Members of Haiti's elite complained to the U.S. Embassy in 2005 about eroding security in the country.
A Taliban representative told U.S. officials in 1996 that the Taliban had shut down "Arab" training camps in Afghanistan, and had no idea where Osama bin Laden was. A U.S. embassy official met with a Taliban representative the following year to discuss the Afghan drug trade and the group's sheltering of bin Laden.
A 1999 State Department meeting with future Afghan President Hamid Karzai, identified here as the "son of an important Afghan tribal leader."
The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad sizing up the Taliban's Mullah Omar, circa 1997.
Beijing was unhappy about North Korean nuclear tests in 2006, but powerless to stop them.
The Japanese island of Okinawa, host to a longstanding U.S. military presence, is tilting toward China and away from the United States.
Bahrain's recent crackdown on its Shiite minority came out of Saudi Arabia's playbook.
Julian Assange is reportedly backing off of plans to publish his memoirs.
A medic in Britain's Royal Navy has been sentenced to seven months' detention for refusing to train on account of WikiLeaks-inspired moral objections.
An excellent telling of the sad saga of Pfc. Bradley Manning from New York. (The online friend whose chats with Manning provide much of the new information in the piece has also made their correspondence available for download.)
SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
Was the former Chinese finance minister caught in a Taiwanese honey trap?
A Cuban cardinal pushed to close a Cuban magazine critical of the Castro regime.
The journalists who could make a fortune off of WikiLeaks.
FP rounds up WikiLeaks' recent greatest hits.
A theatrical adaptation of the WikiLeaks saga (above) debuts in Australia.
WikiLeaks parodies MasterCard's "Priceless" ads:
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images
The U.S. government, Chevron, and Exxon Mobil joined forces to kill a Venezuelan oil deal in Haiti.
The frightening state of the developing world's nuclear energy programs.
China told U.S. officials it wasn't selling nuclear reactors to Pakistan, then did it anyway.
The British government worried that Russian gas behemoth Gazprom was being run by spies.
Julian Assange says WikiLeaks "played a significant role" in the Arab Spring, but that "there are no official allegations in the public domain" of anyone being hurt by the site's document dumps.
President Barack Obama nominates a replacement for the WikiLeaks-deposed U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the U.S. government to officially release WikiLeaked cables about the war on terror.
Al Jazeera's WikiLeaks-inspired document-sharing site isn't much safer than the Wall Street Journal's.
The Swedish Bar Association chastises Assange's lawyer.
Of course you want to know what Jesse Ventura thinks about WikiLeaks.
THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images
More than 700 files on Guantánamo Bay detainees obtained by WikiLeaks are released. Extensive coverage is here, here, here, and here. The Huffington Post has the backstory on the release. Also check out FP's roundup of the coverage and roundtable discussion of the cables with Karen Greenberg, Robert Chesney, Morris Davis, and Matthew Alexander.
Someone should tell the U.S. Department of Defense that World Net Daily is a somewhat less-than-credible source of information.
The Guantánamo file on former detainee and Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj suggests just how suspicious the U.S. government was of the network.
Did the Ecuadorian government manipulate the country's bond market?
U.S. diplomats worry about Muammar al-Qaddafi's relationship with Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega.
Embassy officials don't think much of Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli.
The U.S. government apparently considers Pakistan's intelligence agency a terrorist (or at least terrorist-supporting) organization.
The arrest of Hmong guerrilla leader Vang Pao did wonders for the U.S.-Laos relationship.
WikiLeaks received nearly $2 million in donations last year.
Most people in 24 countries surveyed by Ipsos don't think Julian Assange is a criminal (though a lot of Americans disagree).
London's Telegraph newspaper is in hot water for publishing the name of a 15-year-old rape victim contained in the Guantánamo papers.
WikiLeaks' document cache is now pretty solidly out of the organization's control.
THE BIG PICTURE
What the Guantánamo documents tell us about mission creep in the War on Terror.
The Guantánamo papers aren't likely to change much of anything for the detainees themselves.
The New York Times owes WikiLeaks big time.
Virginie Montet/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. diplomats' relationship with Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's government wasn't always so cold.
Is Chinese demand for ivory killing Kenyan elephants?
An Israeli settlement leader tells U.S. officials he's willing to move, for a price.
Bahrain's king is proud of intelligence ties to Israel, wants his government to drop references to the "Zionist enemy."
Israel and Egypt locked horns over smuggling on the Gaza strip.
Israel suspects that Turkey is helping Iran skirt international sanctions.
What the WikiLeaks cables tell us about the United States' relationship with embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Ecuador kicks out U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges (above) over a WikiLeaks cable.
The Pentagon won't let anyone -- including U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich and investigators from the United Nations and Amnesty International -- meet with Pfc. Bradley Manning in private. The British government is also raising concerns over Manning's treatment.
Julian Assange has another court date.
The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee proposes new penalties for leakers.
The feds won't leave friend of WikiLeaks Jacob Applebaum alone.
Karl Rove is copping WikiLeaks' style.
Qaddafi's Ukrainian nurse tells all.
Pentagon contractor (and Anonymous nemesis) HBGary's ambitious scheme to catch the next WikiLeaker.
RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images
This weekend, the U.S. government finally threw Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh under the bus, with administration officials telling the New York Times on background that it was increasingly clear Saleh was incapable of reforming his government and had to go. On Tuesday, the Pentagon made it official, with spokesman Geoff Morrell saying the United States was "urging a negotiated transition [of power] as quickly as possible."
All of this would have been unthinkable even a month ago, when it seemed relatively likely that Saleh would survive the wave of unrest sweeping his country, at least through the end of his current term. The Yemeni president is a Hosni Mubarak-style survivor, who has managed to hold onto power for three decades in one of the Arab world's most reliably restive countries -- a longevity that is in no small part guaranteed by the United States, which has viewed Saleh as a crucial, if unreliable, ally in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
No one ever pretended it was an uncomplicated relationship, and the WikiLeaks cables show the United States making extraordinary, often unreasonable demands of counterterrorism allies such as Saleh. But you don't have to agree with the U.S. government's actions here to ask whether the $155 million the United States gave Yemen in military aid last year alone was worth the investment. A tour through the WikiLeaks cables from the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa -- of which the Times offered a very good overview in December -- is instructive. The cables, of course, present the State Department's view of the situation, not the U.S. intelligence community's -- but the diplomats seem to have trusted Saleh about as far as they could throw him.
Has Hugo Chávez been selling missiles to Muammar al-Qaddafi?
