Established in 1988, Al Qaeda emerged as the prototype adversary of the United States in the 1990s. Unlike traditional belligerents in the twentieth century, Al Qaeda was a non-state actor. While initially guided strategically and ideologically by Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda is now essentially leaderless. Al Qaeda endures as a decentralized network of autonomous affiliates operating independently. As demonstrated by the attacks on September 11, 2001, in the United States, and on March 11, 2004, in Spain, Al Qaeda establishes focused strategic aims and then explores and employs the most effectual tactics available, usually small teams relying on unsophisticated or improvised technology. Lastly, Al Qaeda presents a specific narrative across a wide variety of media (especially the Internet) that galvanizes its intended (and immeasurable) audience while simultaneously confounding its adversary as to countermeasures. In its present configuration, Al Qaeda constitutes a networked insurgency capable of striking globally and premised on subverting the prevailing international order.
With the attacks of September 11, Osama bin Laden sought to provoke a conflict between the West, led by the United States, and the Islamic world. Bin Laden wagered America would retreat or lead (what would appear to be) a Western assault against Islamism. If the former occurred, bin Laden would begin toppling Arab regimes abandoned in the wake of America’s withdrawal. If the latter happened, a war would be propagandized as a call to jihad, as it had been during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, ensnaring another superpower in a debilitating Central Asian quagmire. Either way, bin Laden believed the ensuing conflagration would end successfully in favor of militant Islam and permit the re-establishment of the Caliphate.
Where bin Laden erred was in attacking the entirety of the American polity - the citizenry, its elites, and its government.
Insurgency theory holds that insurgencies succeed by separating the targeted population from the governing entity. In targeting a “global” population of like minded individuals, attacking the international system’s hegemonic entity (e.g. the United States) makes sense. However, the international system is still an anarchic system -- the United States may be the hegemon, but it is not a global sovereign authority. In this regard, attacking all components of the governing entity -- its government and its citizenry -- only ensured the entire American polity would unite in favor of retaliation.
Moreover, an attack on the entire polity precludes opportunities to garner sympathy among the American citizenry. In Europe, Hamas and Hezbollah have succeeded in winning support from segments of the population sympathetic to Palestinian aspirations. Instead, the scale of bloodshed only unifies the country, ensuring support for retribution was universally supported. FN1
Like Al Qaeda, Wikileaks is an assemblage of networked insurgents; its preferred domain is cyberspace and employs information and its’ release as a weapon in itself.
However, the recent Wikileaks gambit was far more sophisticated. In contrast to Al Qaeda, Wikileaks targeted the US government as a distinct entity from the American people.
According to current polling demonstrates, the American public is at odds with -- if not outright alienated from -- the nation’s political elite: “sixty-nine percent (69%) of the political class believe the United States is generally heading in the right direction, while 78% of mainstream voters think the country is going down the wrong track.”
The divergence marks a culmination of the American public’s skepticism that first emerged after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. During those episodes, the American public discovered the government was restricting information not to protect national interests but to conceal illicit activities. The means by which the American public learned about such lies -- the leaking of the Pentagon Papers and tips from Deep Throat -- established the moral precedent for divulging confidential government information.
Wikileaks attempts to capitalize on this precedent by asserting the release of government secrets are undertaken in the name of “safely getting the truth out” and greater transparency.
To date, the release of confidential diplomatic information has not resulted in the deaths of any American citizens. As such, the public do not necessarily share the government’s urgency in addressing the challenge posed by Wikileaks and the public’s disapproval has varied.
According to a December 2010 Washington Post-ABC News poll, younger Americans, more accustomed to the unbounded transparency afforded by the Internet, have even signaled less disapproval. More pointedly, the broader public is more accepting when the released documentation concerns current US military operations.
While the American public have generally disapproved of the Wikileaks release, the reaction has hardly been as vociferous or unanimous as that of the post-September 11 response.
Except, Mr. Assange is not interested in greater transparency: “our goal [is not] to achieve a more transparent society; it's our goal to achieve a more just society."
Ultimately, Mr. Assange’s aim is the collapse of the American government.
As interpreted by Berkeley blogger Aaron Bady, Mr. Assange believes the American government constitutes a conspiracy and to emasculate it, one has to corrupt the sources of information on which it relies. The conspiracy only thrives by possessing and assessing information in excess of the common citizenry’s capabilities. By releasing the sequestered information, Mr. Assange expects a conspiracy to respond by limiting flows of information in and out of its domain. If Mr. Assange and Wikileaks can successfully leak more information, then the conspiracy's suspicions will rise as its confidence declines in existing information, leading the conspiracy to place even more restrictions on information flows. Inevitably, the conspiracy collapses as it has less and less access to reliable information and becomes incapable of responding to changing conditions.
Has the American government defied Mr. Assange's expectations?
In the immediate wake of the Wikileaks disclosures, agency leaders directed government employees to refrain from accessing or reading the leaked documentation outside of a classified network. The step essentially deprived government employees of knowledge now freely available to common citizens as well as foreigners.
More broadly, the Obama Administration’s Office of Management and Budget issued a memorandum on 01/03/2011, directing agencies to assess information security policies by 01/28. The guidance recommended due diligence more reflective of intelligence community security practices, such as identifying potential “insider threats,” detecting “behavioral changes”, measuring “trustworthiness,” and using psychiatrists and sociologists to monitor happiness and grumpiness (PDF PG 9).
