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When WikiLeaks Spilled the Secrets 100 Days Ago: The Birth of 'Cablegate' | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

When WikiLeaks Spilled the Secrets 100 Days Ago: The Birth of 'Cablegate'

As many of you know, I have been live-blogging WikiLeaks News & Views every day since Cablegate broke, last November 28 -- one hundred days ago Monday.    I've also written a book and e-book that traces WikiLeaks' rise going back to last March and the release of its Collateral Murder video from Iraq and continuing right up to early last month.   As we hit the century mark  for the WikiLeaks News and Views blog, I thought it might be  eye-opening to re-visit that first day when Cablegate swung open.

On November 22, at the start of Thanksgiving week, WikiLeaks' official Twitter feed announced, like a warning shot (or one from a starter’s pistol) that the next release would be "7× the size of the Iraq War Logs."  Following the arrest of Bradley Manning back in June, references to leaked diplomatic  cables had provoked a denial from WikiLeaks, so it was not at all certain, to most outside observers, what this next big release would cover.

 For days later, Assange sent a letter to the U.S. Department of State, via his lawyer Jennifer Robinson, inviting them to "privately nominate any specific instances (record numbers or names) where it considers the publication of information would put individual persons at significant risk of harm that has not already been addressed." Harold Koh, legal adviser for State Department rejected the idea:  "We will not engage in a negotiation regarding the further release or dissemination of illegally obtained U.S. Government classified materials."

Knowing pretty much what was coming,  and dreading it, Hillary Clinton personally called top officials in France, Germany, Afghanistan,  China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom,  while associates  at  State spoke with many other leaders. 

Two days after Thanksgiving, rumors swelled, with the latest megaleak now expected late Sunday, November 28.  Various reports indicated that four newspapers were in on this one:  the Times, The Guardian, LeMonde, El Pais and the magazine Der Spiegel.

By Sunday morning, political figures –- and media left off the WikiLeaks team—were clearly on edge.   “Leaking the material is deplorable,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox's Chris Wallace.  “The people at WikiLeaks could have blood on their hands….I don’t know what the cables may say, but we’re at war....The world is getting dangerous by the day. People who do this are low on the food chain as far as I’m concerned. If you can prosecute them, let’s try.”  Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)  agreed, saying “the people who do these document leaks need to do a gut check about their patriotism…. I hope we can find out where this is coming from and go after them with the force of law.”

 By noon, Italy’s foreign minister had dropped the broadest hint yet on the nature of the dump, calling it “the 9/11 of world diplomacy.”  Tensions rose further when WikiLeaks announced that its site was down, “under attack,” presumably by hackers or some government entity.  David Leigh tweeted:  "The Guardian will publish US embassy cables tonight, even if WikiLeaks goes down." 

I had figured to spend the afternoon and maybe evening live-blogging this exquisite buildup to the release, but it soon became apparent that there was no time to waste. At 12:45 p.m., I wrote:  “Apparently Der Spiegel is first out with something -- it prepared a print cover story that has appeared online (but not in English), with some not-too-shocking U.S. assessments of Merkel as ‘teflon,’ and so on."     Ahmadinejad was "Hitler," Sarkozy "an emperor without clothes," Karzai "driven by paranoia."

Then all hell broke loose. Shortly after 1 p.m., the Times posted its first report on the leaks, titled "State's Secrets."  Cables dated from as recently as February, so there appeared to be much that might embarrass Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The Times promised to highlight the leaks over the next nine days, and  summarized what was to come: A dangerous standoff with Pakistan over nuclear fuel.  Gaming an eventual collapse of North Korea.  Suspicions of corruption in the Afghan government.  And much more, such as:  "Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like Al Qaeda, and the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar, a generous host to the American military for years, was the 'worst in the region'  in counterterrorism efforts, according to a State Department cable last December."

For now, the top Times story explored what the cables revealed about shocking levels of U.S. spying at the United Nations (well beyond what was commonly assumed) and intense use of diplomats abroad in intelligence-gathering roles.

