As WikiLeaks' media partners (official and otherwise) have multiplied, it's gotten harder to follow what are and aren't new revelations in the U.S. State Department cables; even some of the media outlets seem confused. Take Britain's Daily Telegraph, which has a big headline today detailing a scoop from an ostensibly new batch of cables detailing the British government's behind-the-scenes discussions of the release of Pan Am Flight 103 bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. The Telegraph flags an October 2008 cable in which a British Foreign Office minister advises the Libyan government on how to request the compassionate release of Megrahi, who had recently been diagnosed with inoperable cancer.
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The latest Egyptian official to receive a battlefield promotion amid Hosni Mubarak's machinations to hold power is Mohammed Hussein Tantawi (above left), Egypt's defense minister, who now finds himself holding down the job of deputy prime minister in addition to his duties as military chief. Middle East analyst Stephen P. Cohen spoke today with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman -- who was promoted from intelligence chief over the weekend -- and told Politico's Laura Rozen that Suleiman and Tantawi are planning for a peaceful transition from Mubarak's rule.
Military-to-military relations have long been the cornerstone of the U.S. government's relationship with Egypt -- the latter receives some $1.3 billion a year in military aid from the United States -- which means that Tantawi figures prominently in the Washington-Cairo relations documented in the WikiLeaks cables, though rarely in a good way. The Tantawi described in the cables by U.S. and Israeli officials and Egyptian informants is an out-of-touch bureaucrat, emblematic of an Egyptian military that is unprepared for 21st-century needs like border security and counterterrorism.
An August 2009 cable signed by U.S. Amb. Margaret Scobey describes Tantawi as "one of the chief impediments to transforming our security relationship," and notes that "the tactical and operational readiness of the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) has degraded" over the course of the defense minister's nearly two-decade tenure. Another Scobey-signed cable from March 2009 complains that Tantawi's machinations have screwed up U.S.-Egyptian efforts to catch smugglers along the Egypt-Gaza border.
While Tantawi is viewed as having no real political aspirations of his own, he was apparently considered an obstacle by Gamal Mubarak, Hosni's son and once heir-apparent to the presidency. In an April 2007 cable, an Egyptian parliamentarian speculates (wrongly) that Tantawi's days -- as well as Suleiman's -- could be numbered, telling embassy officials that Tantawi and Suleiman "are increasingly viewed as a threat by Gamal and those around him." And then there are the Israelis: In a July 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israeli Ministry of Defense Political-Military Chief Amos Gilad complains that "the Egyptian military led by Defense Minister Tantawi continues to train and exercise as if 'Israel was its only enemy.'"
But given the question mark hanging over the loyalties of the Egyptian Army in the continuing upheaval, the most serious issue for Tantawi is probably how his subordinates regard him. A military analyst at the American University in Cairo tells the author of a September 2008 cable that the mid-level officers in the Egyptian Army don't think much of Tantawi: "These officers refer to Tantawi as ‘Mubarak's poodle,' [the analyst] said," according to the cable, "and complain that ‘this incompetent Defense Minister' who reached his position only because of unwavering loyalty to Mubarak is 'running the military into the ground.'"
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Embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in his fit of frantic cabinet shuffling, has elevated his long-standing intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to a new post as his first-ever vice president. Suleiman is a looming figure in Middle East spook circles with long-standing connections to U.S. intelligence operatives -- see Jeff Stein and Pat Lang for more on this -- and appears several times in the WikiLeaks U.S. State Department cables, mostly in the context of briefings with top U.S. military officials preoccupied with Iran's influence in the region.
More germane to Suleiman's new gig is a 2007 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, signed by U.S. Amb. Francis J. Ricciardone, gaming out possible secession scenarios should Mubarak step down from the presidency -- including the role of Suleiman, described here as Mubarak's "consigliere:"
MANY OF OUR CONTACTS BELIEVE THAT SOLIMAN, BECAUSE OF HIS MILITARY BACKGROUND, WOULD AT THE LEAST HAVE TO FIGURE IN ANY SUCCESSION SCENARIO FOR GAMAL [Mubarak, Hosni's son and likely successor], POSSIBLY AS A TRANSITIONAL FIGURE. SOLIMAN HIMSELF ADAMANTLY DENIES ANY PERSONAL AMBITIONS, BUT HIS INTEREST AND DEDICATION TO NATIONAL SERVICE IS OBVIOUS. HIS LOYALTY TO MUBARAK SEEMS ROCK-SOLID. AT AGE 71, HE COULD BE ATTRACTIVE TO THE RULING APPARATUS AND THE PUBLIC AT LARGE AS A RELIABLE FIGURE UNLIKELY TO HARBOR AMBITIONS FOR ANOTHER MULTI-DECADE PRESIDENCY. A KEY UNANSWERED QUESTION IS HOW HE WOULD RESPOND TO A GAMAL PRESIDENCY ONCE MUBARAK IS DEAD. AN ALLEGED PERSONAL FRIEND OF SOLIMAN TELLS US THAT SOLIMAN "DETESTS" THE IDEA OF GAMAL AS PRESIDENT, AND THAT HE ALSO WAS "DEEPLY PERSONALLY HURT" BY MUBARAK, WHO PROMISED TO NAME HIM VICE-PRESIDENT SEVERAL YEARS AGO, BUT THEN RENEGED.
