Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Brilliant analysis from Friedman. The critique of Assange's attitude to his own secrets is particularly poignant.

If you only read one bit, scroll right to the end for the Robert Gates quote.


Taking Stock of WikiLeaks
December 14, 2010
By George Friedman

Julian Assange has declared that geopolitics will be separated into pre-“Cablegate” and post-“Cablegate” eras. That was a bold claim. However, given the intense interest that the leaks produced, it is a claim that ought to be carefully considered. Several weeks have passed since the first of the diplomatic cables were released, and it is time now to address the following questions: First, how significant were the leaks? Second, how could they have happened? Third, was their release a crime? Fourth, what were their consequences? Finally, and most important, is the WikiLeaks premise that releasing government secrets is a healthy and appropriate act a tenable position?

Let’s begin by recalling that the U.S. State Department documents constituted the third wave of leaks. The first two consisted of battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. Looking back on those as a benchmark, it is difficult to argue that they revealed information that ran counter to informed opinion. I use the term “informed opinion” deliberately. For someone who was watching Iraq and Afghanistan with some care over the previous years, the leaks might have provided interesting details but they would not have provided any startling distinction between the reality that was known and what was revealed. If, on the other hand, you weren’t paying close attention, and WikiLeaks provided your first and only view of the battlefields in any detail, you might have been surprised.

Let’s consider the most controversial revelation, one of the tens of thousands of reports released on Iraq and Afghanistan and one in which a video indicated that civilians were deliberately targeted by U.S. troops. The first point, of course, is that the insurgents, in violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, did not go into combat wearing armbands or other distinctive clothing to distinguish themselves from non-combatants. The Geneva Conventions have always been adamant on this requirement because they regarded combatants operating under the cover of civilians as being responsible for putting those civilians in harm’s way, not the uniformed troops who were forced to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants when the combatants deliberately chose to act in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

It follows from this that such actions against civilians are inevitable in the kind of war Iraqi insurgents chose to wage. Obviously, this particular event has to be carefully analyzed, but in a war in which combatants blend with non-combatants, civilian casualties will occur, and so will criminal actions by uniformed troops. Hundreds of thousands of troops have fought in Iraq, and the idea that criminal acts would be absent is absurd. What is most startling is not the presence of potentially criminal actions but their scarcity. Anyone who has been close to combat or who has read histories of World War II would be struck not by the presence of war crimes but by the fact that in all the WikiLeaks files so few potential cases are found. War is controlled violence, and when controls fail — as they inevitably do — uncontrolled and potentially criminal violence occurs. However, the case cited by WikiLeaks with much fanfare did not clearly show criminal actions on the part of American troops as much as it did the consequences of the insurgents violating the Geneva Conventions.

Only those who were not paying attention to the fact that there was a war going on, or who had no understanding of war, or who wanted to pretend to be shocked for political reasons, missed two crucial points: It was the insurgents who would be held responsible for criminal acts under the Geneva Conventions for posing as non-combatants, and there were extraordinarily few cases of potential war crimes that were contained in the leaks.

The diplomatic leaks are similar. There is precious little that was revealed that was unknown to the informed observer. For example, anyone reading STRATFOR knows we have argued that it was not only the Israelis but also the Saudis that were most concerned about Iranian power and most insistent that the United States do something about it. While the media treated this as a significant revelation, it required a profound lack of understanding of the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf to regard U.S. diplomatic cables on the subject as surprising.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ statement in the leaks that the Saudis were always prepared to fight to the last American was embarrassing, in the sense that Gates would have to meet with Saudi leaders in the future and would do so with them knowing what he thinks of them. Of course, the Saudis are canny politicians and diplomats and they already knew how the American leadership regarded their demands.

There were other embarrassments also known by the informed observer. Almost anyone who worries about such things is aware that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is close to the Russians and likes to party with young women. The latest batch of leaks revealed that the American diplomatic service was also aware of this. And now Berlusconi is aware that they know of these things, which will make it hard for diplomats to pretend that they don’t know of these things. Of course, Berlusconi was aware that everyone knew of these things and clearly didn’t care, since the charges were all over Italian media.

