These abuses had been going on perfectly well for years. What people hated was being told about it. (Sir Humphrey Appleby, The Compassionate Society).
I had a half-formed piece about Wikileaks from August, around the time they released thousands of documents about Afghanistan. The recent leaking of 250,000 state department cables seemed a good time to dust this piece off and finish writing it.
First of all, it seems deeply hypocritical for any government to get santimonious about leaks. Governments leak all the time: everything from unattributable briefings to lobby journalists, all the way to “dark arts” such as disinformation.
It used to be the case that the details of the budget were kept secret before being announced by the Chancellor in the House of Commons. Now the main details are usually briefed to some political correspondents beforehand, so the markets know the salient details and no announcement is too much of a shock.
As Jim Hacker put it in Yes, Minister, a show with lots of intelligent things to say about leaking, “The ship of state is the only ship that leaks from the top”.
It also seems hypocritical of governments to say that these were private conversations and should not be printed. As we’ve seen with the spate of memoirs and diaries published by senior New Labour figures, politicians have no problem reporting a private conversation if it furthers their own purposes.
Any leak of information by a civil servant is justified if this information is in the public interest. I cannot think of any leaks that have been more in the public interest in my lifetime then Wikileaks’ leakings of the Iraq and Afganistan war logs, not to mention the recent State Department papers.
A full list of the main things we know about because of the Afghan war logs can be found here. Of most concern are the 144 logs of attacks on civilians. These inlude a Polish attack on a wedding party that killed five and wounded several, including a heavily-pregnant woman, and an attack by coalition troops on Afghan security forces, killing an Afghan police officer, after British soliders mistakenly thought they were Taliban fighters.
The Iraq war logs revealed that 15,000 – yes, that’s fifteen thousand – civilians had died in previously unknown incidents. US authorities also failed to follow up hundreds of allegations of abuse, torture, rape and murder by Iraqi policemen and soliders. Indeed, they seem to have tolerated these abuses.
It’s true that much of the information in the State Department leaks is pretty common knowledge. No jaws will drop when people read that Nicholas Sarkozy is actually thin-skinned and authoritarian, for instance. But to dismiss all these leaks as trivial gossip misses the point entirely.
Richard Adams has an excellent summary of seven things we didn’t know about previously, including the fact that Sylvio Berlusconi profited from secret deals with Vladimir Putin. The most disturbing is this one:
A classified directive which appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying was issued to US diplomats under Hillary Clinton’s name in July 2009, demanding forensic technical details about the communications systems used by top UN officials, including passwords and personal encryption keys used in private and commercial networks for official communications.
It called for detailed biometric information “on key UN officials, to include undersecretaries, heads of specialised agencies and their chief advisers, top SYG [secretary general] aides, heads of peace operations and political field missions, including force commanders” as well as intelligence on Ban’s “management and decision-making style and his influence on the secretariat”. A parallel intelligence directive sent to diplomats in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi said biometric data included DNA, fingerprints and iris scans.
There’s also the revelation that America charges a 15% fee to handle aid that was going to Afghanistan, the world’s second-poorest country.
All of this is valuable information that we have a right to know about. Apologies for this lengthy quotation from this excellent Economist piece, but I cannot put it any better than this:
To get at the value of WikiLeaks, I think it’s important to distinguish between the government—the temporary, elected authors of national policy—and the state—the permanent bureaucratic and military apparatus superficially but not fully controlled by the reigning government. The careerists scattered about the world in America’s intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well. The actually-existing structure and strategy of the American empire remains a near-total mystery to those who foot the bill and whose children fight its wars. And that is the way the elite of America’s unelected permanent state, perhaps the most powerful class of people on Earth, like it.
As Scott Shane, the New York Times‘ national security reporter, puts it: “American taxpayers, American citizens pay for all these diplomatic operations overseas and you know, it is not a bad thing when Americans actually have a better understanding of those negotiations”. Mr Shane goes on to suggest that
Perhaps if we had had more information on these secret internal deliberations of governments prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we would have had a better understanding of the quality of the evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Nonetheless, it’s surprising to see a sizable proportion of the reaction to all these leaks is expressing its disgust at Wikileaks, rather than the abuses that it is uncovering. This seems a classic case of shooting the messenger.
The first reaction was to say that these leaks would cost lives. This has turned out to be nothing more than mere bluster. These cables only have information from before February, so existing missions could not be jeapodised. The State Department was told about these leaks far in advance so they could help redact particularly sensitive information and alert staff in more serious locations.
It almost feels as if the US has a standard press release whenever Wikileaks leaks more information, and says that “Lives will be lost” regardless of the context. For all of the talk of the Afghan leaks giving away names of Taliban informers, nobody has died as a result of the leaks. In contrast, although no official records actually exists, between 11,000-14,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed in Afghanistan as a result of the war.
As Flying Rodent magnificently put it:
US general says that Wikileaks could endanger lives, whilst sitting on top of a huge pile of skulls.
A secondary reaction is to say that Wikileaks has an anti-US agenda, which again is complete nonsense. Wikileaks only releases information because US citizens leak it to them. As Julian Assange says in this Forbes interview,
We’re totally source dependent. We get what we get. As our profile rises in a certain area, we get more in a particular area. People say, why don’t you release more leaks from the Taliban. So I say hey, help us, tell more Taliban dissidents about us.
I can’t get onto Wikileaks’ website at the time of writing, but a brief look at Wikipedia shows they have released information about scores of countries other than America, including:
a) A Somali document authorising the assassination of Somali government officials.
b) Alleged corruption by the family of former Kenyan leader Daniel arap Moi.
c) Possible illegal practices at the Cayman Island branch of the Swiss bank Julius Baer.
d) Phone conversations relating to the Peru oil scandal of 2008.
Lastly, there is some criticism relating to Wikileaks as an organisation, and in particular its head, Julian Assange. The focus should perhaps not be too much on Assange: there are many others involved with the organisation. I have no idea if the allegations against him are true, and would like to see them tested in a court of law, to prove one way or the other. It is, however, perfectly understandable that he and Wikileaks should want to keep their details secret when US journalists are openly calling for Assange to be assassinated, and senior Republicans are saying that whoever leaked the State Department papers should be executed for treason.
Perhaps this anger is directed at Wikileaks, and not at the conduct of the war in Afghanistan, because we’re unable to get angry at Afghanistan anymore. I began taking a serious interest in politics and current affairs in my second year at college – around 2004. By then, we had already been fighting in Afghanistan for two years. The announcement of soldiers’ deaths in Afghanistan has become routine. It is like the background hum; a fixture on our news bulletins along with the weather and the state of the financial markets.
Despite all that, you’d still like to think that people would be able to spot a leak in the public interest when they see it.