In front of the Golden Wall where people are teeming in the raucous chaos of everyday life, it is all messy improvisation. That not everything runs afoul is due to the mysterious world behind the Golden Wall. There lies the world of power, like the eye of the hurricane, in mysterious silence. Restrained, reliable, as meticulously organized as a chess board, it is like a purified world of platonic ideas. At least, such is the impression of the powerless. It is reinforced by the black suites, the noiseless limousines, the guards, the protocol, the perfect organization, and the velvety quietness in the palaces and ministries. […] Once you break through the Golden Wall, what do you see? Nothing special: the ado of ordinary people, neither more interesting, nor qualitatively different from the practices of the powerless. Unlike what the powerless think, they do not yield their power in “powerful”, inescapable ways as if proceeding with mathematical certainty, but just as messy and improvised as the powerless mind their own business. Mildred and Guy, formed a cabinet over dinner, Churchill and Stalin divided up the Balkans with a stiff drink.
(Harry Mulisch, the discovery of Heaven, translation RB.).
The release of the first batches (as of writing 1344) of the 251,287 diplomatic cables by Wikileaks (http://126.96.36.199/cablegate.html see also http://www.leakysearch.com) allows us an unprecedented view on the wheeling and dealing of a superpower and the working of international diplomacy. What do we see behind the Golden Wall? The reports of meetings behind closed doors, diplomatic niceties being exchanged, warnings on military, political and terrorist threats being given and send, assessments of the current situation etc. All are written in the same format starting with a summary, a statement why the information is classified (and who made that decision), detailed metadata for classification and routing information making clear where the information comes from, and which organizations have to be notified. The cables seem well informed, are well written, to the point, and candid on the situation whether favorable for the US or not. In short, they show competent and civilized people carefully reporting to their superiors on a messy political situation. All this is despite the fact that most cables cover the Bush administration, when US foreign policy was widely considered to be a disaster. The civility of the cables is in stark contrast with the raw violence and cynical bureaucratic detachment that speaks out of the Afghanistan and Iraq war diaries, also leaked by Wikileaks. However, while both were accessible via the US army SIPRNET (Secret Internet Protocol , Router Network) the war diaries have a military rather than a diplomatic source.
The diplomatic cables show the US embassies protecting US interests. This is not surprising, as that is what embassies are for. It is not surprising either that this involves getting all the information they can get their hands on, and lobbying for US policies and American firms. Finally it shows that the public image of cordial relationships is often a façade for a much less flattering reality. In short, they show Machiavellian politics. Even when such a reality is to be expected, revealing it is a source of major embarrassment. Moreover, even while lots of cables disclose things that are expected in general terms, they are fascinating for what they reveal in the details and the way they show who is doing deals with whom.
One of the aspects that has gotten a lot of press, is the description of foreign politicians. The fact that the US does not trust politicians like Berlusconi or Putin hardly reflects badly on the US. Although it can cause serious trouble the relation with their countries, in most countries it will be realized that a power like the US has its own opinions. However in many cases, the cables reveal as much on politicians behavior towards the US as they do on US policy. For example here is a part of a report 08CAIRO1067 (e.g. http://wikileaks.renout.nl/cable/2008/05/08CAIRO1067.html) on a congressional delegation to Egypt from April 2008
¶3. (C) Asked about Egypt’s reaction if Iran developed nuclear
weapons capability, Mubarak said that none will accept a
nuclear Iran, “we are all terrified.” Mubarak said that when
he spoke with former Iranian President Khatami he told him to
tell current President Ahmedinejad “not to provoke the
Americans” on the nuclear issue so that the U.S. is not
forced to strike. Mubarak said that Egypt might be forced to
begin its own nuclear weapons program if Iran succeeds in
¶4. (C) Asked about whether the U.S. should set a timeline for
withdrawal from Iraq, Mubarak said “you cannot leave” because
“you would leave Iran in control.” Mubarak explained his
recipe for a way forward: “strengthen the armed forces, relax
your hold, and then you will have a coup. Then we will have
a dictator, but a fair one. Forget democracy, the Iraqis are
by their nature too tough.”
Such cables show not only that Mubarak has ambitions for a nuclear program, but also that he is willing to discuss this openly with the US. In Egypt, the intimate relationship with the US is not at all popular, but the US wants to keep this relationship at nearly every price. Therefore a cable like this is a source of political trouble for Mubarak even if he is capable of suppressing it from the Egyptian mass media. In other parts of the cable, the importance of democracy was stressed by the Americans but this was waved away by Mubarak in elegantly formulated words that showed nothing but contempt for the idea. This and similar cables provides ammunition for accusations that the US is upholding double standards, as any hint of a nuclear weapons program and the lack of democracy have repeatedly been used as the reasons for hostility towards other countries, notably Iran.
