Thursday, December 2, 2010

Owning the Problem–the WikiLeaks Issue

As a strategy advisor, I have been watching the WikiLeaks story break with interest and amusement.

The US Government, in typical government fashion, has gone on the offensive by portraying Julian Assange as a potential terrorist.  Interpol has issued an international arrest warrant for alleged sex offences he has committed.

And while the US Government announces almost hourly assessments of the alleged damage that Assange is creating, there are some other important elements that are intentionally being allowed to fall by the wayside.

For example:

1. The critical information that the US wishes to hide was all accessible by a single system.  Whoever made that decision should be publicly condemned. Rule #1 – if you want to make it complicated for people to obtain too many damaging pieces of information, don’t make them all accessible from one place.

2. US Government officials decided some time ago that they would allow a very broad audience to have access to these critical documents.  Whoever made that decision should also be publicly condemned. Rule #2 – if you want to keep secrets, then limit how many people have access to the information and make sure that the authorization level of those individuals is appropriate (accepting the fact that if more than one person knows something, the chances of it remaining a secret forever are slim).

3. US citizens, including military personnel, downloaded the information in bulk.  Rule #3 – if you are going to allow a lot of people to have access to this data anyway, you should at least track who is accessing this information and what they may be attempting to do with it based on what they are accessing.

4. Assume no one is your friend (including your own citizens) when it comes to safeguarding sensitive information.  Rule #4 – there is always someone out there with an agenda or who is willing to compromise their values if the price is right.

So US officials authorized and created a system that allowed US citizens with inappropriate authorization to download as many sensitive documents as they wished so that they could do whatever they wanted with them.

This is a staggeringly incompetent recipe for disaster – it’s just a matter of time before the disaster takes place.

Despite this, the US Government appears surprised and affronted that a non-US citizen who has no allegiance to the US, who has signed no oaths of secrecy with the US and who has a chip on his shoulder regarding US foreign policy has accepted this information from US citizens and presented it for the world to see.

In the minds of the US Government, all of those details are not important.  What is important to them is that they skewer the messenger when in fact, he couldn’t have done it without their help!

It reminds me of a couple of times in my Wall Street career when I and others came upon violations of federal regulations within Wall St. banks and notified the banks to that effect so that they could fix the issues quickly.

We didn’t receive thanks or attaboys (which we didn’t want anyway – we were just doing our job).  No one said “Hmmm, we better fix that right away”.

Instead, the response was usually “How dare you point this out?  Things were progressing quite smoothly until this was documented.”

That is when you learn that the violators knew all along and instead of owning and acknowledging that they had made an error, decided to brazen their way through the fact that a known but secret issue had been discovered.  You also discover that a common way around this “problem” in their mind is based on their belief that if the messenger is shot, then the problem will go away and everyone can return to “business as usual”.

Unfortunately, when leaders take the tact of bullying their way through such a situation, a key opportunity for learning is lost.

The learning opportunity that is missed is that if the people making the incorrect decisions had properly owned the problem in the first place, then they wouldn’t have to be dealing with the explosion that ensued as a result of their poor decision-making process.

Having created the original problem, they also miss the point that if they successfully bully their way through the situation, no learning takes place and the original, faulty decision-making process will probably continue.

Finally, what is not immediately apparent to them is that if one seeks to shoot the messenger, it in fact empowers the messenger and drives them to continue their course (perhaps with a greater sense of purpose than before).

There is a lot of noise around the information being released by Mr. Assange and his organization.  The moral, ethical and legal ramifications are best left to the analysts who love to over-analyze such things.

However, the US Government is forgetting (at least publicly) that had they owned the original problem correctly (that is, the control and access to such information), then Mr. Assange wouldn’t have been given the fuel to accomplish what he is now doing.

They are also forgetting that as long as they continue to publicly vilify him as the only source of the problem, they are fueling him to greater heights.

And unfortunately, as long as they forget how this all came to play in the first place, then they are doomed to repeat this process.

World leadership, like corporate leadership, requires people to make tough decisions and to admit when they make mistakes.  Until they admit them, they are doomed to keep making them.

If they repeat the mistakes that are unfolding right now, there may be lots to worry about in the future.

However, it will be their own fault for not having owned the problem and the appropriate solution in the first place.

In service and servanthood,



December 2, 2010:

In case one doesn’t believe that hubris gets in the way of learning (and thus causing us to repeat a problem), note this item from CNN on December 2, 2010:

The Pentagon has known for years that WikiLeaks could mean trouble when it came to publishing classified or secret information.

In 2008, the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Center and the Department of Defense wrote a 26-page threat assessment report about WikiLeaks, predicting "articles involving sensitive or classified DoD will most likely be posted to the Web site in the future."

That report, too, was classified.

But WikiLeaks got ahold of it and published it in the spring of this year.

It also reminds me of when a high ranking US military official told me in 1991 that one of the military’s greatest concerns regarding US national security was the possibility of commercial aircraft being taken over and used against public buildings.  Ten years later, we were “shocked and surprised”.

December 8, 2010:

As Mr. Assange finds himself in jail, his supporters have begun cyber attacks against Master Card and other organizations that have withdrawn their services from WikiLeaks.  Such reckless behavior affects many innocent people and starts additional “fires” that must be put out, providing a distraction that prevents people from solving core issues.

Regardless of whether a group like WikiLeaks sees itself as a modern day Robin Hood, when such actions are taken the self proclaimed protector of bullies becomes the bully, thus negating ANY hope that they may be perceived as any kind of champion for the people.  Hopefully, Mr. Assange will recognize the recklessness of his followers and will call upon them to cease and desist such disappointing behavior.

It is also a disturbing thing to realize how vulnerable we really are, that a small group of people can inflict so much damage so easily.  We have the technology to prevent such things – we just need the will to implement it.


  1. Nicely done, Harry. I think the key thing in the US reaction is the words that you put in parentheses, quoted below...

    "However, the US Government is forgetting (at least publicly) that had they owned the original problem correctly (that is, the control and access to such information), then Mr. Assange wouldn’t have been given the fuel to accomplish what he is now doing."

  2. Thanks, Jim!

    We need to stop acting like the total, unsuspecting victim. :-)

    Take care and create a great day!