Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Critically Reading the Wikileaks

On Critically Reading the Wikileaks

Only a small proportion of the announced documents has been released so far by Wikileaks. As such, it is a bit early to conclusively suggest anything as to the value of these documents and their impact. While following the release, a few tentative thoughts came to mind that I want to share here in the interest of starting a constructive discussion. The examples I mention below are not from Wikileaks, but they are close to some of the released bits I have seen in news. The purpose here is not to analyze specific cables, but to elaborate a critical perspective for reading these leaks. (And, more broadly, for reading news on government- and corporate-owned media as well as non-corporate and user-generated forums like blogs and wikis.)

Rarely do diplomats speak out their minds in candid terms. The most sensitive information is almost always communicated in person, not over digital lines or mails. Therefore, one needs to think about not only what was said in these cables but also what was not said.

Even for communications over digital lines and mails, on important issues the US diplomats and other government officials usually use plain but coded language. The person sitting on the other end has to decipher the language and read between the lines. The dots can be hard to connect for an outsider, who may understand no more than just the apparent meaning of a leaked text. However, the added layers can be uncovered by placing such texts in the context of the politics and interests of the involved political players.

A person's perspective matters a lot for this reason. For example, a leak could suggest that, “Iran is a threat to regional stability and the Arab nations fear its nuclear capabilities.” Now, this message may mean one thing to a devout FOX News follower and another to the one critical of the American hegemonic ambitions and support to the status-quo regimes of the Middle East. Hence, the interpretation and value of such a statement depends on the perspective with which people judge it and how critically informed are those perspectives.

In my view, when Washington talks about ‘regional stability’, it first and foremost means the protection of the American and Israeli interests in the region. Iran is a ‘threat’ because it challenges those interests and supports the resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon, among other things.

Words like ‘Al-Qaeda’ and ‘terrorist groups’ may also be codes in these cables which could refer to different groups in different countries. In Yemen, for example, they could also refer to the Houthi rebels who are challenging the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Both Washington and Riyadh are against that and have provided heavy financial and military support to the regime against these rebels. In Egypt, such labels may also be used to refer to the Sunni opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been repeatedly cracked down by the US-backed regime of Hosni Mubarak. Similarly, the terms “moderate states” and “moderate Muslims” are also codes that often refer to those who are in favor of and are protecting the American and Israeli interests in the region (for more on this, see “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim”).

One also needs to distinguish the Arab rulers from the Arab masses. Many Arab rulers surely fear Iran, but the majority of their people support Iran’s stance on the nuclear issue and Iran's support to the resistances in Palestine and Lebanon. In a recent poll carried out by Zogby International and the University of Maryland in the summer of 2010, the people in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates were asked to name the countries that they thought were the greatest threat to their security. 88% replied Israel, 77% the US, and only 10% Iran.

At times, factual-sounding statements in diplomatic communications may in reality be policy statements. For example, a statement that, “Iran will further isolate itself if it continues to pursue nuclear ambitions,” could very well be a statement of what they would like to see in case Iran does not follow their wishes, not necessarily what the ground reality is, even from their own perspective. Because, again, the same Summer 2010 poll suggests that a “majority of the Arab public now see a nuclear-armed Iran as being better for the Middle East.”

The poll results, moreover, suggest an increasing support for Iran in the Middle East on a number of critical issues that also discredits the argument of some US scholars that ‘old feuds between Shia and Sunnis’ define the political attitudes of the region. Yet, 'sectarian divisions' and 'specter of a rising Shia crescent', both codes for what they would like to promote, is continually used by both the US and Israeli diplomats and their supported status-quo regimes of the Middle East with the hope of dividing up the masses and re-aligning their politics on sectarian lines (for more on this, see “Bahrain and Pakistan: The Shia Dilemmas”).

Without a critical interrogation, and with media spins, these codes and policy objectives may in fact perpetuate themselves through these leaks. No surprise if due to the media coverage of some of the latest leaks, the general public in the US got the impression that 'all Arabs are against the Iranians and see the Iranian nuclear program as a threat to their security' and that the fault lines in the Middle East politics lie within their ‘ethno-sectarian’ divisions. Both the Neocons and the Hawkish-Pragmatists in Washington are surely going to capitalize on such a gross misunderstanding. For one, the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, stated last Monday (Nov 29, 2010): "So if anyone reading the stories about these alleged cables thinks carefully, what they will conclude is that the concern about Iran is well-founded, widely shared, and will continue to be at the source of the policy that we pursue with like-minded nations to try to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."