I am not cherry-picking the Saudi or Italian memos. The consistent reality of the leaks is that they do not reveal anything new to the informed but do provide some amusement over certain comments, such as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev being called “Batman and Robin.” That’s amusing, but it isn’t significant. Amusing and interesting but almost never significant is what I come away with having read through all three waves of leaks.

Obviously, the leaks are being used by foreign politicians to their own advantage. For example, the Russians feigned shock that NATO would be reassuring the Balts about defense against a potential Russian invasion or the Poles using the leaks to claim that solid U.S.-Polish relations are an illusion. The Russians know well of NATO plans for defending the Baltic states against a hypothetical Russian invasion, and the Poles know equally well that U.S.-Polish relations are complex but far from illusory. The leaks provide an opportunity for feigning shock and anger and extracting possible minor concessions or controlling atmospherics. They do not, however, change the structure of geopolitics.

Indeed, U.S. diplomats come away looking sharp, insightful and decent. While their public statements after a conference may be vacuous, it is encouraging to see that their read of the situation and of foreign leaders is unsentimental and astute. Everything from memos on senior leaders to anonymous snippets from apparently junior diplomats not only are on target (in the sense that STRATFOR agrees with them) but are also well-written and clear. I would argue that the leaks paint a flattering picture overall of the intellect of U.S. officials without revealing, for the most part, anything particularly embarrassing.

At the same time, there were snarky and foolish remarks in some of the leaks, particularly personal comments about leaders and sometimes their families that were unnecessarily offensive. Some of these will damage diplomatic careers, most generated a good deal of personal tension and none of their authors will likely return to the countries in which they served. Much was indeed unprofessional, but the task of a diplomat is to provide a sense of place in its smallest details, and none expect their observations ever to be seen by the wrong people. Nor do nations ever shift geopolitical course over such insults, not in the long run. These personal insults were by far the most significant embarrassments to be found in the latest release. Personal tension is not, however, international tension.

This raises the question of why diplomats can’t always simply state their minds rather than publicly mouth preposterous platitudes. It could be as simple as this: My son was a terrible pianist. He completely lacked talent. After his recitals at age 10, I would pretend to be enthralled. He knew he was awful and he knew I knew he was awful, but it was appropriate that I not admit what I knew. It is called politeness and sometimes affection. There is rarely affection among nations, but politeness calls for behaving differently when a person is in the company of certain other people than when that person is with colleagues talking about those people. This is the simplest of human rules. Not admitting what you know about others is the foundation of civilization. The same is true among diplomats and nations.

And in the end, this is all I found in the latest WikiLeaks release: a great deal of information about people who aren’t American that others certainly knew and were aware that the Americans knew, and now they have all seen it in writing. It would take someone who truly doesn’t understand how geopolitics really works to think that this would make a difference. Some diplomats may wind up in other postings, and perhaps some careers will be ended. But the idea that this would somehow change the geopolitics of our time is really hard to fathom. I have yet to see Assange point to something so significant that that it would justify his claim. It may well be that the United States is hiding secrets that would reveal it to be monstrous. If so, it is not to be found in what has been released so far.

There is, of course, the question of whether states should hold secrets, which is at the root of the WikiLeaks issue. Assange claims that by revealing these secrets WikiLeaks is doing a service. His ultimate maxim, as he has said on several occasions, is that if money and resources are being spent on keeping something secret, then the reasons must be insidious. Nations have secrets for many reasons, from protecting a military or intelligence advantage to seeking some advantage in negotiations to, at times, hiding nefarious plans. But it is difficult to imagine a state — or a business or a church — acting without confidentiality. Imagine that everything you wrote and said in an attempt to figure out a problem was made public? Every stupid idea that you discarded or clueless comment you expressed would now be pinned on you. But more than that, when you argue that nations should engage in diplomacy rather than war, taking away privacy makes diplomacy impossible. If what you really think of the guy on the other side of the table is made public, how can diplomacy work?

This is the contradiction at the heart of the WikiLeaks project. Given what I have read Assange saying, he seems to me to be an opponent of war and a supporter of peace. Yet what he did in leaking these documents, if the leaking did anything at all, is make diplomacy more difficult. It is not that it will lead to war by any means; it is simply that one cannot advocate negotiations and then demand that negotiators be denied confidentiality in which to conduct their negotiations. No business could do that, nor could any other institution. Note how vigorously WikiLeaks hides the inner workings of its own organization, from how it is funded to the people it employs.