The Kenyan government wanted to arrest a prominent opposition leader in 2007.
The Colombian military maintains a 100-man counter-guerrilla force inside Venezuela.
Colombia has been using U.S. drones to fight the FARC for five years.
A staffer in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress Party shows U.S. embassy aides chests full of cash being used to buy votes.
India faces a "growing Naxalite menace."
U.S. diplomats viewed Mohamed ElBaradei as "part of the problem" in the Middle East in 2009.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a "hunger for absolute power and for the material benefits of power".
U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual steps down over WikiLeaks-fueled flap with Mexican President Felipe Calderón.
Damning corruption allegations in the WikiLeaks cables have India's Manmohan Singh on the ropes.
Protesters demonstrating over Pfc. Bradley Manning's treatment are arrested at Quantico.
An art group in Russia's Ural region is building a monument to Julian Assange.
Is Michael Bay basing the villains in the next Transformers movie on Julian Assange?
THE BIG PICTURE
FP tallies the biggest losers so far in the Cablegate saga.
More on the role of WikiLeaks in the Arab revolutions.
Bradley Manning's long road to WikiLeaks.
Julian Assange, houseguest: a reenactment.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
As you've probably heard, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual stepped down from his post in Mexico City over the weekend following his WikiLeaks-based falling out with Mexican President Felipe Calderón. In noting his departure, we thought it would be worth looking back over the arc of the U.S. State Department's slow-rolling PR catastrophe -- now rounding out its fourth month -- and tallying the casualties. The results are here.
The WikiLeaks unfortunates are a pretty varied group -- the expected array of diplomatic officials and WikiLeaks associates, plus a few politicians, a CEO, a university administrator, and a dictator -- and it's hard to draw much of a trend line through the circumstances of their respective scandals. The first and last of them were both genuine scandals: A German party official passing documents to American embassy officials, the prime minister of India's party allegedly buying votes with chests full of rupees.
But what strikes me as most noteworthy is how un-noteworthy most of the cables that got a lot of these people in trouble really were. U.S. ambassadors were pulled from their posts for noting that Mexico's drug war was going badly and that Muammar al-Qaddafi was rather eccentric. The fact that Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was a fantastically corrupt ruler was not exactly news to anyone in Tunisia. Europe's still-incomplete satellite system really is a boondoggle. There have been a few bombshells in the WikiLeaks cables -- some of them literal -- but these weren't them. They were significant only because they confirmed that the U.S. government knew what everyone else knew.
LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images
Qaddafi worried about a U.S. military presence in Africa.
Bernie Madoff once discussed investment opportunities with Qaddafi.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe OK'd "clandestine operations" against FARC rebels across the border in Venezuela.
U.S. Ambassador to Colombia (and later Afghanistan) William Wood was not aware of the top Colombian military leader's dodgy résumé.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce tried to take down Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega.
China used U.S. debt obligations to pressure the United States on arms sales to Taiwan.
For the first time since World War II, Japan is building a full-blown foreign intelligence agency.
U.S. diplomats pushed Norway to buy American-made fighter jets.
Britain blocked an arms sale to Swaziland over fears the weapons could end up in Iran.
Bahrain's crown prince is not a big fan of the whole democracy thing.
A British judge rules in favor of Julian Assange's extradition to Sweden.
George W. Bush doesn't like the idea of sharing a stage with Assange.
Gaddafi's "voluptuous nurse" has had enough of Libya.
WikiLeaks cable revelations are factoring in Peru's 2011 elections.
PayPal freezes the account of a group raising defense funds for Pfc. Bradley Manning.
More on HBGary, the cybersecurity firm that tried to take down WikiLeaks' supporters.
WikiLeaks now has a gift shop.
Anonymous makes "The Colbert Report" (slightly NSFW)
THE BIG PICTURE
The Libyan frogman who couldn't swim.
The FBI pursues a team of alleged Qatari would-be 9/11 conspirators in the United States.
The rift between Washington and Beijing is deeper than either government would like you to think.
The United States' secret space arms race with China.
A Croatian man tries to get back at his ex-girlfriend by telling U.S. embassy officials that she's hanging out with Osama bin Laden.
Making an oil and gas deal in Russia is really complicated.
Newly appointed Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman is close to Mubarak and foreign intelligence agencies, but not Mubarak's son. And a lot of people seem to think Mubarak's new deputy prime minister is a bureaucratic dinosaur.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accuses Syria and Iran of arming Iraqi militants.
Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh wants his money.
U.S. diplomats doubt reforms are on the way in Jordan.
Did WikiLeaks hack into New York Times reporters' email accounts?
WikiLeaks' release process has become so complicated that even the papers involved don't know what's a scoop anymore.
Amnesty International wants Britain to pressure the U.S. government over the treatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning.
THE BIG PICTURE
George W. Bush administration Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith thinks Assange will be prosecuted in the United States.
New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller and Guardian Editor in Chief Alan Rusbridger talk WikiLeaks.
Forty-two percent of Americans have no idea what WikiLeaks is.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
WikiLeaks seems to have rediscovered the news cycle, releasing seven cables from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo as the Egyptian government crackdown on protesters and journalists turned ugly Thursday. There's not much in them that you didn't know if you've ever read a Human Rights Watch report on Egypt, though a 2009 scene-setter for a visit by FBI Director Robert Mueller does effectively sum up the sorry state of human rights and civil liberties in Hosni Mubarak's country:
Egypt's police and domestic security services continue to be dogged by persistent, credible allegations of abuse of detainees. Police brutality in Egypt against common criminals is routine and pervasive, resulting from poor training and understaffing. Over the past five years, the government has stopped denying that torture exists, and since late 2007 courts have sentenced approximately 18 police officers to prison terms for torture and killings. In March, a court sentenced a police officer to 15 years in prison for shooting a motorist following a dispute. The GOE [government of Egypt] has not yet made a serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution, but there are indications that the government is allowing the courts increased independence to adjudicate some police brutality cases.
The Interior Ministry uses SSIS [the State Security Investigative Services] to monitor and sometimes infiltrate the political opposition and civil society. SSIS suppresses political opposition through arrests, harassment and intimidation. In February following the Gaza war, SSIS arrested a small number of pro-Palestinian activists and bloggers, and detained them for periods of a few days to several weeks.
CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images
It's been a while since WikiLeaked checked in on Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's newly embattled president and a reliably interesting character in the WikiLeaks oeuvre. Most of what we've seen from Saleh in the leaked U.S. State Department cables has followed a pattern in which U.S. diplomats try to coax more counterterrorism cooperation out of the veteran strongman, while Saleh -- whose government received $155 million in military aid from the United States in 2010, twice the previous year's amount -- tries to finagle more cash and materiel out of the Americans. A newly released December 2004 State Department cable recounting a meeting between Saleh and U.S. Ambassador Thomas C. Krajeski (pictured above with Saleh in a 2007 photo) is no exception.
The meeting takes place a little more than a month after U.S. President George W. Bush's reelection; Saleh badly wants to meet with Bush in Washington to congratulate him personally, he tells Krajeski, and also talk about "important new developments in the region 'that can only be discussed face to face,'" according to the cable. Krajeski hems and haws a bit about this, at which point, the cable notes, "True to form, Saleh launched into a list of what he believes the U.S. owes him. 'Where is the money for the Army, and what about my spare (F-5) parts?' Saleh demanded." (The cable notes, a little acidly, that there have been reported problems with getting the Yemeni Ministry of Defense "to follow through with the necessary paperwork on parts and equipment in order to spend the 17 million USD in Yemen's [foreign military financing] account.")
Pointing out that any meetings with senior U.S. officials would quickly turn to the subject of Yemen's huge grey market in SA/LW [small arms/light weapons], Ambassador told Saleh that Yemen needs to gain control over the huge flow of these weapons in and through the country. Washington is very concerned about this issue and ready to help the ROYG tackle it, added Ambassador. "I will do it!" Saleh exclaimed, insisting that he was insisting that he was already "cracking down" on the SA/LWs market.
The conversation soon turns, inevitably, to counterterrorism, in which Saleh has been a longstanding if not unproblematic partner to the United States. Pressed on the subject of Hadi Dulqum, an arms dealer with alleged links to Al Qaeda, the cable reports that "Saleh stuck to his line that Hadi Dulqum is just a 'simple arms dealer:'"
The Saudis want Dulqum, said the President, "they are crazy for him. What do you expect?" he asked, "if we arrest every arms dealer in the country, we will have hundreds of them in prison." The USG [U.S. government] agrees with the Saudis, said Ambassador, adding that Dulqum's connections with AQ are too extensive for him to be simply another Yemeni arms dealer.
Months later, Saleh does manage to swing a White House invite, prompting a June 2005 cable from the Sanaa embassy titled PRIORITIES FOR WASHINGTON VISIT: SALEH NEEDS TO BE PART OF THE SOLUTION. The cable characterizes relations with Saleh's government as "frustrating and difficult," noting that "Saleh has indicated to top advisors in the past that he believes he can pull the wool over the eyes of the [U.S. government.]" On the political front, "Saleh touts Yemen as a leader in regional reform and has committed to democratization," the cable says. "Domestically, however, he has run-out of reforms he can implement at no political cost to himself."
The cable proposes "a public show of support via a greater role in public fora such as the G-8" as a possible inducement to greater democratization, but it seems that half a decade later, the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt may have done the job more effectively.
KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. officials worried about the return to Haiti of Jean-Claude "Baby-Doc" Duvalier back in 2006. (Duvalier returned to the country this week.)
Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom doesn't think Rigoberta Menchú exists.
BP's top Russia executive has his doubts about the survival of the company's partnership with Russian oil firm Rosneft.
Turkey allowed the United States to use one of its airbases for rendition flights.
Condoleezza Rice wanted U.S. diplomats in the Middle East to gather intelligence on Israeli communications technology and Palestinian leaders.
American diplomats were ambivalent about deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and alarmed by the growing opposition to him.
U.S. diplomats in Turkey fretted about a military backlash after the arrest of several officers in an alleged coup plot last year.
Julian Assange is planning to release details on 2,000 offshore bank accounts, which he says contain evidence of serious tax evasion and money laundering. Swiss authorities are now mulling filing related charges against his source, former Swiss Banker Rudolf Elmer, who was already found guilty on Wednesday of breaking other banking secrecy laws.
Alleged Assange source Pfc. Bradley Manning is placed on suicide watch; his lawyer says he's being mistreated at the Marine Corps jail.
The State Department has made a big deal about the havoc caused by WikiLeaks, but privately officials tell congressional staffers the leaks were "embarrassing but not damaging."
Assange still has a lot of supporters in his home country of Australia.
The Pentagon wants U.S. military personnel to get rid of any WikiLeaks files they might have on their computers.
Russian WikiLeaks knockoff RuLeaks posts pictures of Vladimir Putin's Black Sea estate.
French lawyers are using WikiLeaks cables to argue for the acquittal of five Guantánamo detainees.
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.
An investigative firm alleges WikiLeaks skims documents off of file-sharing networks.
Zimbabwe's attorney general is considering pursuing treason charges against more government officials based on WikiLeaks cables.
WikiLeaks volunteer Jacob Applebaum is detained at an airport again.
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.)
THE BIG PICTURE
WikiLeaks was supposed to have extensive safeguards for its whistleblowers -- so why are so many of them ending up in jail?
What the WikiLeaks cables tell us about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The Tunisian uprising wasn't a WikiLeaks revolution, but it does help us understand how technology can and can't help spread democracy.
At last, someone thought to ask Miss America what she thinks about WikiLeaks.
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
Your required WikiLeaks reading today is Sarah Ellison's Vanity Fair piece, published last night, detailing the behind-the-scenes finagling by which Julian Assange and five publications arranged their operating agreement for WikiLeaks' State Department cables. The news in it is that that agreement was far more ad-hoc than any of its adherents originally let on: That Assange changed the terms of the deal and added new partners on the fly, aggravating his original partner, the Guardian, and eventually precipitating his falling out with the paper (though Reuters's Felix Salmon suggests, plausibly, that this isn't the whole story).
The protagonists of Ellison's story are Guardian Editor in Chief Alan Rusbridger and reporter Nick Davies, who won Assange's confidence last summer and brokered privileged access to WikiLeaks' mountain of soon-to-be-released U.S. military and diplomatic documents -- and then spent the rest of the year trying to keep the deal from blowing apart as Assange brought in new media partners without warning them, threatened lawsuits, and generally proved to be a colossal headache. The piece is really worth reading in its entirety, but it's also worth reading Slate's Jack Shafer, who distills the juicy particulars and pins down just why it is that Assange drives the media crazy:
Assange bedevils the journalists who work with him because he refuses to conform to any of the roles they expect him to play. He acts like a leaking source when it suits him. He masquerades as publisher or newspaper syndicate when that's advantageous. Like a PR agent, he manipulates news organizations to maximize publicity for his "clients," or when moved to, he threatens to throw info-bombs like an agent provocateur. He's a wily shape-shifter who won't sit still, an unpredictable negotiator who is forever changing the terms of the deal.
