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Arms and Secrecy: What You Don't Know About the Wikileaks Fallout

The Wikileaks document dump may hinder efforts to halt -- or at least monitor -- illicit weapons traffickers around the globe.

No one deals more weapons to the rest of the world than we do. During 2008 alone, the United States drummed up an extraordinary $37.8 billion in arms-transfer agreements, largely benefiting key allies in Africa and the Middle East.

But America may also do more than virtually any other country to keep track of its weapons, as well as halt – or at least actively monitor – bad actors and rogue governments seeking to obtain deadly devices.

Details about that global arms trade are emerging in thousands of classified documents unleashed on three major occasions this year by the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks, including the State Department cables now making daily headlines.

The suddenly available and unregulated information has Matt Schroeder worried. An arms expert at the Federation of American Scientists, Schroeder argues the records could alert illicit weapons traffickers and insurgents to ongoing investigations and surveillance, causing them to sever contact with undercover operatives, destroy critical evidence or move their operations.

“The point is not that this will necessarily happen,” Schroeder recently told the Center for Investigative Reporting. “It illustrates the impossibility of fully heading off the negative consequences of declassification done in this way.”

The trade isn’t worth it, he says. Schroeder and other experts could draw some insight from leaked material referring to the use of lethal weapons. But he believes it doesn’t do much to ultimately serve the public interest since so many of the documents amount to field reports written by people who may or may not know what they’re talking about. For careful analysts anxious to confirm whether a discovered cache involves deadly surface-to-air missiles or simple rocket-propelled grenades, the field reports are largely useless without being verified or vetted.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, Schroeder cleared up inaccurate military reports from 2007 that a highly dangerous missile system was discovered northeast of Baghdad. It turned out to be a less threatening homemade RPG launcher.

“If there are documents valuable from a policy perspective, why not focus on those? Why is it necessary to dump 200,000 documents into the public domain, ever? What does this gain other than more notoriety for Wikileaks?”

It’s no small matter that Schroeder and the non-partisan group he works for are criticizing Wikileaks. Manhattan Project scientists who designed the first atomic bombs founded FAS more than half-a-century ago after coming to the conclusion that their lives would be better spent preventing nuclear warfare.

To that end FAS has fought relentlessly to pry open details about the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons policy and teach the public about how illicit small arms move around the world.

Schroeder points to the prolific gunrunner and former Russian military officer Viktor Bout, who today awaits trial in the United States. Bout may never have been stopped if leaked documents tipped him in advance, Schroeder said.

Extradited to the United States recently from Thailand, Bout’s surprise capture followed a DEA-led sting in which he allegedly attempted to sell assault rifles, land mines, armor-piercing rocket launchers and more to paid informants posing as Colombian guerillas. Nicknamed the “merchant of death” partly for his purported role in arming warlords and human rights violators, Bout’s trafficking crisscrossed the African continent, the Middle East and south-central Asia, according to UN reports and other accounts.

So what undermining information might the Wikileaks documents actually contain? One report describes a certain north African country supplying al Qaeda with dozens of air-to-air missiles, which were to be stored in Iran before making their way to Afghanistan. Other documents discuss a rocket-propelled grenade launcher made in Iran and used by the Taliban to shoot down coalition aircraft. There’s an Afghan rebel leader arranging to buy remote-controlled rockets from the North Korean government.

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