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WikiLeaks files detail U.S. electronic surveillance

Included in today's leak of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables: U.S. ordered surveillance of U.N. leaders, and China's Politburo ordered penetration of Google's network.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
5 min read

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered clandestine surveillance of United Nations leadership, including obtaining "security measures, passwords, personal encryption keys, and types of VPN versions used" and biometric information, according to a secret directive made public today by WikiLeaks.org.

The July 2009 directive issued under Clinton's name, which also asks for details about "information systems, networks, and technologies used by top officials and their support staffs," sheds rare light on the shadowy world of government espionage.

That classified dispatch is part of a massive document dump, about 250,000 diplomatic cables, that began appearing on the Internet this morning. WikiLeaks provided the files in advance to news organizations including Germany's Der Spiegel and Spain's El Pais and has said it would wait before releasing the cables on its own Web site. (See related CNET articles about a reported attack on WikiLeaks and a Congressman's effort to classify WikiLeaks as a terrorist organization.)

Another disclosure from the files: China's Politburo ordered the electronic intrusions into Google's computer network that became public in January, prompting the company to rethink its Chinese operations, according to what a Chinese contact told the U.S. embassy. (China denied the charges.)

That intrusion was reportedly conducted by a combination of government hackers and private security experts, who reportedly also targeted U.S. government computers, those of the Dalai Lama, and other American companies. Some of the companies that previously been named as victims include Yahoo, Symantec, Northrop Grumman, and Dow Chemical, and Adobe Systems has confirmed a "sophisticated, coordinated attack" against its corporate network.

The files appear to have originated from the U.S. Defense Department's SIPRNET, which is used for exchanging information up to the secret level and is jointly administered by the NSA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Defense Information Systems Agency.

SPIRNET itself stands for Secret IP Router Network. In July, Pfc. Bradley Manning was charged with obtaining "more than 150,000 diplomatic cables" in violation of the law and is suspected of being WikiLeaks' source.

WikiLeaks has already been the target of sometimes-strident denunciations from Washington officialdom after releasing confidential military dispatches from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Washington Times and a former Bush administration official suggested WikiLeaks.org as the first public target for a U.S. government cyberattack, a Republican senator proposed a law targeting WikiLeaks, and conservative commentators have called for WikiLeaks front man Julian Assange to be arrested. (Sweden has issued an international arrest warrant for Assange's arrest, which has been upheld by an appeals court on sexual assault charges. He denies the allegations.)

Today's release is likely to ratchet up the rhetoric even more. "Leaking the material is deplorable," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told Fox News today before the documents had even become public. "I agree with the Pentagon's assessment that people at WikiLeaks could have blood on their hands."

And in a statement, the White House said: "These cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world. To be clear--such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government."

Update 7:30 p.m. PT: The Cablegate.Wikileaks.org Web site is up, though the group says "the embassy cables will be released in stages over the next few months." In another poke at the U.S. government, WikiLeaks is using Seattle-based Tableau Software, a visualization company that grew out of a Defense Department project, to host some of the files. The New York Times, which claims it did not get the files directly from WikiLeaks but honored the embargo, has posted an interesting exchange between Assange and the U.S. embassy in London. The Obama administration never asked the NYT not to publish. And here's one intriguing document highlighted by the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper: At least as of mid-2009, Israel believed it had until December 2010 to attack Iran's suspected nuclear facilities.

Update 9 p.m. PT: Australia is investigating whether today's release violated its laws. (Assange has an Australian passport.) The Guardian newspaper says it gave a copy of the WikiLeaks cables (received in August) to The New York Times. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley addressed the data-collection order in a Twitter message that said: "Diplomats collect information that shapes our policies and actions. Diplomats for all nations do the same thing."

Update 11:20 a.m. PT Monday: Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" this morning. Here's what he said when asked about the implications of declaring WikiLeaks to be a terrorist organization:

KING: Let me tell you, first of all, the benefit of that is we would be able to seize their assets and we'd be able to stop anyone from helping them in any way, whether it's making contributions, giving free legal advice or whatever. It would also, I believe, strengthen the secretary of state's hand in dealing with foreign nations as far as trying to get them extradited, trying to get them to take action against them.

Either we're serious about this or we're not. And I know people may think this is a bit of a stretch, but I analogize this to the RICO statute, where they had a pretty narrow definition of criminal enterprise in the beginning. By now that's been expanded quite a bit to deal with contemporary problems.

I think if we're going to live in this -- in this world -- in this technological world where information can be disseminated so quickly, we have to be serious and take firm, strong action against those who are putting American lives at risk. Because this will put people's lives at risk. [...]

SCARBOROUGH: But you know you can't -- you can't designate them a terror outfit.

KING: Oh, Joe, I mean, we have to -- I don't think we should write that off that quickly and say we can't do it. I mean, they are assisting in terrorist activity. The information they are giving is being used by Al Qaida. It's being used by our enemies.