Although Ellison casts Julian Assange as a genuinely new quantity on the journalistic landscape -- which he is -- the thing that actually struck me most, reading the story, is how much he reminds me of an older one: the sort of news-chasing story-broker that was common in the era before checkbook journalism became frowned-upon, and still exists by other names in the television and new media businesses.
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
On Thursday, Julian Assange told reporters that WikiLeaks would be releasing State Department cables concerning the assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January, and he has made good on the promise with a couple of short dispatches from the U.S. embassy in Abu Dhabi. They don't offer any more insight into the still-unsolved killing, but they do paint a picture of the diplomatic conundrum the incident posed for the United Emirates and the United States.
Mabhouh, a Hamas military commander who had orchestrated the
kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers and was suspected of smuggling arms into the Gaza Strip, died in his room at the Al
Bustan Rotana hotel in Dubai on Jan. 19, after being injected with the muscle
relaxant succinylcholine and then suffocated. Although Israel
has denied it won't confirm or deny it, the
list of people who don't believe that Mossad agents did the job is vanishingly
short. The hit squad had deftly
plotted and executed the assassination, using encrypted cell phones and passports
from half a dozen countries, and quickly scattered themselves from Hong Kong to
Paris once their work was done. Their one mistake, however, was a big one:
failing to account for the hotel's CCTV cameras, which caught
their faces on tape.
The story was first reported 10 days later by Reuters, and as it happened, U.S. Ambassador Richard Olson was at a social event with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed when it broke, according to one of the two embassy cables, signed by Olson. An unnamed UAE media advisor, Olson reports in the Jan. 31 cable, "after making a few calls reported back that the UAE's public posture was being discussed between Dubai Ruler Mohammed bin Rashid and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. The two options discussed were to say nothing at all, or to reveal more or less the full extent of the UAE's investigations."
The UAE was no friend of Hamas -- the emirate's discontent with Hamas patron Iran is a recurring theme in the WikiLeaks corpus -- but its government was, of course, not exactly eager to be seen as enabling an Israeli incursion on the sovereignty of an Arab state, either. The cable describes the UAE officials' reasoning, and decision:
Saying nothing would have been perceived as protecting the Israelis and in the end, the UAE chose to tell all. The statement was carefully drafted not to point any fingers, but the reference in the document (see below) to a gang with western passports will be read locally as referring to the Mossad.
American officials had their own decision to make about where their loyalties were -- one documented in the second cable, signed by Olson deputy Doug Greene, several weeks later. Greene reports that UAE officials requested the embassy's help in acquiring account data for credit cards, issued by a bank in Iowa, that investigators had linked to suspects in the assassination. The request was apparently turned down, and as Haaretz reports, the State Department denied at the time that any requests had been made. "By not accepting the request," Haaretz's Yossi Melman writes, "the Obama administration harmed the Dubai investigation efforts and assisted Israel instead." The U.S. government did eventually assist in the investigation, however, identifying American companies that may have been used to finance the operation.
David Silverman/Getty Images
New Zealand has, less than shockingly, not been a major presence in the WikiLeaks saga so far. So congratulations are order for the U.S. embassy in Wellington, which made a strong showing in the Guardian yesterday with a tale of international espionage that somehow involves Mossad, Hamas, cerebral palsy, and mutton.
In 2004, New Zealand imposed diplomatic sanctions on Israel after two Mossad agents were found to have stolen the identity of a quadriplegic New Zealander in order to obtain a passport for a third Israeli spy.* "It is a sorry indictment of Israel that it has again taken such actions against a country with which it has friendly relations," New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said at the time. Visas were restricted, embassies were closed, and Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who was planning to visit the country, was disinvited. Then Hamas got involved. The organization put out a press release applauding New Zealand's actions, saying it "highly appreciated the daring position" Clark had taken against the "Zionist security apparatuses."
Clark's government made a show of rejecting Hamas's overtures, but American embassy officials in Wellington were apparently unconvinced. A July 19, 2004 cable about the incident, signed by political and economic counselor Timothy Zuniga-Brown, floats the theory that New Zealand may have had ulterior motives in making a big deal about the Mossad affair:
Its overly strong reaction to Israel over this issue suggests the [government of New Zealand] sees this flap as an opportunity to bolster its credibility with the Arab community, and by doing so, perhaps, help NZ lamb and other products gain greater access to a larger and more lucrative market.
Would the Kiwis really fan the flames of an international incident to ingratiate their way into Arab stomachs? It's certainly true that the economy of New Zealand -- which famously has 9 sheep for every human -- is unusually lamb-dependent: The country's lamb-heavy international meat sales accounted for $5.19 billion last year, or 13 percent of all exports. And while Europe and the United States are still the world's biggest lamb importers, the Middle East is the most promising growth market -- neighboring Australia's lamb exports to the region grew 25 percent from 1990 to 2008. In any case, the New Zealand media have been strangely silent on the allegations so far.
SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
A story in the Guardian on Monday, reporting on another cable from the paper's WikiLeaks master cache, opens with a bang:
The United Nations' drugs czar told NATO that Afghan insurgents were withholding thousands of tonnes of heroin and treating their drugs like "savings accounts" to manipulate street prices in the west, according to a leaked US cable.
The cable is from May 2009, and details a briefing by Antonio Maria Costa, then the United Nations' top drug official, at NATO headquarters, on the occasion of the release of his office's 2009 Afghan opium survey. My first thought reading the Guardian piece was, Wow, the U.N. drug czar has no idea what he's talking about. Then I read the cable. It turns out this is what's actually in there:
Costa said that Afghanistan has 12,400 tons of opium stocks because it produces more than the world consumes. Costa believes the insurgency is withholding these stocks from the market and treating them like "savings accounts." He said the stocks pose a serious threat as it could be used to finance the insurgency. Costa encouraged intelligence organizations to keep focus on the storage and movement of Afghanistan's opium stocks.