Then there was this from the Times:   "Even when they recount events that are already known, the cables offer remarkable details.  For instance, it has been previously reported that the Yemeni government has sought to cover up the American role in missile strikes against the local branch of Al Qaeda. But a cable’s fly-on-the-wall account of a January meeting between the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the American commander in the Middle East, is nonetheless breathtaking. 'We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,' Mr. Saleh said, according to the cable sent by the American ambassador, prompting Yemen’s deputy prime minister to joke that he had just ‘lied’ by telling Parliament that Yemeni forces had carried out the strikes."

 A few minutes later, The Guardian's coverage emerged in force.  One blurb: "Saudi king pressed US for military action on Iran and Washington used diplomats to spy on UN."   David Leigh (later an Assange antagonist) described how the paper had received its multiple copies of the leak, and observed, “As well as conventional political analyses, some of the cables contain detailed accounts of corruption by foreign regimes, as well as intelligence on undercover arms shipments, human trafficking and sanction-busting efforts by would-be nuclear states such as Iran and Libya.”

WikiLeaks released a statement: “The cables show the extent of US spying on its allies and the UN; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in ‘client states’; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for US corporations; and the measures US diplomats take to advance those who have access to them. This document release reveals the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors, and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what’s going on behind the scenes.

 “Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington – the country’s first President – could not tell a lie. If the administrations of his successors lived up to the same principle, today’s document flood would be a mere embarrassment. Instead, the US Government has been warning governments -- even the most corrupt -- around the world about the coming leaks and is bracing itself for the exposures.”

Certainly the most prescient quick assessment came from The Arabist blog: "There is so much information flowing around about US policy — and often, a good deal of transparency— that a smart observer with good contacts can get a good idea of what's happening. Not so in the Arab world, and the contents of the conversations Arab leader are having with their patron state are not out in the Arab public domain or easily guessable, as anyone who reads the meaningless press statements of government press agencies will tell you. Cablegate is in important record from the Arab perspective, perhaps more than from the US one."

Here’s how I live-blogged the rest of the day, with some excisions (taken here from my book):

1:55 Robert Gibbs at White House: "We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information." Pentagon condemns "this reckless disclosure of classified information illegally obtained."

2:10 WikiLeaks' own site still down, under cyber attack. But they keep tweeting on what they call "Cablegate.”

2:30 The Guardian with fascinating full cable on Saudi King's advice to Obama, including that he should plant chips in Gitmo detainees.

3:20 Glenn Greenwald tweets that we ought to watch for "that old 1-2 punch coming within minutes: (1) Wikieaks endangered everything! (2) there's nothing new here; move on."

3:45 Sen. John Kerry rejects a certain comparison: "This is not an academic exercise about freedom of information and it is not akin to the release of the Pentagon Papers, which involved an analysis aimed at saving American lives and exposing government deception."

3:50 Not many have stressed that this WikiLeaks event is different from past ones -- it’s not a one-day story but docs and analysis rolled out over the next week. The Guardian notes, "There's plenty more to come, including claims of inappropriate behavior by a British royal."

4:20 Guardian editorial: "Before U.S. government officials point accusing fingers at others, they might first have the humility to reflect on their own role in scattering 'secrets' around a global intranet.”

4:55 After being down all day (hacked or compromised by some sort of official attack), the WikiLeaks' site for "Cablegate" is finally up. It says the embassy cables will be released in stages over the next few “months.” The subject matter of these cables “is of such importance, and the geographical spread so broad, that to do otherwise would not do this material justice."

5:30 Washington Post, out of loop (again), says nothing "surprising" in these WikiLeaks, calls our spying "low-level," and so on. Pathetic. Glenn Greenwald had nailed.

5:45 Rep. Peter King (R-NY), as per norm, calls WikiLeaks release "worse than a military attack" and wants org labeled "terrorist.”

7:40 Democracy Now!: "Leaked State Dept memo: 2009 coup in Honduras was 'illegal and unconstitutional.'"

10:15 Mike Calderone reported earlier that NYT did not get its WikiLeaks docs from WikiLeaks. So--from where? Now he reports that a top Guardian editor says his paper gave them to the Times.

10:25 Q & A from Australia with NYT's Scott Shane on paper's handling of docs. Shane points out: "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. Secrecy is not always in the interests of governments or people."

 Greg Mitchell's book "The Age of WikiLeaks" is now available in print and various e-book forms. 

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