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Yet the sheer scale of the recent breach transcended the impact of any one leak. Government officials often joke that they should write nothing down that they do not want to read on the next day's front page, but they do not usually behave as though they believe it. Now, says former U.S. ambassador Christopher Hill, several of whose cables from Baghdad were published, "the hazard is so broad, so systemic, it will have an effect on the communications system in and of itself." The broadcast of a cable in which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spelled out his fears about Iran, Hill says, ensures that "Maliki will not want to talk quite as loquaciously to the next ambassador."
Assange's declared efforts at "harm minimization," which involved removing some names from the documents, left many identifying details intact. Helmut Metzner, fired from his role as chief of staff to the German Foreign Minister, was the first known career casualty, after a leaked cable from the U.S. embassy attributed confidential information about German political talks to "a young, up-and-coming party loyalist who was taking notes." Though unnamed, an Iranian businessman, an Algerian journalist and a Chinese academic who gave sensitive information to U.S. officials were also thought to be identifiable and at risk of retribution. The Obama Administration, a senior official says, has quietly begun relocating vulnerable sources as well as intelligence officers who may be identifiable by rival services.
Assange, for his part, has generally dismissed assertions that lives are at risk, though he told the New Yorker he is prepared to accept "blood on our hands." When Aftergood asked him, in an e-mail exchange, whether he would publish the names and schools of children of U.S. officials, Assange replied in the abstract. Harms to innocents "tend to affect isolated individuals," he said, while the benefits of disclosure "affect systems of policy, planning [and] governance and through them the lives of all."
The worst or best, in the view of advocates for radical transparency could be yet to come. John Young, a New York City architect who left the WikiLeaks steering committee after clashing with Assange, says the group members are storing "a lot more information underground than they are publishing on the surface." Some of it comes from a hacker-on-hacker sting in 2006, when data jockeys at WikiLeaks detected what they believed to be a large-scale intelligence operation to steal data from computers around the world. The intruders were using TOR, an anonymous browsing technology invented by the U.S. Navy, to tunnel into their targets and extract information. The WikiLeaks team piggybacked on the operation, recording the data stream in real time as the intruders stole it.
In an encrypted e-mail dated Jan. 7, 2007, decrypted and made available to TIME by its recipient, one of the participants boasted, "Hackers monitor chinese and other intel as they burrow into their targets, when they pull, so do we. Inxhaustible supply of material?... We have all of pre 2005 afghanistan. Almost all of india fed. Half a dozen foreign ministries. Dozens of political parties and consulates, worldbank, apec, UN sections, trade groups."
The theft scandalized some WikiLeaks insiders, and Assange has held back from publishing most of its fruits. But shortly before his arrest in London, he issued a veiled threat that "comes straight out of cypherpunk fiction," according to Christopher Soghoian, a well-known security researcher.
Last July, it turns out, as controversy erupted over its release of the Afghanistan war logs, WikiLeaks had posted, without explanation, a 1.4-gigabyte encrypted file called "insurance.aes256." Some 100,000 people around the world have downloaded it. On Dec. 3, Assange said in an online chat with readers of the Guardian newspaper that the file contains the entire diplomatic archive, most of which has yet to be released, and additional "significant material from the U.S. and other countries." He added, "If something happens to us, the key parts will be released automatically."
That cryptographic dead man's switch, poised to launch a missile of payload unknown, made for a fitting close to Julian Assange's year. Whatever his fate in courts British, Swedish or American, he had built a machine that no one knew how to stop and loosed it on the world. "I don't think this is a practice or a culture that will change," says Jennifer Robinson, one of his lawyers. "Julian has really started something. By taking him out, they're not going to stop it."
With reporting by Eben Harrell / Stockholm
Clarification: The original version of the story included a quote by Louis Klarevas of New York University's Center for Global Affairs but did not indicate where it ran. The source was a piece by Klarevas on TheAtlantic.com.
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