‘Leaked document’ attack on Western credibility

Wikileaks’ Cablegate leaks provided valuable insight on the US war machine in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. The cache of documents also exposed many other legitimate interests of the state.

Edward Snowden revealed an unconstitutional NSA program that the public would have never known about otherwise. But his leaks also uncovered vast troves of legitimate intelligence gathering at great expense to the US taxpayer.

Both events, looked at through the lens of state power, appear different than from a domestic news perspective. While not questioning the accuracy of the content of the leaks, the positioning and timing of them appeared devised for maximum impact. Publicity, yes, but also a sense of crisis and embarrassment for the countries involved.

In an alternative reading of recent history, you can see the documents dumps by both Wikileaks and the Snowden camps as assaults on the credibility and standing of Western power. Certainly, that is how Russia would see them, even if in the West there would be a reflexive urge for reforms.

By 2016, the ‘leaked document’ / ‘documents leaked’ Google search term waves are unmistakably aggressive, employing some of the same channels and outlets. The Google chart linked below shows the term ‘leaked documents’ with a blue line and ‘documents leaked’ with a red line.

The first spike in 2010 is WikiLeaks’ Cablegate documents, the cache of State Department documents released to the world. The second spike, in 2013, is the Edward Snowden leaks of NSA documents. The third spike, is of course, WikiLeaks intervention (with Russian backing) in the US presidential election in 2016.

You can argue about the news legitimacy of the varying surges of “leaked documents” – but you can’t argue with the attention they captured. With a clear Russian hand in the latter two, the pattern is clear.

So why look at this now? Because it shows what a long-term effort is needed to use information to shift a democracy’s discussion. In this case, the leaks helped drive up distrust in the US government on top of the organic reasons for it.

But to see the real effect of this “leaked document” offensive, look at the geographical chart below. It makes sense that they appear in English-speaking countries, as the documents were in English. But when you consider the global reach of the disclosures from the State Department and the NSA, the interest-level within the US and Five Eyes partners, as reflected in search, is telling.

On this data looking back to 2004, there is remarkably little bleed-over into non-Five Eyes partners, which suggests the target for the information was always the alliance itself, especially in 2013 and 2016.