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
Britain's New Statesman has an interview with Julian Assange in its new issue out tomorrow, and the magazine is teasing a few excerpts from it today. While there's no love lost between the WikiLeaks founder and the U.S. government -- which is still trying to figure out how to extradite and charge him -- Assange says that China, not the United States, is his true "technological enemy":
China has aggressive and sophisticated interception technology that places itself between every reader inside China and every information source outside China. We've been fighting a running battle to make sure we can get information through, and there are now all sorts of ways Chinese readers can get on to our site.
Asked about his relationship with alleged document source Bradley Manning -- whose interactions or lack thereof with Assange prior to Manning's acquisition of the State Department documents is central to the question of whether the U.S. government has a case against the Australian hacker -- Assange says that "I'd never heard his name before it was published in the press," adding that "WikiLeaks technology was designed from the very beginning to make sure that we never knew the identities or names of the people submitting material."
Assange also claims to have State Department documents concerning the parent company of his media bête noire Fox News, telling the New Statesman's John Pilger that "There are 504 US embassy cables on one broadcasting organisation and there are cables on [Rupert] Murdoch and News Corp."
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday a commenter on this blog noticed that the British version of Amazon.com was offering pre-orders of an as-yet-unavailable book called The End of Secrecy: The Rise and Fall of WikiLeaks. The author? According to the website, it's the Guardian, the newspaper that collaborated with WikiLeaks' Julian Assange on the release of its last several batches of U.S. government cables, until the relationship soured in November.
No word on whether this is an actual book or a semi-clever prank -- I contacted the Guardian's press shop to ask about the book yesterday and today, but never heard back. I see that the listing for the title has disappeared from the site as of this morning, though for the time being it still appears on the U.S. Amazon site and those of other bookstores. In any case, here's what was on the since-vanished British Amazon page:
(A screen-grab of the whole page is here.) Publishers have long lead times, so it's not terribly unusual that the book (if it's the real deal) would be at least tentatively listed before the story it's detailing has run its course. Still, the choice of title is a mite presumptuous.
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
I love a good blog fight as much as anyone, but after reading several thousand words of accusations and counter accusations being slung between Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald and Wired's Evan Hansen and Kevin Poulsen, I'm left scratching my head trying to figure out what, exactly, this particular dispute is all about.
For those of you who haven't been paying attention, first of all: congratulations. Second, here's a quick synopsis: On June 6, Poulsen and his colleague Kim Zetter broke the sensational story that a young Army intelligence officer, Bradley Manning, had been arrested for disclosing classified information to WikiLeaks, including a video showing a U.S. helicopter gunship killing three civilians in Iraq and more than 250,000 State Department cables. Wired's main source was Adrian Lamo, a former hacker who says he turned Manning in to U.S. authorities after the latter confessed to the deed in a Web chat. As Lamo explained his motivation: "I wouldn't have done this if lives weren't in danger."
Four days later, Poulsen and Zetter published a new article on Manning, as well as an incomplete transcript of Lamo and Manning's chats, which had begun on May 21 and continued for a few days. "The excerpts represent about 25 percent of the logs," they wrote. "Portions of the chats that discuss deeply personal information about Manning or that reveal apparently sensitive military information are not included."
That same day, the Washington Post published its own article on Manning's arrest, quoting from the logs, which the paper said it had received from Lamo. Some of the quotes do not appear in Wired's excerpts. Wired also continued to follow the story.
On June 18, Greenwald wrote a long blog post raising questions about Poulsen's scoop and about Lamo. He said he found the story "quite strange," called Lamo an "extremely untrustworthy source," and accused Poulsen of being "only marginally transparent about what actually happened here."
What was curious about Greenwald's post was that he didn't challenge any specific facts in Wired's reporting; he just pointed to what he saw as inconsistencies in the story, as well as Lamo's account, and condemned the ex-hacker's actions as "despicable." He didn't suggest outright that Manning had not actually confessed to Lamo. He didn't try to argue that Manning hadn't broken the law. He didn't say the log excerpts were fabricated. He did, however, complain that Lamo had told him about conversations with Manning that were not in the chat-log excerpts published by Wired, and called on the magazine to release them. Poulsen said he wouldn't be doing so, telling Greenwald: "The remainder is either Manning discussing personal matters that aren't clearly related to his arrest, or apparently sensitive government information that I'm not throwing up without vetting first."
