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The State Department & the ‘Chilling Effect’ Caused by Bradley Manning’s Release of Diplomatic Cables

Patrick Kennedy in the courtroom during the Manning trial. by Deb Van Poolen / Used with permission.

The greatest purported damage caused by WikiLeaks’ disclosure of over two hundred and fifty thousand United States Embassy cables has been the “chilling effect” the release caused, according to witnesses from the State Department who have testified in the sentencing phase of Pfc. Bradley Manning’s trial.

Manning, who was found guilty of nineteen offenses related to his disclosures to WikiLeaks, possibly faces twelve years in prison because of his decision to provide a cache of 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.

Under Secretary of State of Management, Patrick Kennedy, testified, “These disclosures had a chilling effect on foreign officials,” government and non-government, who “engage in frank discussion with us.” He also maintained that the State Department has had situations in which individuals have felt they “don’t have the same ability to engage in the level of full and frank discussion” prior to the disclosures.

This “chilling effect that will go on for some time,” Kennedy stated. “People have long memories.”

Military judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, asked Kennedy about this “chilling effect” and how frequently it had been felt. Kennedy told her it was a “relatively small number of people actually expressing it, but more of our colleagues have a sense that dialogue” is not “as full as it was before.” There’s a feeling diplomats are “not getting the kind of exchanges they had before WikiLeaks.”

The judge followed up asking when these “feelings” were expressed. Were they in 2011? Were they in 2012? Were they in 2013?

Kennedy replied that he believed they started in 2010 but that “colleagues abroad are still feeling” this chilling effect.” He also said, it is “impossible to know what someone is not sharing with you, and that is in itself I believe a risk to national security.”

How much should some speculative “chilling effect” factor in to Manning’s sentence, especially if only a few diplomats have expressed this feeling of being “chilled?”

Former State Department employee and whistleblower, Peter Van Buren, recalled from his time at the department that there was concern about a “chilling effect,” but that the focus was on “more hardcore” effects caused by the leak, such as people picked up by secret police and thrown out by a local legislator.

Van Buren suggested the fact that the State Department had settled on “chilling effect” as the greatest purported damage was because they could not find much specific damage over time so they fell back on this overarching idea of a “chilling effect.”

Of course, how can the State Department demonstrate this “chilling effect” is a result of WikiLeaks? How can they show that what is, perhaps, affecting relations with various countries has anything to do with something that happened two or three years ago?

The State Department had a formal response to the publishing of cables starting on November 28, 2010, that, according to testimony by Kennedy before a Senate committee in March 2011, included establishing a 24/7 WikiLeaks Working group “composed of senior officials from throughout the Department, notably our regional bureaus,” creating a group to “review potential risks to individuals [the WikiLeaks Persons at Risk group] and suspending access to the cables from the secret Defense Department network of which Manning had access.”

A draft damage assessment that was the result of all the various bureaus and missions in the State Department reviewing the material reached Kennedy’s desk in August 2011. He did not sign off on the report as a completed assessment because at that time a “second major tranche of documents” that were diplomatic cables moved into the press. Kennedy said it became clear that the draft damage assessment was a “snapshot based on earlier material, which was certainly not comprehensive when you took material that was published and then added to it that second major tranche that was about to be released.” He also claimed the “second tranche” had a larger percentage of classified material than the “first tranche.”

The defense pressed Kennedy on the fact that, after the release of the rest of the cache of cables in August, the State Department did not update the report or put together an additional report. David Coombs, Manning’s civilian defense attorney, wondered if it was possible the State Department would miss damage if the “snapshot” was not being updated.

Kennedy suggested that it was “very labor intensive activity” to engage in damage assessment. He contended that “damage” continues to “roll on.”

When Coombs asked if there should be a final damage assessment in order for State Department to have an official position on the damage, Kennedy responded that snapshots were not valuable tools when there was ongoing damage. [cont’d.]

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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