Assange’s claims are made even more interesting in terms of his “thermonuclear” threat. Apparently there are massive files that will be revealed if any harm comes to him. Implicit is the idea that they will not be revealed if he is unharmed — otherwise the threat makes no sense. So, Assange’s position is that he has secrets and will keep them secret if he is not harmed. I regard this as a perfectly reasonable and plausible position. One of the best uses for secrets is to control what the other side does to you. So Assange is absolutely committed to revealing the truth unless it serves his interests not to, in which case the public has no need to know.

It is difficult to see what harm the leaks have done, beyond embarrassment. It is also difficult to understand why WikiLeaks thinks it has changed history or why Assange lacks a sufficient sense of irony not to see the contradiction between his position on openness and his willingness to keep secrets when they benefit him. But there is also something important here, which is how this all was leaked in the first place.

To begin that explanation, we have to go back to 9/11 and the feeling in its aftermath that the failure of various government entities to share information contributed to the disaster. The answer was to share information so that intelligence analysts could draw intelligence from all sources in order to connect the dots. Intelligence organizations hate sharing information because it makes vast amounts of information vulnerable. Compartmentalization makes it hard to connect dots, but it also makes it harder to have a WikiLeaks release. The tension between intelligence and security is eternal, and there will never be a clear solution.

The real issue is who had access to this mass of files and what controls were put on them. Did the IT department track all external drives or e-mails? One of the reasons to be casual is that this was information that was classified secret and below, with the vast majority being at the confidential, no-foreign-distribution level. This information was not considered highly sensitive by the U.S. government. Based on the latest trove, it is hard to figure out how the U.S. government decides to classify material. But it has to be remembered that given their level of classification these files did not have the highest security around them because they were not seen as highly sensitive.

Still, a crime occurred. According to the case of Daniel Ellsberg, who gave a copy of the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam to a New York Times reporter, it is a crime for someone with a security clearance to provide classified material for publication but not a crime for a publisher to publish it, or so it has become practice since the Ellsberg case. Legal experts can debate the nuances, but this has been the practice for almost 40 years. The bright line is whether the publisher in any way encouraged or participated in either the theft of the information or in having it passed on to him. In the Ellsberg case, he handed it to reporters without them even knowing what it was. Assange has been insisting that he was the passive recipient of information that he had nothing to do with securing.

Now it is interesting whether the sheer existence of WikiLeaks constituted encouragement or conspiracy with anyone willing to pass on classified information to him. But more interesting by far is the sequence of events that led a U.S. Army private first class not only to secure the material but to know where to send it and how to get it there. If Pfc. Bradley Manning conceived and executed the theft by himself, and gave the information to WikiLeaks unprompted, Assange is clear. But anyone who assisted Manning or encouraged him is probably guilty of conspiracy, and if Assange knew what was being done, he is probably guilty, too. There was talk about some people at MIT helping Manning. Unscrambling the sequence is what the Justice Department is undoubtedly doing now. Assange cannot be guilty of treason, since he isn’t a U.S. citizen. But he could be guilty of espionage. His best defense will be that he can’t be guilty of espionage because the material that was stolen was so trivial.

I have no idea whether or when he got involved in the acquisition of the material. I do know — given the material leaked so far — that there is little beyond minor embarrassments contained within it. Therefore, Assange’s claim that geopolitics has changed is as false as it is bold. Whether he committed any crime, including rape, is something I have no idea about. What he is clearly guilty of is hyperbole. But contrary to what he intended, he did do a service to the United States. New controls will be placed on the kind of low-grade material he published. Secretary of Defense Gates made the following point on this:
“Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments — some governments — deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.”

“Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”
I don’t like to give anyone else the final word, but in this case Robert Gates’ view is definitive. One can pretend that WikiLeaks has redefined geopolitics, but it hasn’t come close.


Andy said...

Good article and probably right. I wonder though...maybe the damage wikileaks does isn't to diplomatic relations (governments know how this stuff works / Cameron couldn't give a toss that Obama thought he was 'lightweight'), no maybe it damages America in the eyes of voters around the world. Just one relatively trivial example, if the British government tries to sell the 'special relationship' line agsin, the British public won't be buying.

JP said...