Still with me?
Then, on Monday, several weeks after the cables had begun trickling out, Greenwald again returned to the issue. In a torqued-up post titled "The worsening journalistic disgrace at Wired," he excoriated the magazine and Poulsen for refusing to release the full logs, calling Poulsen's behavior "odious" and "concealment" of "key evidence." Greenwald appears to have been motivated to weigh in anew by Firedoglake -- a left-leaning website whose members had been obsessively trolling the Web for stories about Lamo and Manning, and even pulled together a handy, color-coded expanded transcript from the logs -- as well as by a flawed New York Times article reporting that the Justice Department was trying to build a conspiracy case against WikiLeaks frontman Julian Assange. Presumably, the logs would be an important part of the prosecution's argument.
Wired responded to Greenwald Tuesday night with twin posts by Evan Hansen, the magazine's editor in chief, and Poulsen. Greenwald fired back with two angry posts of his own today (1, 2). Long story short: Wired reiterated its refusal to release the logs (Poulsen: "[T]hose first stories in June either excerpted, quoted or reported on everything of consequence Manning had to say about his leaking"), Greenwald rejected that explanation, and both sides traded some nasty barbs about each other and made competing claims about the nature of Poulsen's relationship with Lamo.
What still remains a mystery to me is what, exactly, Greenwald thinks is being covered up here. What is he accusing Wired of doing, and why? Does he think that the full transcript of the logs would somehow exonerate Manning, or prove Lamo a liar? And if he catches Lamo telling a journalist something that wasn't in the logs, what then?
Ironically, Wired seems most worried about protecting Manning, whom Greenwald is ostensibly trying to defend. The magazine has hinted all along that what's not been made public is mainly stuff that Manning would not want to see on the front page of the Daily Mail. Hansen writes:
To be sure, there's a legitimate argument to be made for publishing Manning's chats. The key question (to us): At what point does everything Manning disclosed in confidence become fair game for reporting, no matter how unconnected to his leaking or the court-martial proceeding against him, and regardless of the harm he will suffer?
In other words: Be careful what you wish for, Glenn.
UPDATE: Over Twitter, Greenwald responds. Here are three tweets put together:
To answer your question, I want the logs because it'll show if Lamo's claims are *true* - isn't that what journalism is? You seem confused because I don't know whose cause will be helped by disclosure - it'll help the cause of truth. Lamo made lots of fantastical claims about what Manning said - Wired can say if those claims are true. Why shouldn't they???
I know Glenn is looking for a normative answer, but I'm going to answer this in a roundabout way. Reporters generally don't consider it their business to fact-check claims made by sources in other publications. They look for ways to advance a story, or move on to other topics if there doesn't seem to be any "news" to be had. They also generally do weigh the harm that will come of too much disclosure against the value of the information to be disclosed. And they judiciously husband their scarcest resource: time.
I think some combination of all that is what is going on here, in addition to the bad blood that has been generated by Greenwald's unfortunate impugnment of Poulsen's integrity and his motives. Would it be relatively easy for Wired to take a look at the specific claims Lamo has made and check them against the logs? Probably. Would it be worth someone's time there? Maybe. Do I wish Poulsen would just directly address the seeming contradictions in Lamo's statements, in a way that protects what shred of privacy Manning has left? Yes. (In fact I emailed him this morning hoping to talk with him about it myself.) But at this point, I doubt it will happen.
Time's Barton Gellman pens a very good profile of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, a runner-up for the magazine's 2010 person of the year. He also buries the lede on the last page of the story: that WikiLeaks' cache of government documents may be much, much larger than the organization has claimed to date:
The worst -- or best, in the view of advocates for radical transparency -- could be yet to come. John Young, a New York City architect who left the WikiLeaks steering committee after clashing with Assange, says the group members are storing "a lot more information underground than they are publishing on the surface." Some of it comes from a hacker-on-hacker sting in 2006, when data jockeys at WikiLeaks detected what they believed to be a large-scale intelligence operation to steal data from computers around the world. The intruders were using TOR, an anonymous browsing technology invented by the U.S. Navy, to tunnel into their targets and extract information. The WikiLeaks team piggybacked on the operation, recording the data stream in real time as the intruders stole it.
