The real question: Who will trust Washington ever again?

Brian Stewart on the overabundance of Americans, over two million, with high-level security clearance.

The number of "secret" and "confidential" U.S. documents now made public has reached such a flood tide that it seems like the very edifice of the superpower is cracking before our eyes.

Just consider the stunning total of over 640,000 U.S. military and diplomatic communications that have been exposed this year.

That's how many secrets and confidences the organization known as WikiLeaks has handed over to the world's media in two separate "dumpings," the first in February and then again this week, with more to come.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her way to a press conference Monday, Nov. 29, 2010. The U.S. deeply regrets the disclosure of all this confidential information, she said. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

This amounts to a virtual shredding of the American reputation for security.

Still, for me, what has been even more startling than the leaks themselves is the number of Americans who appear to have had access to this vast range of sensitive communications. 

People in the know say that it is in excess of two million! A figure that defies all security logic. 

If true (and it seems to be), this goes beyond fiasco.

In fact it indicates an unprecedented sloppiness with sensitive communications that is hard to believe of any serious country, let alone the world's leading economic and military power.

You can't be serious

My first reaction on reading about the staggering number of American officials with this level of security access was "you can't be serious." But this indeed seems to be the case.

The explanation: Soon after 9/11, the Bush administration became so upset by accounts of miscommunication and confusion among government agencies that it decided not only that the left hand needed to know what the right was doing, but that all other limbs of government should be in the security loop as well.

Yes, the very top security levels, the ones that link leaders at the White House, Pentagon, State Department and intelligence chiefs, operate inside a more secure communications bubble.

This has not been breached.

But thousands of cables marked "secret" and hundreds of thousands marked "confidential" and "not for foreign eyes" poured out of 250 U.S. embassies and scores of military bases worldwide, there to be read by even junior staff in their 20s.

Case in point: Pfc. Bradley Manning, 22, a dual U.S. and British citizen, was arrested in May for allegedly giving WikiLeaks the so-called collateral murder video, which showed a U.S. helicopter gunship killing two Iraqi journalists, among others.

Too chatty

The Iraq and Afghanistan material that was released by WikiLeaks in February and the diplomatic "cables" that were revealed over the weekend both moved along the supposedly secure U.S. government's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, known as SIPRNet.

A leak of almost biblical proportions. (Reuters)

It sounds very hush-hush, but over two million people have access to SIPRNet data and classified data appears on special computers wherever U.S. military missions operate.

It's estimated that as many as 850,000 U.S. officials even have access to the highest "Top Secret" classification.

The purloined material comprised millions of words and 1.6 gigabytes of text, yet all was apparently slipped out to an astonished world via those tiny memory sticks that can fit in a pocket or on a key ring.

What's more, it appears it was all there for the taking, the whole kit and caboodle.

Was there ever a security system more vulnerable, more open to being fleeced?

Given that, it's striking how most of the official U.S. reaction so far has been focused on diplomatic damage control and the understandable fury at WikiLeaks itself.

You have to wonder when we will hear the usual howls in Washington that "heads should roll" over lax security. Or does that part of the story get swept under a congressional rug?

After all, this decision to share such sensitive material with the multitudes of service and diplomatic personnel began under George W. Bush and apparently continued under Barack Obama and the Democrats.

My guess is that the politicians and department heads will prefer to lash out at the international media for carrying the material. As long as attention is directed at the revelations and the denials and the WikiLeaks/media connection, the administrative aspect of this story will get less attention.

Shuttered diplomacy

However, playing down Washington's internal security problems is unlikely to sit well with America's allies.

By now they must be at their wits' end with the leak-gushing nature of the U.S. government, which seems only likely to become more pronounced in today's digital era with its ingrown desire to copy one's own messages to the widest number of possible readers.

Like journalists, today's diplomats and generals seem to want to reach the widest audience possible. (Case in point: former U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's disastrous dalliance with Rolling Stone magazine.)

Sometimes this reaching out is the only way officials can vent their frustrations or advance their vision. I am sure no one, however, expected their thoughts and insights to end up on a memory stick en route to a worldwide audience in an historic scandal that keeps on giving.

There are a great many issues surrounding this WikiLeaks drama that are worthy of debate.

Among them, is it good for basic democracy to lay everything out there, open diplomacy, as some call it. Or can diplomacy even function with a ship as leaky as this one?

At this moment, it is hard to imagine what honest thoughts any foreign leader or diplomat will dare entrust to the American government in future.

Very few would be a fair guess. All remember, of course, that the U.S. has had a long history of explosive leaks, from the media exposé of battle plans on the brink of the U.S. entering the Second World War to the Pentagon Papers in the Vietnam era.

But the extent of these WikiLeaks surely stretches any trust in U.S. confidentiality to the breaking point or beyond.

That why, despite all the sound and fury of the moment, it may be months before the world can start to gauge the full impact of these revelations on international relations.

As secrets pour forth, still more uncertainly is piled atop a decade that has seen more than enough of that commodity.