', The Times, 8 January 2011

[2] Alexi Mostrous 'Fifty per cent of People See Me as a Hero, not a Villain, Says WikiLeaks Founder', The Times, 21 December 2010

[3] 'WikiLeaks: Yemen Radioactive Security so Poor, Material Could Fall into the Wrong Hands', The Daily Telegraph, 20 December 2010


Valentina Soria

Associate Fellow

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