In an encrypted e-mail dated Jan. 7, 2007, decrypted and made available to TIME by its recipient, one of the participants boasted, "Hackers monitor chinese and other intel as they burrow into their targets, when they pull, so do we. Inxhaustible supply of material?… We have all of pre 2005 afghanistan. Almost all of india fed. Half a dozen foreign ministries. Dozens of political parties and consulates, worldbank, apec, UN sections, trade groups."
Gellman writes that "the theft scandalized some WikiLeaks insiders," and Assange decided to hold most of the information back from publication. (Whether it's included in the "insurance" file the group distributed in July, when it released its stash of Afghan war documents, is unclear.) But if Assange has proven anything so far, it's that whether these things stay hidden or not may no longer be something any individual can control.
Update 1: Salon's Justin Elliott, whose Googling skills are better than mine, finds the whole email in question, which was in fact sent to John Young and posted on his own document-dumping website Cryptome.
The Air Force is currently blocking its personnel from accessing 25 sites that have posted information from the WikiLeaks cables. The Air Force hasn't specified which sites are blocked but according to the Wall Street Journal, they include the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde and Der Spiegel, all of which have access to the full WikiLeaks archive.
We've also been hearing reports today that access to this blog is blocked, as well as posts from other FP blogs that mention WikiLeaks. As far as we know, access to the main FP site is still available.
According to the magazine "Russky Reporter," for example, the famous walkout by Western diplomats during Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's speech to the United Nations in September 2009 was not spontaneous and had in fact been planned by Washington.
The magazine, citing WikiLeaks documents, claimed in a December 2 article that U.S. officials gave detailed instructions to EU representatives on when to leave the room during Ahmadinejad's speech. The claim, if substantiated, could be deeply embarrassing to the United States.
But unlike other media reporting on the WikiLeaks revelations, "Russky Reporter" provided no documents to back up its allegations. An extensive search of the WikiLeaks database fails to yield relevant U.S. cables, causing some analysts to suggest the magazine might be exploiting WikiLeaks to propagate false information.
It's a good catch, but I have to say that if I were a Russian propagandist, I might aim a little higher. Why not allege that the U.S. plotted the Orange Revolution? Or that Russian opposition leaders are on the U.S. payroll? Or that the proposed missile defense shield in Eastern Europe is indeed targeted at Russia not Iran? The Ahmadinejad walkout was a significant gesture but not exactly a historic turning point. Perhaps they were trying to avoid the Pakistani mistake of making the deception too obvious.
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
A front-page story in Pakistan's The News today reports that new WikiLeaks cables have confirmed what reads like a laundry list of Pakistani suspicions and grievances against India:
A cable from US Embassy in Islamabad leaked by whistle-blower website WikiLeaks disclosed that there were enough evidences of Indian involvement in Waziristan and other tribal areas of Pakistan as well as Balochistan.[...]
An earlier cable ruled out any direct or indirect involvement of ISI in 26/11 under Pasha's command while Mumbai's dossier, based on prime accused Ajmal Kasab's confessional statement was termed funny and "shockingly immature."
WikiLeaks revealed that a cable sent from a US mission in India termed former Indian Army chief General Deepak Kapoor as an incompetent combat leader and rather a geek.
His war doctrine, suggesting eliminating China and Pakistan in a simultaneous war front was termed as "much far from reality." Another cable indicates that General Kapoor was dubbed as a general who was least bothered about security challenges to the country but was more concerned about making personal assets and strengthening his own cult in the army. The cable also suggested that a tug-of-war between Kapoor and the current Indian Army chief had divided the Indian Army into two groups. [...]
An earlier cable described Indian Army involved in gross human rights violations in Indian-held Kashmir while some Lt Gen HS Panag, the then GOC-in-Chief of the Northern Command of the Indian Army, was equated with General Milosevic of Bosnia with regard to butchering Muslims through war crimes.
The only problem is that none of these cables appear to be real. The Guardian, which has full access to the unreleased WikiLeaks cables, can't find any of them. The story, which ran in four Pakistani newspapers, isn't bylined and was credited only to Online Agency, an Islamabad-based pro-army news service.
It's actually surprising this hasn't happened yet. The vast majority of the cables are still unreleased, but the newspapers which have access to them have often reported on some of the more salacious details before the original cables are actually available. (Take for instance, the famous "Batman and Robin" description of Putin and Medvedev, which appeared in newspapers days before the actual cable was available).