Costa is talking about the price of unrefined opium within Afghanistan, not the price of the finished product in London or New York -- which means the Guardian is unfairly saddling Costa with its own rather large analytical error here. If you want the long explanation for why, read this very useful paper on the Afghan opium trade and counternarcotics strategy, released by New York University's Center for International Cooperation in June, written by drug policy experts Jonathan Caulkins, Mark Kleiman, and Jonathan Kulick. If you want the short answer, read this bit of it:
[T]he price of raw opium, and even refined heroin ready for export from Afghanistan, contributes only modestly to the retail prices facing heroin users in drug-importing countries -- the effect of falling opium prices in Afghanistan would be tiny in remote markets such as western Europe, larger but still quite modest in nearer markets, and substantial only within Afghanistan itself. Effects in the United States, if any, would be even smaller than those in western Europe, since the U.S. heroin market is currently supplied primarily from Colombia and Mexico.
Rising prices are similarly insignificantly affected by price fluctuations inside Afghanistan -- which is why supply-side-only counternarcotics strategies, in Afghanistan or anywhere else, tend to work poorly.
Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images
Of all the shoes we've been waiting to see drop in as the cables slowly -- slowly -- trickle out of the WikiLeaks vault, few seemed as inevitable as India. Considering the country's intractable standoff with Pakistan, domestic and border conflicts, politically sensitive (for the United States, at least) economic rise, and place in Asia's delicate new balance of power, the odds of someone in the New Delhi embassy writing something headline-worthy seemed to be -- oh, about 100 percent.
And surprise surprise, someone did:
US officials had evidence of widespread torture by Indian police and security forces and were secretly briefed by Red Cross staff about the systematic abuse of detainees in Kashmir, according to leaked diplomatic cables released tonight.
That's the lede on today's Guardian story parsing a handful of newly released State Department documents out of Delhi. (As has been the case over recent days, WikiLeaks itself has been slow and erratic in actually posting the material on which the newspapers entrusted with the whole stash are reporting, but the new ones are available here, here, and here on the Guardian site.) The worst of them concerns a briefing given to embassy officials in April 2005 by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in which the (unnamed) Red Cross representative lays out in appalling detail the acts of torture committed by Indian security forces in their prosecution of the quarter-century-long conflict in Kashmir.
Following 1,491 interviews with Kashmiris who had been detained at Indian government facilities in Kashmir from 2002 to 2004, the cable says, "The continued ill-treatment of detainees, despite longstanding ICRC-[government of India] dialogue, have led the ICRC to conclude that ... New Delhi condones torture."
In 852 cases, detainees reported what ICRC refers to as "IT" (ill-treatment): 171 persons were beaten, the remaining 681 subjected to one or more of six forms of torture: electricity (498 cases), suspension from ceiling (381), "roller" (a round metal object put on the thighs of sitting person, which prison personnel then sit on, crushing muscles -- 294); stretching (legs split 180 degrees -- 181), water (various forms -- 234), or sexual (302). Numbers add up to more than 681, as many detainees were subjected to more than one form of IT. ICRC stressed that all the branches of the security forces used these forms of IT and torture.
The Red Cross representative calls this a "representative sample," but he also makes clear that the organization hadn't had access to all of the Indian detention facilities. The cable notes that this kind of briefing from the Red Cross was uncommon, and reflected the organization's sense of desperation in dealing with the Indian government -- as well as the hope, if not an outright request, that the embassy might bring some pressure to bear.
(A poignant footnote here is that, according to the 2007 Red Cross report on the CIA's own horrific treatment of detainees in the war on terrorism that was leaked to the New York Review of Books last year, the Red Cross had filed its first report on the United States' own detention program five months before the Delhi briefing detailed in the cable -- meaning that at least someone in the organization was aware that the country to which the Red Cross was appealing for support in Kashmir was complicit in similar activities elsewhere in the world.)
There is certainly other documentation of similar crimes in Kashmir out there, even if it doesn't carry the same weight as the Red Cross's condemnation. In 1993, Physicians for Human Rights released a report on torture of detainees by the Indian government in Kashmir; the 2005 cable notes that "officials have maintained that the human rights situation in Kashmir is ‘much better than it was in the 1990s,' a view [the Red Cross briefer] also agreed with." But there have been no shortage of accusations leveled at the Indian government (and, in fact, the Red Cross) in more recent years, as well as the occasional news report. Another cable, signed a year after the Red Cross dispatch by the same author, Charge d'Affaires Robert Blake, matter-of-factly notes that India's "terrorism investigations and court cases tend to rely upon confessions, many of which are obtained under duress if not beatings, threats, or, in some cases, torture. These factors, along with a creaky and corrupt judiciary, contribute to cases lingering in the courts for years."
The Guardian teases a few more tidbits in yet-to-be-released India cables, most notably that "Rahul Gandhi, the crown prince of Indian politics, believes Hindu extremists pose a greater threat to his country than Muslim militants, according to the American ambassador to India." Given Gandhi's family name and relationship with India's National Congress Party -- whose efforts to play religious politics have gotten a gimlet-eyed treatment from the U.S. embassy in Delhi elsewhere in the WikiLeaks files -- that one ought to be good.
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
While the demonization of Julian Assange continues apace, the following thought occurred to me (it probably occurred to you already). Suppose a reporter like David Sanger or Helene Cooper of the New York Times had been given a confidential diplomatic cable by a disgruntled government employee (or "unnamed senior official"). Suppose it was one of the juicier cables recently released by Wikileaks. Suppose further that Sanger or Cooper had written a story based on that leaked information, and then put the text of the cable up on the Times website so that readers could see for themselves that the story was based on accurate information. Would anyone be condemning them? I doubt it. Whoever actually leaked the cable might be prosecuted or condemned, but the journalists who published the material would probably be praised, and their colleagues would just be jealous that somebody else got a juicy scoop.
So if one leaked cable is just normal media fodder, how about two or three? What about a dozen? What's the magic number of leaks that turns someone from an enterprising journalist into the Greatest Threat to our foreign policy since Daniel Ellsberg? In fact, hardly anyone seems to be criticizing the Times or Guardian for having a field day with the materials that Wikileaks provided to them (which is still just a small fraction of the total it says it has), and nobody seems to hounding the editors of these publications or scouring the penal code to find some way to prosecute them.
I don't know if the sex crime charges against Assange in Sweden have any merit, and I have no idea what sort of person he really is (see Robert Wright here for a thoughtful reflection on the latter issue). I also find it interesting that the overwrought U.S. reaction to the whole business seems to be reinforcing various anti-American stereotypes. But the more I think about it, the less obvious it is to me why the man is being pilloried for doing wholesale what establishment journalists do on a retail basis all the time.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Australian citizen and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is clearly an "enemy of the United States," as the Wall Street Journal argues, and the Obama administration is rightly considering prosecuting him for espionage. I agree with my colleague Peter Feaver that the disclosure of State Department cables hurts our diplomats' abilities to do their jobs. But a more pressing and complex question is whether the New York Times should be prosecuted as well.
