No evidence WikiLeaks disclosures risk lives
THE RELEASE of some 250,000 state department documents by WikiLeaks this week has prompted a binge of hyperbole and moral outrage. It was, we’ve been told by US and foreign commentators, “the 9/11 of diplomacy”. The Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly said the perpetrator was “a traitor” who “should be executed or put in prison for life”. A Google search of “Julian Assange should be killed” turned up 4.5 million results.
Foreign diplomats say they’ll watch themselves in future conversations with US officials, even as they struggle to recall past indiscretions before they pop up in newspapers. But catastrophic? None of the US officials railing against WikiLeaks and its founder Assange have offered convincing evidence that this or previous document dumps, about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, actually endangered lives.
CNN and the Wall Street Journaldeclined WikiLeaks’s offer of pre-access to the cables. The New York Timeshas presented them beautifully, with the explanations required to make them comprehensible. No one has yet suggested that the newspapers which printed excerpts from the cables should be punished. But at a time when voices on the right are calling for executions, you can’t escape the impression that America’s newspaper of record is on the defensive.
The New York Timesexplained how it “redacted” cables to remove information that might harm the US national interest, and engaged in a dialogue with the Obama administration about what should not be printed. The documents “illuminate American policy in a way that Americans and others deserve to see”, its editorial concluded yesterday.
That Vladimir Putin was an “alpha dog”, Muammar Gadafy someone who liked to surround himself with women – in this instance a “voluptuous blonde Ukrainian nurse” – and that Nicolas Sarkozy was “thin-skinned and authoritarian” came as no surprise.
Hillary Clinton didn’t need to order an investigation into the leadership style of Ban Ki-moon to learn, as one diplomat told me, that the UN secretary general “suffers from a charisma deficit”. It was also natural for the US and South Korea to discuss what will happen in the North when dictator Kim Jong Il dies.
It is widely known that CIA agents sometimes masquerade as foreign service officers. That real diplomats were asked to gather the credit card and frequent flier numbers of foreign officials boggles the mind. Even if they had the means to do so, the information would probably get lost amid the 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other communications stored by the US National Security Agency daily.
The real mysteries of foreign policy and espionage were not answered by the cables. For example, who bombed two more Iranian nuclear scientists, killing one, on Monday, just hours after WikiLeaks revealed that the Islamic Republic had obtained medium-range missiles from North Korea? Was there a connection? Two other Iranian nuclear scientists have already been murdered. Could the US and/or Israel be at fault, as alleged by the regime? And what about Julian Assange, the Australian-born founder of WikiLeaks, who may be prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, and who was yesterday offered asylum by Ecuador’s left-wing government? US media, left and right, refer to him as a “sleaze-bag” and suspected sex criminal. Did Assange rape women in Sweden? Or is he the victim of a US smear campaign, as he claims?
Some of the leaked cables show a literary flair that makes one regret their authors did not become journalists. Cable number MOSCOW 009533 of August 2006 recounts a raucous wedding in the Caucasus, where vodka-sodden, gun-toting guests showered $100 bills on child dancers. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, gave the newly-weds a 5lb lump of gold, danced with a golden pistol in the waistband of his jeans and refused to sleep at the site of the nuptials for his own safety. What more does one need to know about Dagestan?
I suspect the anonymous diplomat is now savouring the publication of his cable.
Another cable tells how, in March 2009, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and John Brennan, US president Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, discussed US difficulties in returning Guantánamo detainees to their home countries. Why didn’t the US implant an electronic chip in each detainee, to follow their whereabouts, the way he did with his horses and falcons, the king asked. “Horses don’t have good lawyers,” Brennan replied.
Israeli and US officials have expressed satisfaction that the cables prove how much Iran’s Arab neighbours fear its nuclear programme. US press reports imply the Arabs are hypocrites, too fearful of Iran to speak out publicly. None have pointed out the age-old enmity between Persians and Arabs, Shia and Sunni.
King Abdullah’s observation that the Bush administration gave Iraq to Iran as a “gift on a golden platter” has the ring of truth about it. With comparable wisdom, Crown Prince bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi summarised the difficulty of thwarting the Iranian nuclear programme: “Any culture that is patient and focused enough to spend years working on a single carpet is capable of waiting years and even decades to achieve even greater goals.”