Many cables testify of the tremendous diplomatic efforts made to isolate Iran. It is therefore surprising that the Iranians (and others) have used these cables to their advantage (yet), although they have been pointing for years at the way the US treats Israel which is well known to have nuclear weapons. Perhaps the Iranians are just playing their own game, trying to keep appearances of cordial relationships with their neighbors. Behind closed doors however, many (Sunni) countries in the region, and of course Israel, express fears similar to Mubarak, (see for example 09ASTANA95, e.g. http://188.8.131.52/cable/2009/01/09ASTANA95.html or even 09DAMASCUS880 e.g. http://www.wikileaks.ch/cable/2009/12/09DAMASCUS880.html ). Nowhere is the obsession with Iran clearer than in Iraq, a country with a Shia majority, the holiest Shia sites (notably in Najaf, the Shia “Vatican”) but also the frontline of Sunni-Shia rivalry, a neighbor of Iran (and historically part of ancient Persia), the site of vast oil reserves and last not least the quagmire of the Iraqi war which is slowly drowning the Americans. Read this for example (09BAGHDAD383, e.g. http://www.wikileaks.ch/cable/2009/02/09BAGHDAD383.html)
[..] [Ayatollah Muhammad Sayyid Al-Hakim] urged Jamaladdin through an emissary to “go to Washington, to Tel Aviv, anywhere” to seek help to stop
Iran,s nefarious project to subjugate Iraq, according to
Jamaleddin [member of Parliament for the secular Irraqiyah list]. Jamaleddin said he was surprised this message
was coming from the Ayatollah, but the emissary maintained that Iran’s aggressive efforts had struck terror into the
hearts of the entire Najafi holy clerical establishment. [..]
emphasizing that the Khomeini ideology of
wilayat al-Faqih (jurisdiction of clerics) is “the most vile,
Satanic ideology” ever devised by man “it’s much worse than
¶5. (C) As for Iraq, he said, every member of the Iraqi
cabinet who travels to Iran visits the religious center of
Qom to pay homage to Jawwad Shahristani, who he identified as
the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS)
One cannot help thinking that Jamaleddin finds an eager ear in the US embassy, and at least as importantly, that the report will find an eager ear in the State department. At the same time, one cannot help thinking of the schizophrenic position the US must have in dealing with the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government is led by Al Malliki, the leader of the Shia Islamic Dawa party, who spend 25 years in exile developing relationships with Iran and Hezbollah. He is most probably not the US favorite, but he was democratically elected and so the US government has to work with him. Other cables speak of the efforts of the US to get other countries to send ambassadors to Iraq, and of the negative reactions to that. However the cables show that the US is trying to influence Iraqi policies and trying to strike deals, including with opponents of Al Malliki. Few local politicians want to be seen as listening to the US (or in the Middle East, to Israel) for guidance, or protection, let alone seen as implementing policies which benefit the US. I suspect that the very real proof by Wikileaks that what is negotiated and with whom can be revealed any day will make such negotiations much more difficult. I suspect that this, even before the public relations damage is the main reason why the US feels that its vital interests are harmed.
The long term effects of this leak will have to be seen. As historical material goes, this is unique, so I predict the material will still be studied in a hundred years from now. In the shorter time scale we have only seen a fraction of the material yet and so new revelations will have political impact in the near future. On a general level, openness is important to keep people honest and is our best hope to make sure that power is not being abused. Despite the lack of interest in the war diaries I do expect they will have a positive effect in these wars, and I also really look forward to revelations about the financial industry which wikileaks is supposed to be sitting on (http://blogs.forbes.com/andygreenberg/2010/11/29/an-interview-with-wikileaks-julian-assange/). On the other hand, even a little historic sense shows that diplomacy has been necessary to work out conflicts of interest and has avoided many wars. It seems to be a fact of life that diplomacy is a somewhat secretive operation so the end result may in fact well be negative. More likely, the results will be mixed and the result will be detrimental to the US government. World stability may also come out worse to the detriment of us all. In the end though, this is all looking in a glass bowl.
Wikileaks and media strategy.
Wikileaks has leaked many more documents than just the cables and the war diaries (see this excellent Swedish documentary http://svtplay.se/v/2264028/wikirebels___the_documentary) and they have learned to play with the media for maximum exposure to great effect. In fact the cable leaks may be considered a textbook crossmedial strategy, that very carefully exploits synergies between old and new media.