It is a crime to disclose classified information under the Espionage Act of 1917 (see 18 U.S. Code § 793, paragraph e). The Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in Schenck vs. United States (1919). The Court ruled that "Words which, ordinarily and in many places, would be within the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment may become subject to prohibition when of such a nature and used in such circumstances a to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils which Congress has a right to prevent." The First Amendment does not protect espionage.
The most famous prosecution under the Espionage Act was the Pentagon Papers case, New York Times vs. United States (1971), in which the Nixon administration attempted to stop the publication of a Department of Defense internal history of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration lost the case and the New York Times (and others) published the history in full. Since the Pentagon Papers case, administrations have been generally reluctant to prosecute under the Espionage Act both because of the perceived difficulty of winning a conviction and because of general discomfort with the idea of suing the media for the content of what they publish.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
I am traveling a lot this week -- first to D.C. and then to Toronto -- so blogging is likely to be light through Friday. Before I head off to get poked and prodded by the friendly TSA personnel at Logan, I thought I'd leave you with a hypothetical to ponder, inspired by the latest WikiLeaks releases.
Here's the question: How much difference would it really make if all these "private" diplomatic meetings were public? Suppose there was no such thing as a "private" diplomatic meeting or a back-channel discussion. I can easily imagine that world leaders wouldn't like it very much -- but how much would world politics change if all these conversations were held in public so that people could see and hear what was being said?
I don't have a firm answer on this issue, but one possibility is that this hypothetical situation would pose a much bigger problem for authoritarian leaders than it would for democratically elected ones. If an autocrat knew that their conversations would all be public, they wouldn't be able to say one thing in private and then say something else when speaking on the record. And that means that some of them might have to adopt positions that were more in accordance with their populations wishes, particularly if their hold on power was tenuous. It would all be on the record. By contrast, a democratic leader would just have to take positions that they felt would appeal to their electorate, which isn't such a terrible idea on its face.
Of course, there's a downside here: you'd get a lot more posturing, and maybe even diplomatic rigidity, as leaders of all kinds tried to show that they were tough bargainers. And public opinion is a fickle thing, and you wouldn't want leaders to be nothing more than weather vanes mouthing whatever their latest poll told them to say. It's also likely that some diplomatic conversations would be empty and stilted, because nobody wanted to talk about anything serious in the full glare of open disclosure. But diplomatic problems still need to get solved, and a world of full disclosure might actually force leaders of all types to explain the realities behind their decisions a bit more, and educate the population when public opinion was off-base.
But my real question remains: Would it really make that much difference? Would a world of "open covenants, openly arrived at" (to use Wilson's phrase) really be that different than the world in which we live today? And aren't all those people who are now defending the importance of diplomatic confidentiality really saying that there is a lot of information that our leaders have to keep from us, or else the world will all go to hell?
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Almost all of the discussion about the WikiLeaks documents seems to have followed the lead of the New York Times in emphasizing a few of the cables showing inflammatory private anti-Iranian rants by Arab figures such as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Hamed of Bahrain and Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. A lot of Iran hawks are taking this as proof that the Arabs really do want war with Iran. I can understand why they are leaping at the framing, either to score points or to pave the way towards normalizing the idea of a military strike. But that's only one small part of what the cables which have been released show. So, in response to Jeffrey Goldberg, I've got to say that I think that the cables show that he got Israeli views mostly right, as I wrote at the time. But I also think that they show that I got the Arab views mostly right too.
The cables thus far released show that most Arab leaders deeply fear rising Iranian power and want the U.S. to solve their problems for them, and that in private Jordanian, Egyptian and Gulf leaders expound at length on Tehran's perfidy (as many of us have heard before, without the benefit of leaked cables). They are indeed "suspicious and hostile towards Iran." But they also fear retaliation by Iran and exposure before their own public opinion, are internally divided about how to respond, and insist on keeping their private views to themselves. And Arab public opinion is sharply against war with Iran, despite years of anti-Iranian propaganda in the Saudi-backed Arab media, and harshly critical of much of the foreign policy of these regimes. As Mossad Director Meir Dagan bluntly, and accurately, put it in one of the leaked cables, the Arab states "all fear Iran, but want someone else to do the job for them."
There's plenty of evidence throughout the cables of the well-known suspicions of Iran in Arab palaces -- with some of the wildest comments coming from Egyptian officials. But there's also plenty of evidence of their reluctance to get involved in military action. In February, for instance, the office director of Kuwait's Foreign Ministry is quoted as saying that "Kuwaitis are equally concerned about military pre-emption, which they believe would not prove decisive and would lead Iran to lash out at US interests in the Gulf." An Omani military official says " he advocated a non-military solution as the best option for the U.S." The Saudi Foreign Ministry "strongly advised against taking military action to neutralize Iran's program." In other words, "while Arab leaders would certainly like Iranian influence checked, they generally strongly oppose military action which could expose them to retaliation."
And there's even more examples in the cables of their desire to avoid taking a public stance. Hosni Mubarak rails about Iranian support for terrorism in private, but then says that this is "well-known but I cannot say it publicly. It would create a dangerous situation." An Israeli official tells his American counterpart that "Emiratis are "not ready to do publicly what they say in private." The Kuwaitis "will welcome any proposals that can move Iran off its nuclear path… but will not expose itself to Iranian ire by getting out front to push for these." Or, in other words, "those who expect these regimes to take a leading, public role in an attack on Iran are likely to be disappointed."
The point here is not to say that the cautious views matter and the hawkish ones don't. Nor does it say that Arab leaders haven't been calling for tough measures against Iran, since they have been doing just that for years. It's to say that Arab leaders are divided and uncertain about how to deal with Iran, and fearful of taking a strong position in public. In other words, it would be a mistake to "make too much of the private remarks of selected Arab regime figures, without considering whether those remarks reflect an internal consensus within their regimes or whether they will be repeated in public in a moment of political crisis." That's pretty much still where we are today.
As with earlier WikiLeaks "revelations," the latest batch of classified communications is bound to be something of a Rorschach test. With a wealth of cables from which to choose, readers will be inclined to see in them what they want to see. I've been reading some of the latest releases and I've read the New York Times accounts pretty carefully, but thus far, I haven't seen anything that fundamentally alters my views about U.S. foreign policy. Nor have I seen any other commentator who says that they've changed their mind about some important contemporary issue either. That said, here are a few tentative reactions.