As Steven Aftergood at Secrecy News noted, the net effect is “a kind of evolutionary pressure” on the government. Because Wikileaks has greater success acquiring information from government agencies with lax security, like the military services, versus those with robust protocols, like the intelligence community, the government will respond to the breach by make the Army more like the CIA.
By failing to understand Mr. Assange’s intentions, the American government is unwittingly playing into his hands by having government agencies to emulate the CIA.
Acknowledged, the agency has been the foundation of American intelligence activities since 1945 and has been responsible for a variety of celebrated -- and uncelebrated -- triumphs. However, the agency has also been responsible for a number of American foreign policy disasters.
In the aftermath of recent intelligence failures, such as the failure to anticipate the attacks on September 11 or the misjudgment of Iraqi weapons programs, American political leaders have undertaken comprehensive reforms to address key deficiencies, such as the dearth of information sharing or lack of accountability.
However, authorizing greater data-sharing or naming a government-wide director will not improve intelligence.
As Robert Jervis of Columbia University demonstrates in his latest book, Why Intelligence Fails, improved intelligence would actually be less determinate and more qualified in its conclusions. More critically, Jervis asserts "better intelligence would not have led to an effective policy," an argument he acknowledges is "psychologically disturbing and politically unacceptable" because improved intelligence would entail greater uncertainty than is currently appreciated and would shift the responsibility for future failures to the elected political leadership.
In short, by seeking to apply information security policies practiced by the intelligence community, the US government will become more insular, beginning the vicious circle desired by Mr. Assange.
Mr. Assange's approach should not have been all that unfamiliar to American leaders.
Mr. Assange’s recognition an entity is only as potent as its access to information echoies US Air Force COL John Boyd's insights on warfare. COL Boyd elaborated on how an entity's ability to survive amidst uncertainty depends on the continuous flow of information and the ability to process and interpret information at a tempo greater than any adversary. Above all, COL Boyd emphasized an organization should be agile and adaptive and should concurrently deny an adversary an opportunity to be agile and adaptive in response.
COL Boyd’s genius influenced many, principally those in the military, but unfortunately, he was considered a maverick and he languishes in obscurity save for the keepers of his flame within the U.S. Marine Corps and pockets of national security intellectuals. Outside the military, very few in America’s elites are aware of his insights and the importance of organizational adaptability.
And it shows.
According to Walter Russell Mead, Editor-at-Large of The American Interest magazine, the nation has everything necessary for success in the twenty-first century with one exception – “a critical mass of thinkers, analysts and policy entrepreneurs who can help unleash the creative potential of the American people and build the new government and policy structures that will facilitate a new wave of private-sector led growth.”
Mead asserts the greatest challenge is not the nation's gargantuan debt or changes in the international security environment, but the inability of the nation's leading intellectuals and professionals to divest themselves of outmoded social models.
After vividly dissecting their “reactionary” posture, Mead closes witheringly:
Those who run our government agencies, our universities, our foundations, our mainstream media outlets and other key institutions cannot at this point look the future in the face. The world is moving in ways so opposed to their most hallowed assumptions that they simply cannot make sense of it. They resist blindly and uncreatively and, unable to appreciate the extraordinary prospects for human liberation that this change can bring, they are incapable of creative and innovative response.
Such is the disposition that leads a nation from “the strongest it has ever been” to unprecedented impotence and vulnerability in the face of a single individual's hostile intent.
Instead of fulfilling Mr. Assange’s predictions, American elites should be exploring how to harness the full power of the technological revolution in the name of rationalizing the state, maximizing information flows of all kinds, opening up once-closed services, and cultivating the next wave of leaders.
Is their cause for optimism in the next generation?
Mr. Assange’s antics may have closed 2010, but the year belonged to Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, according to Time magazine.
As has been ubiquitously reported, Zuckerberg’s Facebook phenomenon now features 550 million members, one of every twelve people in the world. While Facebook also contends privacy and transparency-related controversies, Zuckerberg emphasizes not alleged conspiracies or ossified elites, but trust and its possibilities:
"We're trying to map out what exists in the world. In the world, there's trust. I think as humans we fundamentally parse the world through the people and relationships we have around us. So at its core, what we're trying to do is map out all of those trust relationships...”
Aspiring American leaders devoted to ensuring an American government ready for the twenty-first century could do no better than to attempt the same.
FN1 In this regard, Al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11 was equivalent to Nazi Germany’s Operation Barbarossa. Nazi obesiance to theories of racial superiority prevailed over opportunities to win over an oppressed Soviet population. The 9/11 attacks, like Operation Barbarossa, were also inspired by a fantasy ideology and ignored the prevailing strategic reality.
Furthermore, while Osama bin Laden succeeded in inspiring insurgents around the world and the United States has sacrificed extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States is manifestly distinct from the Soviet Union. An economically vibrant democracy, the United States will survive where an economically sclerotic Soviet autocracy could not. Even if the United States withdraws from Afghanistan without achieving its objectives, any future attacks of the same design would only spur a more determined re-engagement.