Reading the news yesterday, I swear I could hear the faint but haunting sound of Julian Assange cackling gleefully while swimming the backstroke in an enormous pile of cable papers.
Wikileaks, Assange’s whistleblower website, began the release of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables to the New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais on Sunday. According to Foreign Policy, “Wikileaks published 226 cables on its website, and plans a phased release of the rest of the documents, with each new release focusing on a new country or topic.” The NYT reported that the dump, “provides an unprecedented look at back-room bargaining by embassies around the world, brutally candid views of foreign leaders and frank assessments of nuclear and terrorist threats.”
Some of the countries implicated in the Wikileaks fiasco this time around? Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, North Korea, South Korea and (drum roll please) Pakistan.
In a recent interview, Assange said Wikileaks is performing a “public service,” noting,
The cables show the U.S. spying on its allies in the UN, turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse. If citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what’s going on behind the scenes.
I am all for transparency, but the Wikileaks fiasco seems to take that notion to a whole new level. First, many of the revelations weren’t as earth-shattering as they claimed to be, not even reports of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah advising the U.S. to take action against Iran, telling them in 2008 “to cut off the head of the snake.”
Anyone interested in Middle East politics knows this is not all together surprising. Arab countries have been threatened by the power of Iran and its proxies in the region for some time, and the strategic chess game that has ensued mostly plays out behind the scenes, for the sake of diplomacy. The statement has therefore become significant because it was made public, not because of what was actually said.
King Abdullah also had some words about our very own President Zardari, calling him the greatest obstacle to progress last year. According to the cable, “When the head is rotten, it affects the whole body.”
Ouch. Not to be outdone, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed said last year that Zardari was “dirty but not dangerous,” while PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif was “dangerous but not dirty,” and could not be trusted to honor his promises.
Other less than diplomatic comments? Dmitry Medvedev: “Robin to Putin’s Batman.” Kim Jong-Il: “Flabby old chap.” Silvio Berlusconi: “Penchant for partying hard means he does not get sufficient rest.” [Berlusconi defended himself today, saying he doesn't attend "wild parties" but hosts "dignified and elegant dinner parties." Er yeah.]
The cattiness is eerily reminiscent of Mean Girls, when Rachel McAdams and Lindsay Lohan wrote horrible things about other girls in high school in a Burn Book. When the contents of said book were revealed, all hell broke loose. (And yes, I just compared foreign dignitaries to high school mean girls.)
But the Wiki-Burn-Book won’t necessarily result in more transparency in the future, if this is indeed Assange’s objective. So far, most U.S. officials haven’t responded to the leak with promises of future transparency, they’ve replied with calls to make sure such a breach doesn’t happen again in the future. According to Al Jazeera English, “The White House also directed government agencies to tighten procedures for handling classified information after the mass leak.”
Ambassador Munter, the new U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, emphasized in The News yesterday, “For our part, the U.S. government is committed to maintaining the security of our diplomatic communications and is taking steps to make sure they are kept in confidence. We are moving aggressively to make sure this kind of breach does not happen again.” He also noted,
An act intended to provoke the powerful may instead imperil the powerless. We support and are willing to have genuine debates about pressing questions of public policy. But releasing documents carelessly and without regard for the consequences is not the way to start such a debate.
The revelation that the U.S. has secretly been pushing to help Pakistan remove highly enriched uranium from nuclear reactors since 2007, “fearing it could be diverted for illicit purposes,” is likely to have such consequences. Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser to the U.S. Institute of Peace told me today,
Many casual readers in Pakistan may conclude from the leaks that the U.S. has been trying to manipulate Pakistani authorities – that is the last thing Washington wants at this point. Specifically on the nuclear program, what has been revealed is not earth shattering but that is not how it will be presented to the man on the street in Pakistan. This will likely fuel even more conspiracy theories in the country.
So, Wikileaks, a force for the greater good? That’s for you to discuss.