Pouring Cold Water on WikiLeaks
by Daniel Pipes
National Review Online
December 14, 2010

Of all the WikiLeaks revelations, the most captivating may be learning that several Arab leaders have urged the U.S. government to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. Most notoriously, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called on Washington to "cut off the head of the snake." According to nearly universal consensus, these statements unmask the real policies of Saudi and other politicians.

But is that necessarily so? There are two reasons for doubts.

First, as Lee Smith astutely notes, the Arabs could merely be telling Americans what they think the latter want to hear: "We know what the Arabs tell diplomats and journalists about Iran," he writes, "but we don't know what they really think about their Persian neighbor." Their appeals could be part of a process of diplomacy, which involves mirroring one's allies' fears and desires as one's own. Thus, when Saudis claim Iranians are their mortal enemies, Americans tend uncritically to accept this commonality of interests; Smith maintains, however, that "the words the Saudis utter to American diplomats are not intended to provide us with a transparent window into royal thinking but to manipulate us into serving the interests of the House of Saud." How do we know they are telling the truth just because we like what they are saying?

Second, how do we judge the discrepancy between what Arab leaders tell Western interlocutors sotto voce and what they roar to their masses? Looking at patterns from the 1930s onwards, I noted in a 1993 survey that whispers matter less than shouts...

The Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, would have ended long ago if one believes confidences told to Westerners. Take the example of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's strongman from 1952 to 1970 and arguably the politician who most made Israel into the abiding obsession of Middle Eastern politics.

According to Miles Copeland, a CIA operative who liaised with Abdel Nasser, the latter considered the Palestine issue "unimportant." In public, however, Abdel Nasser relentlessly forwarded an anti-Zionist agenda, riding it to become the most powerful Arab leader of his era. His confidences to Copeland, in other words, proved completely misleading.


Not only did Abdel Nasser's shouts offer a far more accurate guide to his actions than his whispers, but he tacitly admitted as much, telling John F. Kennedy that "some Arab politicians were making harsh statements concerning Palestine publicly and then contacting the American government to alleviate their harshness by saying that their statements were meant for local Arab consumption." Thus did Abdel Nasser precisely describe his own behavior.


It's intuitive to privilege the confidential over the overt and the private over the public. However, Middle East politics repeatedly shows that one does better reading press releases and listening to speeches than relying on diplomatic cables.


This rule of thumb explains why distant observers often see what nearby diplomats and journalists miss. It also raises doubts about the utility of the WikiLeaks data dump. In the end, it may distract us more than clarify what we know about Arab policies.

JP said...

Web of Intrigue
Standpoint January/February 2011
Emanuele Ottolenghi

Wikileaks believes that "the public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions forces them to consider the ethical implications of their actions. … But can one take Wikileaks' co-founder Julian Assange at face value as someone only interested in the lofty pursuit of transparency for the sake of good governance?

Its webpage provides little information about the people involved. Equally, there is no financial disclosure. Yet it offers multiple ways to donate for its running costs.

… Wikileaks … draws financial support from a German foundation that is not mandated by law to reveal its financial sources. It benefits from US tax-exemption status through two US-registered charities but will not disclose their names. It is registered in Sweden as a newspaper because of lenient press regulations, as a library in Australia and as a foundation in France, presumably for the same reasons.

Here are three questions that Assange should answer for the sake of full disclosure:

What is your legal address? Asking for a residential address is not meant to help the men in black come and take him away. But according to media reports, he does not have a known permanent address. At his court hearings in London, he was asked this by the judge. As in the past, Assange equivocated, asking whether this was for correspondence purposes. He eventually gave an Australian address, though he has clearly not lived there for a long time.

Can the public see your tax returns for the past five years? Given that he is obviously employed, he presumably should be paying taxes somewhere. He is Australian — does he pay his taxes down under? He has applied for a residency permit in Sweden, though, given his runaway status on sexual harassment charges, it is hard to believe that his request will be granted. Still, is he paying taxes there? Does he pay at all? The public has the right to know, as does the taxman.

As a public figure, his income should be public knowledge. Assange has called on the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to resign. She may have some faults, but lack of transparency is not one of them: she has fully disclosed her financial interests upon entering public life and her annual income is in the public domain.