First, everyone should remember that these documents are not revealed truth or literal transcripts of an event. Like most forms of diplomatic reportage, they are a version of events or a summary of impressions, as seen through the eyes of the person (in most cases mid-level officials) who are drafting the message. Even when one is just summarizing a meeting, whoever is drafting the cable gets to emphasize certain things and to omit or downplay others, and that includes the possibility that they misheard, misinterpreted, or misunderstood what was said. Context matters too: what foreign officials say will be shaped by what they are trying to accomplish and also what they think their American interlocutors want or need to hear, and it's hard to identify the full context from these releases alone.
Please note that I am not arguing that there isn't useful information here. My point is that we bear in mind that these cables are the products of individual human drafters who have their own agendas and frailties, and that the discussions they are summarizing do not occur in isolation. And although these documents clearly tell us something about a number of key policies, they are a very incomplete picture.
Second, as with previous WikiLeaks releases, we need to be very wary about our initial conclusions. Only a small number of cables have been released so far, and the media outlets that were given access to them (the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel) are picking and choosing from among the one's they've seen. Until we've had a chance to see the full set of releases, a degree of interpretive caution is in order.
Third, I am less troubled than some others about the possibility that these documents will expose gaps between what governments say they are doing and what they are actually doing. Some commentators worry, for example, that these documents have exposed the hypocrisy of the Yemeni government, which has been pretending that it wasn't allowing the United States to conduct drone strikes on its territory. Others probably fear that some particularly pungent comments about various world leaders might get exposed, and thereby creating undesirable frictions. There's also the concern that foreign representatives will be less candid in the future, for fear of being exposed by some subsequent leak.
But let's get serious for a second. I doubt there are any major world leaders who once believed that we held them in the highest regard, and who will now be crushed to learn that some of our officials had reservations about them. (I'm willing to bet that plenty of foreign cables say less-than-flattering things about U.S. officials too, and that those officials wouldn't be entirely shocked were those reports to go public). I give most leaders a bit more credit than that: most people know when there are significant differences between allies and even personal points of friction, even if they are papered over with appropriate diplomatic niceties. It's mildly embarrassing to have this out in public, but I'm not sure anybody is going to feel seriously betrayed or misled.
And as for the possibility that American diplomats will be exposed as less than 100 percent honest: at this stage in our history, is all that even remotely surprising? I mean, after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Iran/Contra, the cruise missile attack on Sudan, Colin Powell's cooked-up testimony to the Security Council in 2002, how many people are under that many illusions about the dark underbelly of U.S. foreign policy? And it's hardly headline news to learn that the United States has been obsessed with Iran's nuclear program, reflexively solicitous of Israel's concerns, worried about North Korea, or deeply concerned about al Qaeda. Some of the details in these cables are interesting, but none of the dispatches I've read or the news accounts I've seen suggest that a major rewriting of recent diplomacy is in order.
Fourth, the recurring theme that I keep seeing in these documents -- it's my own Rorschach, I guess -- is how everybody around the world wants Uncle Sucker to solve their problems. South Korea and the U.S. talk about what to do if North Korea collapses. Israeli officials keep demanding that we deal with Iran and preserve their "qualitative military edge." Some Arab leaders in the Persian Gulf want us to stop an Iranian bomb too, but they don't agree on the steps we should take to achieve that aim. And so on.
You'd expect these documents to contain a lot of this sort of special pleading, of course, because they are reports from American officials who have been meeting with various foreign counterparts and trying to figure out what they think or want. Nonetheless, it is still striking how many pies the United States has its fingers in, and how others keep expecting us to supply the ingredients, do most of the baking, and clean up the kitchen afterwards.
Fifth, the big story in the early releases -- at least as highlighted in the Times -- seems to be the combination of the clear U.S. obsession with Iran and the fact that some Arab leaders expressed great concern about the prospect of an Iranian bomb. It was as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow that hard-line advocates of doing whatever it takes to stop an Iranian bomb would immediately seize upon the initial releases to buttress their case, but the documents don't actually support that conclusion. As Andrew Sullivan points out, the same people who routinely dismiss Arab calls for a different U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestinian peace process are now suddenly convinced that these same Arab leaders are pillars of wisdom. In any case, it is hardly a revelation to learn that some Gulf rulers would a) prefer a non-nuclear Iran, and b) would prefer it if the United States did the heavy lifting and bore the onus of taking care of this problem. It would be astonishing if they thought any other way.
But the crucial question all along has been how to address that issue, and here these releases show some ambivalence. There is hardly a consistent chorus of voices telling the United States to go ahead and bomb the place. Some leaders seem inclined in that way; others much less so. I've heard other senior Arab and Muslim officials say that it would be a calamity if we did.
Lastly, the big question I keep pondering is this: would it be all that bad if diplomats understood that secret deals and two-faced diplomacy wasn't going to be that easy anymore, because the true facts might leak out sooner rather than in twenty or thirty years time? I can think of a few cases where secrecy has been useful (Kennedy's deal over the Jupiter missiles in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis comes to mind), but in general I think human beings -- and this include foreign policy-makers -- are more inclined to do bad things when they think they can do so without being exposed. If you have to keep something secret, that's often a sign that you shouldn't be doing it at all.
And at the risk of seeming like a naïve Wilsonian (the cruelest thing you can call a realist like me!), the whole episode raises the larger issue of whether the citizens of a republic have the right to know exactly what representatives are doing and saying in their name, backed up by the money and military power that the citizens have paid for with their taxes. And I don't mean finding out thirty years later, but now. I'm sure that most diplomats would prefer to minimize democratic scrutiny of their activities, as it would surely be annoying if Congress or the media or (God forbid!) ordinary citizens were to peer over their shoulders while they are trying to line up foreign support. But given that I am less and less convinced that our elites know what they are doing, I'm also less inclined to want to let them operate outside public view.
But there is a real downside, which is why I retain some concerns about this latest batch of revelations. If diplomats start fearing that any conversation or cable might get leaked, they will either stop talking, stop taking notes, or stop sending message back to headquarters in any sort of republishable form. There's an old line from Chicago city politics: "Don't write if you can talk; don't talk if you can nod; don't nod if you can wink." Somehow, I'm not sure our diplomacy will be enhanced if our representatives are reduced to making facial gestures, and communicating back home only through secure telephones.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
The latest dump of classified information stolen from the U.S. government is extraordinarily damaging to U.S. national security, but not in the way that WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, apparently intended. (If the summer leak was a gusher what does that make this latest round, a tsunami?)