So, it's pretty easy to just make up cables to serve your political agenda. If the Pakistani forgers had been more sophisticated they would have invented quotes or even mocked up fake cables rather than just paraphrasing. This, in my opinion, is an argument for just releasing the full archive now rather than trickling them out at the newspapers' pace. It will be a lot easier to fact check false claims if we no longer have to rely on the Guardian as WikiLeaks' gatekeeper.
On another note, while the Pakistani revelations seem cartoonish, it wouldn't be surprising if some damaging cables from New Delhi are coming soon. In working to improve the political and economic relationship with India, both the Bush and Obama administrations have papered over a number of unpleasant facts, from India's tacit support to the Burmese military junta to still rampant governmental corruption. I'm guessing the embassy staff in New Delhi has probably been a lot blunter.
The WikiLeaks revelations about Pakistan mostly just confirmed how both governments not-so-privately already feel about each other. In the case of U.S.-India relations, there's a lot more to lose.
FAROOQ NAEEM/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
Pulling together several diplomatic cables from Qatar, the Guardian reports that U.S. diplomats are accusing Qatar of "using the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera as a bargaining chip in foreign policy negotiations by adapting its coverage to suit other foreign leaders and offering to cease critical transmissions in exchange for major concessions."
One cable, from July 2009, reports that the channel has "proved itself a useful tool for the station's political masters" and states that "Al Jazeera's more favorable coverage of Saudi Arabia's royal family has facilitated Qatari-Saudi reconciliation over the past year." Another states that that "the United States has been portrayed more positively since the advent of the Obama administration" and suggests the Al Jazeera coverage be "made part of our bilateral discussions - as it has been to favorable effect between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and other countries."
That Al Jazeera has a political bias is not exactly earth-shattering news, nor is the fact that the station generally refrains from criticizing the Qatari government while seriously pissing off other governments in the region. Qatar is hardly the first authoritarian regime to discover the benefits of sponsoring a global media outlet whose coverage is broadly aligned with its ideology and interests. But that's not the same thing as using the network as a "bargaining chip". That part of the Guardian story is a bit of a stretch, as evidenced by its highlighting of this February 2010 account of a meeting between Qatari Prime Minsiter Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani (HBJ) and Sen. John Kerry:
Qatar is worried, said HBJ, about Egypt and its people, who are increasingly impatient. Mubarak, continued HBJ, says Al Jazeera is the source of Egypt's problems. This is an excuse. HBJ had told Mubarak "we would stop Al Jazeera for a year" if he agreed in that span of time to deliver a lasting settlement for the Palestinians. Mubarak said nothing in response, according to HBJ.
Something tells me Thani wasn't seriously offering Mubarak one Al Jazeera-free year in return for helping to create a Palestinian state. That's what we in non-diplomatic circles call a joke.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
The L.A. Times' Babylon and Beyond blog reports that unlike in most of the world, the WikiLeaks dump of U.S. diplomatic cables isn't getting that much attention in the pan-Arab press:
Headlines in the heavily state-controlled Saudi media were dominated by news of King Abdullah's ongoing physiotherapy, while the top story in the Emirati newspaper, Al Bayan, centered on Prince Mohamad bin Rashid's praise for the country's progress toward "transparency." Most mentions of the WikiLeaks documents in official Arabic news outlets were scrubbed of any reference to the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, focusing instead on U.S. attempts to control the damage to its diplomatic relations.
Even the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, considered one of the most credible pan-Arab news outlets, tread lightly in its coverage and generally refrained from repeating the most incendiary quotes from the heads of neighboring states.
It's hardly surprising that state-controlled Arab media wouldn't report on the repeated requests by Arab heads of state for the United States to put a stop to Iran's nuclear program. Some Arab leaders have gone as far as supporting military strikes against Iran. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, for example, called on the U.S. to "cut the head off" the Iranian snake.
These positions might make sense from the point of view of an Arab autocrat, but they remain deeply unpopular with the populations they rule over. A 2010 public opinion poll of the Arab world found that 57 percent of Arabs think that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be positive for the Middle East. (H/T Friday Lunch Club.)
Issandr El Amrani (a frequent Foreign Policy contributor) writes on his blog:
There is so much information flowing around about US policy - and often, a good deal of transparency - that a smart observer with good contacts can get a good idea of what's happening. Not so in the Arab world, and the contents of the conversations Arab leader are having with their patron state are not out in the Arab public domain or easily guessable, as anyone who reads the meaningless press statements of government press agencies will tell you. Cablegate is in important record from the Arab perspective, perhaps more than from the US one.
