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.