Who funds your lifestyle? … Anyone who travels as much as Assange does, often at short notice, also knows the more mundane trivia of that lifestyle: it costs money to buy plane tickets; pay currency fees; eat out frequently; and rely on taxis, dry-cleaners and hotels. Who pays for all of this? The organisation? Or Assange, out of his pocket? If the former, is that a salary? If the latter, who supports Assange's cash flow?

Wikileaks' mission statement would be far less risible if the organisation practised what it preached. The fact of the matter is that its members and its supporters do not believe that the rules apply to them. The wave of cyber-attacks launched against PayPal, Visa, Mastercard and Amazon offered further proof of the kind of lawless mindset behind Wikileaks. After all, the denial of their services to Wikileaks is the result of its violation of the terms of use. Breaking the rules in the name of a cause may be justifiable in a world of tyranny, but not within the framework of open, democratic societies. That the Wikileaks crowd thinks so is proof of their real goals — not to force governments to be more transparent for accountability's sake, but to undermine the US and its allies.

As the Wikileaks site opines: "Public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions forces them to consider the ethical implications of their actions." The above suggests that Julian Assange has for too long avoided public scrutiny of the kind he wishes to apply to others. …

JP said...

Excerpts from the usual high-quality I2 summary of pros/cons.

Is Wikileaks untrustworthy?
Intelligence Squared
February 15th 2011
You can’t trust Wikileaks: sooner or later it will hand over life threatening information to an Israel Shamir

Israel Shamir is a Russian journalist who has been responsible for preparing Wikileaks material for the Russian region. He is said to have given the Belarusian regime of the dictator Alexandr Lukashenko private access to leaks containing the names of opposition activists. Just before Christmas and just after these alleged events, Lukashenko rounded up and imprisoned 600 opposition figures. The original leaker of the cables, Bradley Manning, or whoever that may be, was presumably not expecting his actions to help the security work of an oppressive regime. Shouldn’t a responsible publishing organisation – Wikileaks likes to portray itself as one – consider the consequences of its actions? If it is in the nature of the leaking organisation to allow characters such as Shamir to take advantage of it, then surely it is compromised beyond redemption?

But then again isn’t there something suspicious about the current spate of Wikileaks-bashing? Not one, but three, critical books have just come out attacking the organisation; the BBC’s Panorama program aired a critical film … is this the sound of an establishment furiously trying to stuff freedom back into the bottle that Wikileaks prised open?

Pro: As a result of the unaccountable nature of Wikileaks … people fighting for freedom in one of the world’s most autocratic states are now in prison. …

Con: Actually, as Shamir himself argues in the US journal Counterpunch, no one’s life has been jeopardized…

Pro: The point is not to deny that some leaks of some confidential information can be excellent, or to say that the old-media are perfect in their judgements. Rather, it is to say that Wikileaks can’t be trusted for this delicate task. …

Con: There is no guarantee of good behaviour in any organisation. If there were, you wouldn’t have whistleblowers in the first place. Do we say the Pentagon is intrinsically corrupt because they could not control Bradley Manning? …

Pro: But the key point is that any reputable news organisation in a liberal democracy – be it the Guardian, the BBC, or even new media outlets like OpenDemocracy – is one that is ultimately prepared to justify its claims that disclosure is in the public interest…

Con: You only have to look at the history of the Defence Notice – the voluntary scheme by which the government “requests” editors not to publish certain materials, and the supine way in which the old media submit to that regime, to see that that old liberal democratic model of journalistic legitimacy is intrinsically corrupt. …

Pro: What is truly morally corrupt about the Wikileaks ethos is its utopian posturing – evident in the writings of Assange, and highlighted by the disgust felt by his erstwhile collaborator turned critic, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, in his new book. …

Con: For heaven’s sake no one is saying we should eliminate either secrets or old-fashioned media. Assange’s key insight is that under today’s technological capabilities, an organisation can only enjoy the benefits of secrecy to the extent that it earns the loyalty of its members…

Pro: The argument here is not against leaking per se, but about whether one particular organisation is sufficiently trustworthy to be a good recipient of leaks. By all means let there be drop-boxes for whistleblowers, but do not let them arrogate to themselves the right to spread whatever information they or their friends (like Shamir) see fit to spread. …

Con: Character assassination, huh? This is what threatened hierarchies always resort to when their restrictive practices are exposed and found wanting. …