The leaked cables bring to light the behind-the-scenes positions of Arab politicians from Mubarak to Abdullah, but if that information doesn't make its way into the mainstream Arabic media, what kind of effect will it really have?
After you read through enough of these WikiLeaks cables, you realize that most of it is fairly mundane. And then you stumble on a line like this: Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to CENTCOM Commander John Abizaid: "The Somalia job was fantastic."
The Somalia job?
The month is January 2007, and U.S. airstrikes have just taken out alleged al Qaeda leaders in Somalia. Days earlier, an American-backed Ethiopian invasion of the East African country rolled into Mogadishu and unseated Somalia's government -- the first functioning (if still flawed) one it had had in two decades. The job would later go a bit sour: Today, the central government controls just about a third of the land in the capital. The rest is in the hands of one of several Islamist militant groups that sprang from the extremes of that once-ousted government. Yes, the one ousted by the Somalia job.
But back to the cable: the point here might be more about the weapon than the target. During the conversation, Zayed makes clear that he wants to acquire predator drones as a signal to Iran: "Iran has to know that there is a price to pay for every decision they make. They are expanding day by day -- they have to be dealt with before they do something tragic."
I wonder if they'll finally get what they asked for in the $7 billion U.S. arms deal anticipated to land in the UAE next year?
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.
The subtitle of this blog has been "How the World is Really Run" since the day it was launched, an editor's play on the title of a book I wrote. But I am today inclined to lend that subtitle out to the publishers of the most recent tidal wave of information from WikiLeaks. Because the 250,000 State Department cables contained in the release offer up no single revelation as striking as the overall message they contain: The dark shadowy world of diplomacy and international intrigue is working just about precisely as you suspect it is.
Behind the scenes, diplomats are sending private assessments of foreign leaders back to their bosses. Those assessments are often not entirely flattering. But what would you expect? Further, of all the assessments revealed among the WikiLeaks documents, none fly against perceptions that have long been public. Sarkozy thin-skinned? Berlusconi vain and partying way too hard for an old man? Putin and his cronies collaborating with the mob? The Karzai family corrupt? Saudis financing terror? Other Gulf leaders looking the other way? If you are surprised, then you have not been paying attention.
It is even less surprising, if such thing is possible, that those diplomats are busy trying to collect information on foreign leaders or that behind the scenes they are sometimes saying things that are at odds with their public statements. Does it make sense that Yemen's leaders would rather it look as though they were the ones striking against terror threats within their borders rather than letting the United States do it? Or that Arab leaders might take a tougher line on Iran behind closed doors? Or that the United States might be critical even of its allies from time to time? The real shock would be if these things were not true.
The landscape described by WikiLeaks is vivid, adding details that are colorful, sometimes embarrassing, and, occasionally, even thought-provoking. In the colorful department of course, we have everything from suggestions of inappropriate behavior from a member of the British Royal family (wouldn't we be more shocked by revelations of appropriate behavior from them at this point?) to descriptions by top diplomats of the Chechen president dancing at a Dagestani wedding with a gold-plated automatic shoved into his belt. In the embarrassing department we have vignettes as diverse as one featuring the Afghan vice president arriving in the United Arab Emirates with a suitcase full of illicit cash, or another featuring the White House auctioning off meetings with President Obama in exchange for countries taking in prisoners from Guantanamo.
What is thought-provoking is that it seems virtually every country that is a neighbor of Iran seems to be more inclined to see action taken against the Iranian nuclear program than is the United States… although frankly given the history and cultural fault lines in the region, this may actually be an argument for giving the U.S. approach more credence and support. Also emerging from the documents is a picture of just how dangerously immature China's foreign policy remains. The country is clearly continuing to be too inclined to cosset and support rogue regimes, an approach that is clearly out of sync with China's broadening international interests or its desire to be treated seriously as a leading nation. Finally, in this category, these documents make clear yet again -- from the repeated mentions of corruption in Afghanistan to deeply unsettling perspectives on the vulnerability and risks associated with the Pakistani nuclear program -- that the United States' involvement in that part of the world has us tied up with very bad actors and is likely to end up producing very unsatisfactory and possibly even tragic outcomes.
