WikiLeaks: Historian's Dream, Diplomat's Nightmare

By Duane Shank 11-30-2010

This past Sunday and Monday the news media published their first summaries of the documents they received from WikiLeaks which contained more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. WikiLeaks sent the documents to the New York Times, the Guardian in the UK, Der Spiegel in Germany, Le Monde in France, and El País in Spain. The media's initial analysis found that the majority of the cables are unclassified and most of them remain at the lowest classification level of "confidential." Only 6 percent are "secret," and none are classified "top secret." While the oldest of the quarter-of-a-million cables goes as far back as 1966, the great majority are since 2001, and about 56,000 are from 2009.

Some of the information is simply gossip, and much confirms what is already known, or at least suspected. It's hardly a secret that the U.S. is concerned about instability in Pakistan and fears that its nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of al Qaeda; that Israel is threatening military attacks on Iran, and Arab governments are pressuring the U.S. to attack first; that American and South Korean officials have discussed the prospects for a unified Korea; that there is corruption in the Afghan government; that Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like Al Qaeda; that the U.S. bargained with other countries to take prisoners from Guantanamo; that Syria is supplying arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon; and that Robert Mugabe has survived for so long in Zimbabwe because he is more ruthless than any other politician. But it is news to now have these beliefs confirmed by diplomatic cables.

Some items, however, are more serious. The major example is a classified directive from the State Department demanding that U.S. diplomats at the United Nations provide detailed information on senior U.N. officials and the permanent representatives of Security Council members. The detailed information was to include passwords and personal encryption keys used in private and commercial networks for official communications, credit card numbers, email addresses, phone, fax and pager numbers, and even frequent-flyer account numbers. While it's long been suspected that countries do this -- and there have been some previous confirmations -- it is now confirmed and is a clear violation of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. It undercuts the principles of international law and cooperation and could weaken the United Nations.

The leaks, no doubt, do the most damage to U.S. diplomatic negotiations around the world. The Times says it "is sending shudders through the diplomatic establishment." Der Spiegel calls it a "political meltdown for United States foreign policy," and the Guardian notes that Hillary Clinton led a "frantic damage limitation exercise this weekend."

It would be difficult to play poker if your opponent knew the cards you had in the hole. Similarly, by revealing internal U.S. negotiating positions and information the U.S. has on its opponents, diplomacy is made enormously more difficult. British historian and columnist Timothy Garton Ash concluded: "It is the historian's dream. It is the diplomat's nightmare."

Duane Shank is senior policy advisor at Sojourners.

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