Assange is a garden-variety anti-American who believes that the United States is a malevolent actor which engages in all sorts of shameful secret activities that, if revealed, would discredit all aspects of American power. Prior to earlier dumps of classified material, Assange claimed that the secret files would document massive war crimes by the United States. They did not.
Based on the depictions of the cables in the media (the New York Times coverage begins here, the Guardian coverage begins here, and Der Spiegel's coverage begins here, it appears the same thing is true for this latest batch. The media apparently found no instances of shameful behavior -- I am assuming that if they had done so, they would have led with those stories. Instead, the cables document that American diplomats have been doing what they are supposed to be doing: collecting information, reporting their opinions and insights back to headquarters, and trying to build international cooperation in pursuit of core American foreign-policy goals.
The cables document that diplomats often relay information that would be, well, undiplomatic to say publicly. Diplomats often get foreign interlocutors to be more candid when they believe their discussions will remain confidential. Diplomats also opine on a range of topics -- the limitations of current lines of U.S. policy or the weaknesses of allies -- that would compromise an administration's effectiveness if shared with a general audience, but not because the views were dishonorable, or indicated that the United States was engaged in reprehensible behavior.
Assange's damage to the United States is not in what he discovered about the past, but rather in the peril he has placed our diplomats, our friends and partners, and our policies in the future. The massive security breach has made every bilateral relationship more difficult and likely lowered the quality of diplomatic reporting. Will our interlocutors be as candid now that they have seen what happens? Ironically, Assange's attack on our diplomats has meant that our statecraft may be more dependent on cruder instruments of state power, especially brute force. (Elsewhere on FP, Dan Drezner reads the situation just as I do and notes one further likely result: an uptick in intelligence failures as the bureaucracy responds by stove piping information to prevent future espionage of this sort.)
If WikiLeaks had uncovered evidence of gross misdeeds, I suppose reasonable people could debate the balance of interests the dump might have served. Outlandish claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the leaks have done nothing of the sort. Instead, they have damaged the United States and in doing so achieved no higher purpose than the damage they have done. To fervent anti-Americans, weakening the United States is an end unto itself.
In wartime, we should expect enemies to seek to damage us in this way. How will President Obama respond to an enemy attack of this sort?
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
I expect to delve into the substance of the WikiLeaks cables over the next few days -- I've been flagging noteworthy ones on Twitter all afternoon, and will keep doing so as I go along, and I will blog at greater length about specific issues as they arise. But I wanted to just throw some quick thoughts out there now after reading through most of the first batch. My initial skepticism about the significance of this document leak, fueled by the lack of interesting revelations in the New York Times and Guardian reports, is changing as I see the first batch of cables posted on WikiLeaks itself.
I don't think that there's going to be much revision of the American foreign policy debate, because most policy analysts have already heard most of what's in the cables, albeit in sanitized form. The cables still generally confirm the broad contours of what we already knew: many Arab leaders are deeply suspicious of Iran and privately urged the U.S. to attack it, for instance, but are afraid to say so in public. I haven't seen anything yet which makes me change any of my views on things which I study -- the cables show Arab leaders in all their Realpolitik and anti-Iranian scheming. I never thought that Arab leaders didn't hate Iran, only that they wouldn't act on it because of domestic and regional political constraints and out of fear of being the target of retaliation, and that's what the cables show. I'll admit that I'm finding a wealth of fascinating details filling in gaps and adding information at the margins. Nobody who follows regional politics can not be intrigued to hear Hosni Mubarak calling Iranians "big fat liars" or hearing reports of the astoundingly poor policy analysis of certain UAE royals. This will be a bonanza to academics studying international relations and U.S. foreign policy comparable to the capture of Iraqi documents in 2003 (I wonder what norms will evolve about citations to these documents, which the U.S. government considers illegally released?).
But, as Issandr el-Amrani pointed out earlier today, the real impact may well be in the Arab world, where rulers go to great lengths to keep such things secret. The Arab media thus far is clearly struggling to figure out how to report them, something I'll be following over the next week. One of the points which I've made over and over again is that Arab leaders routinely say different things in private and in public, but that their public rhetoric is often a better guide to what they will actually do since that reflects their calculation of what they can get away with politically. Arab leaders urged the U.S. to go after Saddam privately for years, but wouldn't back it publicly for fear of the public reaction. It's the same thing with Iran over the last few years, or with their views of the Palestinian factions and Israel. But now those private conversations are being made public, undeniably and with names attached.
So here's the million dollar question: were their fears of expressing these views in public justified? Let's assume that their efforts to keep the stories out of the mainstream Arab media will be only partially successful -- and watch al-Jazeera here, since it would traditionally relish this kind of story but may fear revelations about the Qatari royal family. Extremely important questions follow. Will Arab leaders pay any significant political price for these positions, as they clearly feared? Or will it turn out that in this era of authoritarian retrenchment they really can get away with whatever diplomatic heresies they like even if it outrages public opinion? Will the publication of their private views lead them to become less forthcoming in their behavior in order to prove their bona fides -- i.e. less supportive of containing or attacking Iran, or less willing to deal with Israel? Or will a limited public response to revelations about their private positions lead them to become bolder in acting on their true feelings? Will this great transgression of the private/public divide in Arab politics create a moment of reckoning in which the Arab public finally asserts itself... or will it be one in which Arab leaders finally stop deferring to Arab public opinion and start acting out on their private beliefs?
Now those are interesting questions.
UPDATE: thus far, most of the mainstream Arab media seems to be either ignoring the Wikileaks revelations or else reporting it in generalities, i.e. reporting that it's happening but not the details in the cables. I imagine there are some pretty tense scenes in Arab newsrooms right now, as they try to figure out how to cover the news within their political constraints. Al-Jazeera may feel the heat the most, since not covering it (presumably to protect the Qatari royal family) could shatter its reputation for being independent and in tune with the "Arab street". So far, the only real story I've seen in the mainstream Arab media is in the populist Arab nationalist paper al-Quds al-Arabi, which covers the front page with a detailed expose focused on its bete noir Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the details are all over Arabic social media like Facebook and Twitter, blogs, forums, and online-only news sites like Jordan's Ammon News. This may be a critical test of the real impact of Arabic social media and the internet: can it break through a wall of silence and reach mass publics if the mass media doesn't pick up the story?
SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images