Hence, in view of the above discussion, the leaked cables should not be taken at face value, even in instances where they may be authentic.

The Impact

Not many people will go through all the leaked documents. They will mostly hear what the mainstream media and political groups choose to focus on. The media spins and the politics of appropriation of these leaks, therefore, would make for an interesting discussion in coming days.

In Iran, for example, while quoting the leaks some have criticized the current government for its defiant stand on the nuclear issue which to them has resulted in Iran’s ‘increasing isolation’ in the international arena. While some others have expressed qualms about the veracity of these leaks in instances where they may suggest that direct US support was given to the post-election rioters (true or not, and whether they discredit any of the opposition's claims, that's another debate). President Ahmadinejad also has questioned the ‘legal value’ of the leaks.

What is troubling many governments is not necessarily the exposure of their 'ill-feelings' toward each other by Wikileaks. The governments already know these truths, and also that embassies and diplomats regularly do espionage for their respective governments. In the arena of international relations, interests and power largely drive politics, not feelings of good will. Mutual suspicion among states is often normal. Pak-US relations is one example (on the issues of the nuclear arsenal, ISI, and PPP/Zardari). Iran-Saudi relations is another (particularly on Iraq and Palestine-Lebanon).

The concern that many governments have with these leaks is that this politics is out in public and now more susceptible to media spins and the perceptions of their national and international masses. After the leaks, the thoughts and prejudices of people against other countries or their own governments may solidify (and in some instances, radically change), and it would become more difficult for these governments to put an all-friendly public face, or make pragmatic political shifts, or claim to support causes that they really don't (like the Saudi (non)support to the Palestinian cause. Also, the Saudi and other status-quo Middle Eastern regimes would not be happy if their geo-political interests appear too much in line with that of Israel).

Particularly for Washington, the leaks are not only an embarrassment in front of the world but they may also promote a further disillusion regarding Washington’s claim of championing democracy, freedom, and human rights. In this sense, the leaks are a direct attack on the propaganda machinery of its hegemonic ambitions. Hence, Washington might also charge Wikileaks with promoting "anti-Americanism", in addition to calling it "a crime", "risking lives of troops", "compromising national security", etc.

The Truth

Despite the huge uproar in the media, most of the fundamental strategic and policy related knowledge that has come out in the leaks so far was already known to the discerning observers; the leaks, surely, added further confirmation to it.

Among the things that the leaks confirm is that ‘Israel tried to plan the Gaza War with Egypt and PA’ (The Jerusalem Post, Nov 29, 2010). This suggests a) the Gaza massacre in 2008-9 was pre-meditated (we already knew it then, but now we have further support), and b) the Egyptian and the West Bank authorities knew about Israel's plan well ahead of time, even if, according to the leaks, the two (supposedly) did not say 'yes' to Israel. We do not know what was worked out in the later communications. Egypt and West Bank’s PA may have had logistical concerns but from looking at their policies during the massacre we know that their strategic interests were aligned with those of Israel. Egypt, for instance, refused to open its Rafah border to allow food and other daily supplies to the Gazans. For reading the leaks, this also suggests that the fragments of cables, even if they are authentic, can be very misleading if we do not scrutinize them with a critically informed perspective.

Wikileaks reports also "indicate that the US has mounted a secret effort to remove highly enriched uranium from a Pakistani reactor since 2007..." (CSMonitor, Nov 29, 2010). Indeed, this was one of the key issues that embittered the relationship between Washington and Pakistan’s powerful military establishment in the last few years and perhaps explains some of the dramatic political changes and turmoil. Yet, this nuclear connection was persistently and emphatically dismissed by some journalists in the liberal elite circles of Pakistan who might still call it a “conspiracy theory”.

One should not discount the possibility of a good number of forged and fragmented documents intentionally released to Wikileaks by government apparatuses. That reason alone is enough to suggest that Wikileaks cannot be a measure of truth per se, but it is the perspective with which one judges its content, and since there can be multiple perspectives, the truth of these leaks will remain contested. Further, the accuracy of some documents in the leaks should not be taken as a verification of the rest of the documents. On the question of verification, Wikileaks website itself suggests that the "simplest and most effective countermeasure is a worldwide community of informed users and editors who can scrutinize and discuss leaked documents.”

Lastly, in any review of these leaks, one should also interrogate the sources used and the background and politics of the people working for Wikileaks. Because these considerations have a huge impact on what Wikileaks editors choose to release (and what they do not), their timing, and their targets. Perhaps, their politics and agenda will become clearer with the release of more leaked documents.

For some bits on what has been released so far, check out the following report:

US embassy cables leak sparks global diplomatic crisis
David Leigh, The Guardian, Nov 28, 2010

The United States was catapulted into a worldwide diplomatic crisis today, with the leaking to the Guardian and other international media of more than 250,000 classified cables from its embassies, many sent as recently as February this year.

At the start of a series of daily extracts from the US embassy cables – many designated "secret" – the Guardian can disclose that Arab leaders are privately urging an air strike on Iran and that US officials have been instructed to spy on the UN leadership.

These two revelations alone would be likely to reverberate around the world. But the secret dispatches, which were obtained by WikiLeaks, the whistleblowers' website, also reveal Washington's evaluation of many other highly sensitive international issues.

These include a shift in relations between China and North Korea, high-level concerns over Pakistan's growing instability, and details of clandestine US efforts to combat al-Qaida in Yemen.

Among scores of disclosures that are likely to cause uproar, the cables detail:

• Grave fears in Washington and London over the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, with officials warning that as the country faces economic collapse, government employees could smuggle out enough nuclear material for terrorists to build a bomb.

• Inappropriate remarks by Prince Andrew about a UK law enforcement agency and a foreign country.

• Suspicions of corruption in the Afghan government, with one cable alleging that vice-president Zia Massoud was carrying $52m in cash when he was stopped during a visit to the United Arab Emirates. Massoud denies taking money out of Afghanistan.

• How the hacker attacks which forced Google to quit China in January were orchestrated by a senior member of the Politburo who typed his own name into the global version of the search engine and found articles criticising him personally.

• Allegations that Russia and its intelligence agencies are using mafia bosses to carry out criminal operations, with one cable reporting that the relationship is so close that the country has become a "virtual mafia state".

• The extraordinarily close relationship between Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, which is causing intense US suspicion. Cables detail allegations of "lavish gifts", lucrative energy contracts and the use by Berlusconi of a "shadowy" Russian-speaking Italiango-between.

• Devastating criticism of the UK's military operations in Afghanistan by US commanders, the Afghan president and local officials in Helmand. The dispatches reveal particular contempt for the failure to impose security around Sangin – the town which has claimed more British lives than any other in the country.

The US has particularly intimate dealings with Britain, and some of the dispatches from the London embassy in Grosvenor Square will make uncomfortable reading in Whitehall and Westminster. They range from political criticisms of David Cameron to requests for specific intelligence about individual MPs.

The cables contain specific allegations of corruption, as well as harsh criticism by US embassy staff of their host governments, from Caribbean islands to China and Russia. The material includes a reference to Putin as an "alpha-dog" and Hamid Karzai as being "driven by paranoia", while Angela Merkel allegedly "avoids risk and is rarely creative". There is also a comparison between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Adolf Hitler.

The cables names Saudi donors as the biggest financiers of terror groups, and provide an extraordinarily detailed account of an agreement between Washington and Yemen to cover up the use of US planes to bomb al-Qaida targets. One cable records that during a meeting in January with General David Petraeus, then US commander in the Middle East, Yemeni president Abdullah Saleh said: "We'll continue saying they are our bombs, not yours."

Other revelations include a description of a near "environmental disaster" last year over a rogue shipment of enriched uranium, technical details of secret US-Russian nuclear missile negotiations in Geneva, and a profile of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who they say is accompanied everywhere by a "voluptuous blonde" Ukrainian nurse.

Clinton led a frantic damage limitation exercise this weekend as Washington prepared foreign governments for the revelations, contacting leaders in Germany, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, France and Afghanistan.

US ambassadors in other capitals were instructed to brief their hosts in advance of the release of unflattering pen-portraits or nakedly frank accounts of transactions with the US which they had thought would be kept quiet. Washington now faces a difficult task in convincing contacts around the world that any future conversations will remain confidential.

As the cables were published, the White House released a statement condemning their release. "Such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the US for assistance in promoting democracy and open government. By releasing stolen and classified documents, WikiLeaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals."

In London, a Foreign Office spokesman said: "We condemn any unauthorised release of this classified information, just as we condemn leaks of classified material in the UK. They can damage national security, are not in the national interest and, as the US have said, may put lives at risk. We have a very strong relationship with the US government. That will continue."

The US ambassador to Britain, Louis Susman, said: "We have briefed the UK government and other friends and allies around the world about the potential impact of these disclosures … I am confident that our uniquely productive relationship with the United Kingdom will remain close and strong, focused on promoting our shared objectives and values."