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CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
Although the U.S. State Department has reportedly downplayed the impact of WikiLeaks' cable disclosures in private, the Justice Department is still trying to find grounds to bring WikiLeaks honcho Julian Assange to trial in the United States. Doing that requires proving that Assange actively collaborated with his alleged source, Pfc. Bradley Manning, to obtain the cables; Assange has said from the beginning that this never happened, and that he didn't even know Manning's name until it was reported in the media.
NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports that the U.S. military's investigation into the affair, thus far, bears out Assange's story:
U.S. military officials tell NBC News that investigators have been unable to make any direct connection between a jailed army private suspected with leaking secret documents and Julian Assange, founder of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.
The officials say that while investigators have determined that Manning had allegedly unlawfully downloaded tens of thousands of documents onto his own computer and passed them to an unauthorized person, there is apparently no evidence he passed the files directly to Assange, or had any direct contact with the controversial WikiLeaks figure.
Manning is still being held at the Marine Corps Quantico base in Virginia, where he has been charged with eight crimes. He was put on suicide watch for two days last week, and his lawyers have alleged that he has been abused while in detention.
While the community of Middle East leak-watchers is focused on Al Jazeera's release of 1,600 documents from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, WikiLeaks has released a number of U.S. diplomatic cables that call into question the long-term viability of Algerian strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Particularly in the wake of Tunisia's revolt -- and the U.S. Embassy's success at identifying the seeds of unrest there -- these cables deserve a close read.
The most engaging report is a 2008 cable on disaffected Algerian youth known as "the harraga," or literally "one who burns." Unlike Mohamed Bouazizi, who lit himself on fire in Tunisia two years later, these men aren't burning themselves -- they're burning their identification papers before setting out on makeshift boats in an attempt to reach the shores of Spain or Italy. It's an unbelievably dangerous journey: The embassy estimates that over 90 percent of the harraga die at sea, are detained indefinitely by North African authorities, or are returned to their host country. According to one article cited in the cable, up to 50,000 Algerians and Libyans attempted to reach European shores in search of economic opportunities in 2007.
From the Algerian regime's perspective, perhaps the most troubling aspect of this story is that the harraga hail -- like Bouazizi -- from the society's educated classes. One boat, the embassy reported "includ[ed] five university graduates and two doctors." The grandson of a former Algerian president also departed the country in this way and "has not been heard from since."
A 2007 cable signed by U.S. Amb. Robert Ford -- now the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Damascus -- lays out the consequences of this disaffection more explicitly. The Algerian regime, he writes, is "plagued by a lack of vision, unprecedented levels of corruption and rumblings of division within the military rank and file."
The most explosive comments in the cable are relayed to the embassy by Said Sadi, an opposition leader. Sadi described a conversation that he had with Gen. Toufik Mediene, Algeria's head of military intelligence, who "acknowledged that all was not well with the health of Bouteflika and Algeria writ large." When the conversation turned to Algeria's endemic corruption, Sadi reports that the general "motion[ed] silently to the portrait of Bouteflika that hung over their heads" to indicate where the problem lay.
Ford hedged his bets in late 2007, writing that the embassy does not expect an imminent revolt in Algeria. But in the aftermath of the Tunisian revolt -- and with Algerian protests and self-immolations mounting -- the moment may just be now.
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Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt says that Assange's extradition is a judicial matter, and that his government won't be involved in the decision.
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A German CEO is out of a job after calling Europe's multi-billion-dollar Galileo satellite system (on which his company was working) a "stupid idea" in a WikiLeaked cable. (If you're keeping track, this is officially the first time WikiLeaks has caused trouble in space.)
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At last, someone thought to ask Miss America what she thinks about WikiLeaks.
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
RuLeaks, a WikiLeaks type site owned and operated by the Russian Pirate Party, was shut down by a denial of service attack yesterday after posting photos of a lavish mansion alleged to be Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's estate on the Black Sea. The site, and the photos, are now back up.
The existence of the "Putin palace" on the Black Sea was discussed by the Washington Post's David Ignatius in an article last year. According to Russian whistleblower Sergey Kolesnikov, the still under-construction digs cost more than $1 billion, include an amphitheater and three helipads and is being "predominantly paid for with money donated by Russian businessmen." Putin's spokesman denied the report, saying that the building has nothing to do with Putin.
From the photos, the place certainly looks fit for a Romanov, with frescoed ceilings, outdoor maze bushes, marble floors, and four-post beds. Bizarrely, a man who appears to be a construction worker with his face blacked out poses in a number of the shots. (He may want to read up on the fates of previous WikiLeakers.) RuLeaks' description of the photos coyly describes them as "photographs of a palace, which has recently been discussed in the press".
RuLeaks, which was founded on Jan. 14, operates on servers outside the country. The Pirate Party says it is currently looking into the source of the DDoS attack.
More lavish images from the (possibly) "Putin Palace" below the jump: