Elizabeth Dibble. Pic by C. Stoeckley.

Pfc. Bradley Manning, who was recently found guilty of nineteen offenses related to his disclosures to WikiLeaks, faces a possible twelve years in prison because of his decision to provide a cache of over 250,000 US State Embassy cables to the media organization. He could be put in prison for ten years for stealing the cables and two years for exceeding authorized access on his computer.

It is also possible that any evidence on the cables could influence how much time he is sentenced to prison for the offense of “wantonly” causing to be published information on the Internet, which carries a maximum punishment of two years in prison.

Lead diplomats in the State Department have been taking the stand to testify in the sentencing phase of Manning’s trial, but the State Department and military prosecutors have ensured none of them have to share specifics in open court about what damage or harm they think Manning’s disclosure of diplomatic cables had on US diplomacy.

Elizabeth Dibble, a career foreign service officer and former principal deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs for the State Department, took the stand as a government witness in Manning’s sentencing on Thursday. She testified vaguely about US diplomatic operations but the cross-examination stayed away from specifics related to what happened to the State Department after WikiLeaks began to publish diplomatic cables. She spoke about what specifically may have happened in a closed session.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary John Feeley of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs took the stand after Dibble. Feeley was more candid in his views about the role of US diplomacy in the Western Hemisphere, which includes Canada, Mexico and Central America and South America. He talked about tension with the Bolivarian alliance for countries of our America, ALBA, which consists of Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia. He characterized them as “hostile to US interests as far as regarding human rights and freedom of the press,” and said they “tend to exhibit tendencies of extreme government centralization under the executive branch.” Also, diplomatic relations are difficult but “characterized by extreme rhetoric,” but he saved specifics on the impact Manning’s disclosures had on relations with Ecuador and Mexico for a closed session.

The State Department could declassify some of the cable Manning released and some of the information related to those cables to provide a few concrete examples to the public of how they think Manning actually harmed US diplomacy or foreign policy. It, however, has chosen to cling to secrecy and not present evidence so the public could see why the State Department fervently supports the prosecution of Bradley Manning.

Peter Van Buren, a whistleblower who worked for the State Department until being forced to leave because he linked to a cable published by WikiLeaks on Libya on his personal blog, told Firedoglake he believes the department “overvalues its reporting.” That is the “psychology” or “internal culture” and it prevents them from admitting some of their attitude toward the material is overwrought.

“The State Department did go absolutely insane,” Van Buren said. The release of cables “caused great panic,” however, he questioned how much damage could have actually been done because of the way classification works.

Cables are classified “Top Secret” if they could cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security. They are classified “Secret” if they “could be expected to cause serious damage” to national security. They are classified “Confidential” if the release could be expected to cause “damage” to national security.

“No cable is sent without at least three levels of review (drafter, clearer(s) and approver, though for some very senior people all three might be the same person),” according to Van Buren. If something was classified “Confidential,” two people would check to see that classification was correct. A classification level would always be upgraded if there was doubt about what could happen.

None of the cables disclosed by Manning were classified “Top Secret.” As Van Buren said, “Absent ‘exceptional grave damage,’ whatever was disclosed does not seem [to be] worth a young man’s life.”

Manning’s defense confronted Dibble and Feeley with the following statement, which then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered in a Pentagon briefing right after the cables began to be published:

“Let me just offer some perspective as somebody who’s been at this a long time. Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time. And I dragged this up the other day when I was looking at some of these prospective releases. And this is a quote from John Adams: ‘How can a government go on, publishing all of their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not. To me, it appears as dangerous and pernicious as it is novel.’

“Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments — some governments — deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.

“So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another.

“Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.’’

Dibble told the court that made a “good soundbite” but she disagreed that the US government leaks like a sieve. She also said she did not agree calling the release a “game-changer” was “overwrought” or that nations do not deal with the US because the government agrees to keep their secrets.

Asked about Gates’ statement, Feeley said he disagreed with the part about trust. He did not agree that some deal with the US “because they need” the US. He was then asked if America was still an “indispensable nation.” To which Feeley responded that he believed that was changing. The world was moving from a unipolar to a multipolar world where power—diplomatic, economic, financial or military—was “more diffuse” and no longer heavily concentrated in the United States.

Both, however, agreed that countries deal with us because they respect the US, which Van Buren said is simply not true. “Oftentimes the most intense diplomacy is with people unsympathetic to the United States.” For example, the US has “very, very busy diplomatic operations in China, Russia and Venezuela.” Those countries do not particularly like America.

Again, the State Department could have released some of the material, but, just as it fought the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) when the organization sought to have cables declassified through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for their cases, the State Department still wishes to maintain control over information that is still to be treated as “secret” to them, even though they are widely available for the public to utilize however they might like to utilize them.

It is worth recounting some of the comments made right when the cables began to be published.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in a press conference on November 29, 2010:

Let’s be clear: this disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests…. I am confident that the partnerships that the Obama administration has worked so hard to build will withstand this challenge.  I will not comment on or affirm on what are alleged to be stolen US state department cables. But I can say that the US deeply regrets the disclosure of discussions that were meant to be confidential…. I want to make clear that our policy is not set in these messages but here in Washington. [emphasis added]

Clinton publicly stated that the release would not cause irreparable harm or damage to any efforts by President Barack Obama’s administration.

The Secretary of State even said the same day, “I can tell you that in my conversations, at least one of my counterparts said to me, ‘Well, don’t worry about it. You should see what we say about you.'”

PJ Crowley, who was the State Department spokesperson at the time, told the press on December 1, 2010 that America’s embassies around the world were in touch with civil society and human rights activists named in the cables. He was asked, “Have you made any offers of asylum? Are you prepared to make offers of asylum to people who might be put at risk? Crowley answered, “We are prepared to help protect people, if necessary. I’m not aware that that has become necessary, but that is something that we are prepared to do.”

As spokesperson, Crowley was willing to say individuals in “authoritarian societies” were now at risk, but that statement appeared to be hype because it was not necessary to help any specific persons at risk get out of any country to safety. (Note: Later, it was reported an Ethiopian journalist may have had to flee because he was named in a cable. I covered that here.)

In Bahrain on December 3, Clinton further stated, “Some of the analysis that has been done with the information that has been made available through these leaks has basically concluded there’s not much news… There’s no big revelation; it’s the day-to-day work of what diplomats all around the world do.”

Should the State Department really be allowed to have it both ways? The cables cannot be details of “day-to-day-work” that are no big deal and yet also put individuals or foreign relations at great risk. If there is risk, than that becomes a “big revelation.” Of course, this was the ploy of the State Department to get the world to not pay attention but also fear for the State Department’s well-being.

Additionally, back in December 2010, if one recalls, America and its diplomats were considered by some to be “winners” because of the release of cables.

Foreign Policy wrote on December 1, “How do you go from being the targeted victim of an unprecedented information attack to being the victor? Simple: Be revealed to have been working hard behind the scenes to do the right thing. The United States is as imperfect as any nation and guilty of countless missteps as the past decade has shown with great clarity. But if there is one over-arching message to the Wiki-spill it is that for the most part, in most places U.S. diplomats and senior officials have been doing an admirable job.”

This was how a number of individuals in America reacted to what they read in the cables. They thought this showed diplomats were just doing their jobs (which begged the question why they had remained classified).

Finally, previously I addressed some of the claims by Crowley on the impact of the cables. That can be read here.


Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."