First, Wikileaks has made a great effort to get their documents in the mass media. By having very respected newspapers like the Guardian, der Spiegel and the New York times co-publish the material, Wikileaks has not only been given a great deal of respectability to the leaks and a lot of cover for Wikileaks claim that they are or should be protected by freedom of speech laws, but they have also gotten access to very important support by journalists to scrutinize the cables. Perhaps most important, the reports on the cables in these quality newspapers are widely covered by other media including television all over the world, and are a stimulus to access the original material. There is therefore an enormous amplification of the message over a mere publishing of the data on the internet. This was a master stroke.
Second, the leaks are carefully spun out. At this pace, we can have new releases for years. Even though it is unlikely that the attention span of the media is even remotely that long, it will create uncertainty for years. If I were the US government, I would not be very impressed by Assanges thread that if he gets caught all material will come on the net in one big blow. From their standpoint that is far preferable than everything trickling out.
Third, Wikileaks figurehead Julian Assange is a highly attractive figure for providing a personal touch to the story. This is a David against Goliath battle, that provoked comparisons to Al Quaida by prominent politicians (http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=465212788434 ) threads to his life, a backlash that cut off Wikileaks Paypall and creditcard accounts, and the imminent thread of a an interpol warrant. Add to this Assanges constant moving, Andy Warhall look, Australian outspokenness, his association with hacker culture, at the same time frightening and fascinating to people, and the smell of sexual scandal and you have the perfect subject for a new Hollywood blockbuster.
Fourth, despite the fact that Wikileaks is banking largely on mass media, it is still associated enough to the net that it gets supported by the considerable fraction of the media and the public that instinctively identifies with the freedom of the internet. See http://wikileaks.mollie.nl/ for a Dutch example. The groups that want to restrict what you can do on the net are very powerful, but not very popular. It is less clear if the “support” by red eyed anonymous boys that flex their digital muscles with revenge DDOS attacks is helpful. It certainly gets attention, but In fact I would argue that this will backfire and be carefully spinned to discredit Wikileaks eventhough they have distanced themselves from these attacks.
Fifth, in some ways Wikileaks as a platform has some (but not all) characteristics of social media. Wikileaks has nothing to do with Wikipedia or wikis, although at some point in their history they thought that citizen journalism would be the way to analyze documents they leaked. This turned out not to work. However, by providing the sophisticated technical environment that makes it relatively easy to leak the documents (i.e. highly accessible) in an untraceable way it is much easier and less risky to leak. The very basis of Wikileaks is that truckloads of documents are mere Gigabytes that can easily be carried away on a usb-stick, a phone, a lady Gaga CD ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/28/how-us-embassy-cables-leaked ) or just the net. As a platform it is also attractive for a very interesting target group: the people running the computers or the networks, and technical analysts like Manning Bradley who probably leaked the cables and the diaries. They are not part of the establishment that have a lot to gain, economically and psychologically by keeping the status quo and hiding unpleasant facts. In fact they are often treated like dumb, deaf and blind servants. However, these people have the intelligence, technical skills and very high access rights (root or administrator) that allows them to access all information. Finally they are often steeped in hacking culture where the computer is yours, has to be protected against lusers whose clumsiness and management stupidity threaten the integrity of system, and where there is a strong belief (and ample evidence in their field) that all information should be open, so that problems can be fixed. By all accounts, Wikileaks is supported by a technically very capable group that adheres to much the same values. (As an aside, computer security works largely from the model that you have to send coded messages from London to your agent in Nazi Berlin without the Nazis reading it. This works very well with one exception: if your man in Berlin decodes the messages and turns over to the Nazis, your security measures are worthless. It follows that if you have 3 ½ million people reading messages from a security protected network like SIPRNET, the likelihood that a disgruntled person breaks security is very high. It also follows that “No worries, we use DigiD and https” as an answer to privacy concerns over governments collecting more and more information about us is a nonsense answer: the government is not always the good guy and the more information you connect the more people inside the government have access)
Sixth, Wikileaks makes sure that these large amounts of data are accessible, and remain accessible by spreading them around the world in bittorrents. This makes it essentially impossible to stop mere publication by shutting down Wikileaks. At least for the cables, they have also provided a user friendly interface rather than just providing a zipfile with the raw data. This means that many more people and many more media outlets can and will access the documents.
The Wikileaks saga is likely to continue for some time, and I would really encourage people to just browse around and read themselves. It will also be very interesting to see what comes out of the leaks on banks. Don’t be surprised if the cutting of Wikileak’s funds turns out to be a preemptive strike from the financial industry. I also think that the Dutch media will eagerly await the comparatively large number of cables originating from the Hague embassy . To be continued.
Update: Assange has been released on bail and some of the cables of the Hague embassy have been released. Balkenende certainly had a good press in the US statedepartment:
10THEHAGUE108, http://184.108.40.206/cable/2010/02/10THEHAGUE108.html ,