Why WikiLeaks is a worry: if diplomats can’t be candid, what value can we place in their information?

He could pitch his tent in Rome, but the Americans were not so welcoming.

The best form of defence, they say, is attack.

And Hillary Rodham Clinton is doing just that in response to the leak of secret US documents, which obviously attests to an embarrassing lack of security in the US State Department and/or its missions around the world.

The leak, Hillary is saying, is an attack on the international community.

Maybe it is.

It is also an attack on candour and on effective communication between diplomats and their political masters. If candour is removed from the equation, governments will be left basing their decisions on information lacking in candour, which can only result in bum decisions.

Some of the candid observations flushed into the open
concern Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

One cable reports that Mr. Qaddafi was very unhappy when denied permission to set up his Bedouin-style tent in suburban New York during a recent visit to the US for the opening of the UN General Assembly.

The Libyan Government was not thwarted, however, and pitched a tent in suburban New York on a property apparently rented from Donald Trump.

It’s an interesting example of what diplomats will say on the record – and off it.

The State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivity and protocol concerns, said the property was obtained for the duration of this weeks’ United Nations General Assembly. The official said no one would be staying there overnight.

But Qaddafi was still not welcome.

As word got out, local officials quickly objected to Gaddafi’s anticipated presence.

This inhospitable response to a perfectly reasonable request to pitch a tent no doubt had something to do with American envy of Qaddafi, because another cable centres on a quartet of four female Ukrainian nurses rumored to travel with Qaddafi to see to his health.

“[Qaddafi] relies heavily on his long-time Ukrainian nurse, Galyna Kolotnytska, who has been described as a ‘voluptuous blonde’ … [Qaddafi] cannot travel without Kolotnytska, as she alone ‘knows his routine,’ ” reports the US diplomatic cable.

When it comes to the President of Zimbabwe, one of the world’s most wretched countries, there are no surprises.

But President Mugabe is hampered by several factors, including “his own ego and belief in his infallibility,” according to Ambassador Dell. The US official adds that the Zimbabwean leader has “deep ignorance on economic issues” – perhaps because he believes that “his 18 doctorates give him the authority to suspend the laws of economics, including supply and demand.”

Some people are raising eyebrows at the disclosure that Hillary has ordered her officials to winkle out the credit card details of UN people. They seem to think this is not decent and proper international behaviour.

The Stuff site puts us in the picture on this aspect of the disclosures, because they bring New Zealand and Helen Clark into the frame.

WikiLeaks has begun publishing 250,000 United States State Department cables that provide a sneak peek inside superpower diplomacy.

About 1500 of them are cables from the US embassy in Wellington, including four about the role of New Zealand shell companies in North Korean arms trading.

The few hundred memos so far published in full include the controversial July 2009 directive, signed off by Hillary Clinton, instructing US diplomats to gather personal details of “key UN officials”.

That is almost certain to include former prime minister Miss Clark, who became head of the United Nations Development Programme in May last year.

US officials were asked to collate “personalities, biographic and biometric information, roles, effectiveness, management styles, and influence of key UN officials”.

They were also told to collect similar information about other countries’ representatives to the UN, including their credit card details, frequent flier account numbers and work schedules.

Having been caught out doing something that some people might regard as shabby (Alf does not share such lily-livered concerns), Hillary is hollering about WikiLeak acting illegally in posting the material.

She said the Obama administration was taking “aggressive steps to hold responsible those who stole this information.”

“This disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests,” Clinton said, “it is an attack on the international community: the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.”

“It puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems,” she told reporters at the State Department.

Clinton said the administration “deeply regrets” any embarrassment caused by the disclosure of the documents, many of which contain candid assessments of foreign leaders, both friends and foes.

Most of all, we can be sure, the administration regrets the shonky security within the State Department that has resulted in the rest of the world learning what the Americans think of us.

And it regrets the embarrassment to itself resulting from the security breaches.

The Washington Post acknowledges this –

The State Department cables, dumped into the public domain by the WikiLeaks organization, embarrassed the Obama administration in foreign capitals not only because of the sensitive information they contained, but also because U.S. officials have taken the lead in emphasizing the need for cyber-security. At U.S. urging, cyber-security was singled out at a NATO summit in Lisbon last week as one of the top priorities to guarantee security of alliance members in the years ahead.

“The next time I hear an American speech about cyber-security, I am going to make a lot of unpleasant noises,” said Francois Heisbourg, a former French diplomat and defense official now at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

But the worst thing to happen is spelled out by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who said the WikiLeaks disclosures will make it harder for American diplomats to be honest in their assessments of political situations abroad and will inspire more caution among foreign leaders when they are dealing with U.S. officials.

“It’s clear this will happen,” he told the Association of Tel Aviv Journalists.

“Diplomacy is built on secrecy,” he added. “Journalism is built on revelations. And the result of what happened with WikiLeaks, in my view, is that it will be harder for you to do your work and it will be harder for us to do our work.”

As an example of the potential for diplomatic teeth-grinding, Netanyahu cited the report that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had suggested the United States should attack Iran’s nuclear installations.

This was proof, he said, that Arab countries along the Persian Gulf share Israel’s determination to prevent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government in Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

“There’s a gap between what they say privately and what they say publicly,” Netanyahu said of the Arab leaders…

American Andrew Young, of course, years ago observed “once the Xerox copier was invented, diplomacy died.”

If he was wrong about that, it has certainly been killed by technological developments since then.

More’s the pity.

2 Responses to Why WikiLeaks is a worry: if diplomats can’t be candid, what value can we place in their information?

  1. Andrew M says:

    I love wikileak Keep up the good work!

  2. The best news to come from these leaks is that Mad Dog Qaddafi has GOOD TASTE! He’s into voluptuous blonde Ukranian nurses! Go, you!!!

    http://yardyyardyyardy.blogspot.com/2010/12/mad-dog-gets-his-bone.html

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