Why WikiLeaks Matters
More than fifty days have passed since the WikiLeaks document release in late November, this one centering on US diplomatic cables and quickly dubbed "Cablegate." At this writing, not even 3,000 cables from the cache, which reportedly holds more than 251,000 documents, have been published by WikiLeaks or, in most cases, by its newspaper partners, and it's impossible to know whether everything of prime importance has already emerged in the cherry-picking.
Julian Assange's next court date in his sex-crime extradition case is not until February 7, and a major WikiLeaks release—rumored to focus on Bank of America—seems to have been pushed back, partly because of WikiLeaks' financial problems. So it's an appropriate time to assess what we have learned so far—about Assange and alleged leaker Bradley Manning (heroes? villains?), the media's love-hate relationship with WikiLeaks and limits on civil liberties for journalists and whistleblowers.
Then there are the various threats and retreats inspired by the latest leak: the likely US prosecution of Assange, along with calls by some pundits and politicians for his execution or assassination; leading corporations such as PayPal and Amazon cutting off services for WikiLeaks; Rep. Peter King's call this week for a ban on American companies dealing with WIkiLeaks; and our Justice Department's secret subpoenas for Twitter (and likely other social networks) seeking information on some WikiLeaks supporters.
How all these issues and others are viewed by the public hinges significantly, however, on the perceived value of the leaked cables. US officials, even in charging foul, usually focus on the embarrassing loss of control and secrecy, not the damaging content of the cables. And as with earlier WikiLeaks bombshells—the massive Iraq and Afghanistan "war logs"—many critics in the media soon labeled the Cablegate revelations minor, old hat. Some of WikiLeaks' media partners, after a dozen days of heavy-duty reporting, severely reduced coverage of the cables. Now most of them are emerging via El País and the Norwegian daily Aftenposten.
For balance, then, it's important to review a small sample of what we have learned thanks to WikiLeaks since April and the release of the "Collateral Murder" US helicopter video, which showed the killing of two Reuters journalists, among others. It's necessary to do this because most in the US media, after brief coverage, provided little follow-up. Consider the scope of even this very limited list of revelations (and I have not even included the shockers that some feel helped spark this month's revolt in Tunisia):
§ The Saudis, our allies, are among the leading funders of international terrorism.
§ The scale of corruption in Afghanistan tops even the worst estimates. President Hamid Karzai regularly releases major drug dealers who have political connections. His half-brother is a major drug operator.
§ The Pentagon basically lied to the public in downplaying sectarian violence in Iraq. Our military handed over many detainees they knew would be tortured to the Iraqis. US authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of torture and abuse by Iraqi police and military.
§ After the release of the Iraq logs, new tallies put the number of documented civilian casualties there at more than 100,000. The Afghanistan logs similarly showed many more civilians killed there than previously known, along with once-secret US assassination missions against insurgents.
§ The British government assured Washington that our interests would be protected in its "independent" public inquiry into the Iraq War.
§ The Pakistani government has allowed its intelligence unit to hold strategy sessions with the Taliban. Despite longstanding denials, the United States has indeed been conducting special ops inside Pakistan and taking part in joint operations with the Pakistanis.
§ The Yemenis have lied to their own people, taking credit for air attacks on militants in that country—but it was the United States that did the job. The Yemeni president gave us an "open door" to combat terrorism. Washington has secretly shipped arms to the Saudis for use in Yemen.
§ The Saudis, contrary to their public statements, want us to get even tougher vs. Iran. So do some other countries in the region—or so they say in private.
§ Our State Department asked our diplomats at the United Nations to spy on others, including the secretary general, even aiming to retrieve credit card numbers.
§ At last we got to read in full the historic 1990 memo from US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War.
§ The Obama administration worked with Republicans to protect Bush officials who faced a criminal investigation in Spain for alleged torture.
§ Pope Benedict XVI impeded an investigation into alleged child sex abuse within the Catholic Church in Ireland.
§ Bribery and corruption mark the Boeing versus Airbus battle for plane sales. "United States diplomats were acting like marketing agents, offering deals to heads of state and airline executives whose decisions could be influenced by price, performance and, as with all finicky customers with plenty to spend, perks," the New York Times reported early this month.
§ Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.
§ US diplomats have been searching for countries that will take Guantánamo detainees, often bargaining with them; the receiving country might get a one-on-one meeting with Obama or some other perk.
§ Among several startling revelations about control of nuclear supplies: highly enriched uranium has been waiting in Pakistan for more than three years for removal by an American team.
§ The U.S. embassy in Paris advised Washington to start a military-style trade war against any European Union country which opposed genetically modified (GM) crops.
§ The British have trained a Bangladeshi paramilitary force that human rights organizations consider a "government death squad."
The revelations go on and on; for an even longer list, and divided region-by-region, see Joshua Norman's report at CBS News. As the many key issues surrounding WikiLeaks are debated in the weeks ahead, we must recognize what we would have missed without the 2010 "document dumps."
And there's another crucial aspect. "The reaction that the WikiLeaks episode most deserves has been the least evident," observes former British diplomat Carne Ross, who now runs the advisory group Independent Diplomat. "The picture of the world revealed in the cables demands a sober and informed reflection on the realities of policy-making.... The reactions to WikiLeaks share one abiding characteristic, so obvious that it can easily be overlooked, namely, an unwillingness to address with any sophistication or seriousness the complex and ever-changing world that the United States—and all of us—must now deal with. The prevailing and lazy assumption is implied but all too clear: that the foreign policy elite, and government, should be left to get on with the job, with whatever secrecy that they demand."