Sir Christopher Meyer, who was British ambassador to the US in the Blair years, thought the leaks would have little impact on diplomatic behaviour. "This won't restrain dips' [diplomats'] candour," he said. "But people will be looking at the security of electronic communications and archives. Paper would have been impossible to steal in these quantities."

The state department's legal adviser has written to the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and his London lawyer, warning that the cables were obtained illegally and that the publication would place at risk "the lives of countless innocent individuals … ongoing military operations … and co-operation between countries".

The electronic archive of embassy dispatches from around the world was allegedly downloaded by a US soldier earlier this year and passed to WikiLeaks. Assange made it available to the Guardian and four other news organisations: the New York Times, Der Spiegel in Germany, Le Monde in France and El PaĆ­s in Spain. All five plan to publish extracts from the most significant cables, but have decided neither to "dump" the entire dataset into the public domain, nor to publish names that would endanger innocent individuals. WikiLeaks says that, contrary to the state department's fears, it also initially intends to post only limited cable extracts, and to redact identities.

The cables published today reveal how the US uses its embassies as part of a global espionage network, with diplomats tasked to obtain not just information from the people they meet, but personal details, such as frequent flyer numbers, credit card details and even DNA material.

Classified "human intelligence directives" issued in the name of Clinton or her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, instruct officials to gather information on military installations, weapons markings, vehicle details of political leaders as well as iris scans, fingerprints and DNA.

The most controversial target was the UN leadership. That directive requested the specification of telecoms and IT systems used by top officials and their staff and details of "private VIP networks used for official communication, to include upgrades, security measures, passwords, personal encryption keys".

PJ Crowley, the state department spokesman in Washington, said: "Let me assure you: our diplomats are just that, diplomats. They do not engage in intelligence activities. They represent our country around the world, maintain open and transparent contact with other governments as well as public and private figures, and report home. That's what diplomats have done for hundreds of years."

The acting deputy spokesman for Ban Ki-moon, Farhan Haq, said the UN chief had no immediate comment. "We are aware of the reports."

The dispatches also shed light on older diplomatic issues. One cable, for example, reveals, that Nelson Mandela was "furious" when a top adviser stopped him meeting Margaret Thatcher shortly after his release from prison to explain why the ANC objected to her policy of "constructive engagement" with the apartheid regime.

"We understand Mandela was keen for a Thatcher meeting but that [appointments secretary Zwelakhe] Sisulu argued successfully against it," according to the cable. It continues: "Mandela has on several occasions expressed his eagerness for an early meeting with Thatcher to express the ANC's objections to her policy. We were consequently surprised when the meeting didn't materialise on his mid-April visit to London and suspected that ANC hardliners had nixed Mandela's plans."

The US embassy cables are marked "Sipdis" – secret internet protocol distribution. They were compiled as part of a programme under which selected dispatches, considered moderately secret but suitable for sharing with other agencies, would be automatically loaded on to secure embassy websites, and linked with the military's Siprnet internet system.

They are classified at various levels up to "secret noforn" [no foreigners]. More than 11,000 are marked secret, while around 9,000 of the cables are marked noforn.

More than 3 million US government personnel and soldiers, many extremely junior, are cleared to have potential access to this material, even though the cables contain the identities of foreign informants, often sensitive contacts in dictatorial regimes. Some are marked "protect" or "strictly protect".

Last spring, 22-year-old intelligence analyst Bradley Manning was charged with leaking many of these cables, along with a gun-camera video of an Apache helicopter crew mistakenly killing two Reuters news agency employees in Baghdad in 2007, which was subsequently posted by WikiLeaks. Manning is facing a courtmartial.

In July and October WikiLeaks also published thousands of leaked military reports from Afghanistan and Iraq. These were made available for analysis beforehand to the Guardian, along with Der Spiegel and the New York Times.

A former hacker, Adrian Lamo, who reported Manning to the US authorities, said the soldier had told him in chat messages that the cables revealed "how the first world exploits the third, in detail".

He also said, according to Lamo, that Clinton "and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available in searchable format to the public … Everywhere there's a US post … there's a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed".

Asked why such sensitive material was posted on a network accessible to thousands of government employees, the state department spokesman told the Guardian: "The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath revealed gaps in intra-governmental information sharing. Since the attacks of 9/11, the US government has taken significant steps to facilitate information sharing. These efforts were focused on giving diplomatic, military, law enforcement and intelligence specialists quicker and easier access to more data to more effectively do their jobs."

He added: "We have been taking aggressive action in recent weeks and months to enhance the security of our systems and to prevent the leak of information."

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