There is one other subtext that runs through all this, one well highlighted in a very good analytical piece on the releases by Timothy Garton Ash in the British newspaper the Guardian. The cables not only reveal that the world is run much as you expect it would be but for all the venality, hypocrisy, callousness and irresponsibility that is part and parcel of such assumptions, from time to time elements of it run precisely as you actually would hope they would run. For example, there is repeatedly revealed within the U.S. state department a high degree of professionalism, competence and courage. The best U.S. diplomats -- like Bill Burns, now undersecretary of state for political affairs, or ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson -- provide dependable insights in their communications and show no hesitation to send back assessments that will surely ruffle feathers back in Washington.
The WikiLeaks cables shine light on dark corners of international affairs only to reveal that for the most part, what is going on is what we thought was going on. The light enables us to see details, many fascinating, some disturbing, that also helps us better understand the nature of the world in which we are living and the risks we are facing. As a consequence, on a net basis, the newspapers that first broke the release -- the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Der Spiegel and Le Monde -- performed a useful service and did so with seemingly admirable restraint and judgment if their descriptions of their dialogue with officials regarding the releases are accurate.
That said, it must be acknowledged that yet another dimension of how the world is really run that is revealed through these releases is the means by which they were made public in the first place. If the U.S. continues to see fit to grant security clearances to three million individuals and all the information in these leaks can be as easily transferred as they were first to a fake Lady Gaga CD and then to the Internet or a thumb drive then we must expect that just like intrigue, deception, bad policies, and earnest public officials trying to advance their national interests, breaches of security like these will become a permanent part of the landscape of international affairs. If such leaks are really as odious and dangerous as many in the United States government are now asserting (a view with which I am sympathetic) then the place they ought to begin assigning blame is on themselves for allowing the creation of a system in which one more widely understood fact of the way the world works is that most secrets are very hard to keep.
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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.
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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?
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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?
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Roy Greenslade, a journalism professor and commentator for the Guardian, castigates British editors for their critical coverage of WikiLeaks, the self-proclaimed whistleblower site that is about to release some 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables into the wild:
Aren't we in the job of ferreting out secrets so that our readers - the voters - can know what their elected governments are doing in their name? Isn't it therefore better that we can, at last, get at them?
It's a fair question. I must confess that, like plenty of other editors, I can't wait to read this batch of documents. Unlike with the last two dumps, which consisted mainly of raw reports from the field about events that had already been widely reported, it seems there are genuine revelations this time around. Already, news outlets are reporting that we can expect unvarnished American views of the shortcomings of British leaders, critical comments about Nelson Mandela, remarks about Islam that may come across poorly, allegations of corruption among Russian politicians, and so on. For news junkies like me, it promises to be good reading. I know I'm going to be up late tonight.
As a general precedent, though, it's troubling. U.S. diplomats should be able to share their assessments candidly with the folks back in Washington without fear of waking up and finding their cables splashed across the front page of the New York Times. People who take great risks to share sensitive information with embassy officials won't come forward if they worry that the Kremlin, or the Mugabe regime, is going to punish them for their candor. And sometimes too much media attention can get in the way of quiet progress, as in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Still, where do you draw the line? Obviously, aggressive news outlets like the New York Times publish revelations every day that cause heartburn for U.S. officials -- often thanks to sources whose motivations may or may not be good ones. That's our job. Had FP gotten its hands on these cables, no doubt we would be publishing many of them (after doing proper due diligence and allowing the State Department to make its case). We're certainly going to comment on their contents. News is news.
But is there a principle that says it's OK to publish one-off scoops, but not 250,000 -- or for that matter 2.7 million -- of them all at once? The former feels like journalism; the latter seems grotesque and irresponsible, more like "information vandalism," in the words of secrecy expert Steven Aftergood. And even if responsible papers like the New York Times have a chance to review and contextualize them, there's no way they can dot every i and cross every t in the time allotted. There's just too much.
WikiLeaks breezily sidesteps these sorts of questions, arguing that the global public ought to have a right to read classified documents anytime, from any government. But that may be ex post facto rationalization for a decision to publish documents the group was handed on a silver platter. It clearly doesn't work as a general rule -- otherwise, there would be chaos. And it clearly doesn't work unless you're convinced, like Julian Assange apparently is, that everything the U.S. government does is inherently nefarious.
What do you think? Readers, please weigh in via comments, or email me at blake[dot]hounshell[at]foreignpolicy.com.