More than a thousand US government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies currently work counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence programs. Well over two million Defense Department civilian, military and contractor personnel hold confidential, secret and top secret level security clearances. At the same time, the US government, including the State Department, engages in a gross amount of classification of information, significantly limiting what citizens are allowed to know about the operations of government and effectively shielding routine abuses of power from scrutiny and outrage.
On November 28, 2010, exactly one year ago, WikiLeaks began to release US State Embassy cables that revealed how US diplomats view the world’s countries and those countries’ leaders. The media organization committed to freedom of information partnered with The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and El Pais. The documents came from SIPRnet, the Pentagon’s classified network. It was alleged Pfc. Bradley Manning gave the information to WikiLeaks.
Throughout the next nine months, more than 250,000 unclassified, secret and confidential cables were published. Initial revelations showed the US government interfered with the Spanish criminal justice system to prevent investigations into rendition and torture at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba; the UK sidestepped the ban on housing cluster bombs and allowed the US to bring them onto British soil; the US used spying and threats to control the outcome of the climate conference in Copenhagen; the Vatican actively covered up sex abuse cases in Ireland; Shell Oil infiltrated all levels of Nigeria’s government; the UK trained death squads in Bangladesh; the State Department ordered US diplomats to spy on UN leaders; DynCorp contractors hired Afghan ‘dancing boys’ and Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to help the US cover up an airstrike that killed twenty-one children. [*For more, here are 100 revelations I tweeted on the 100th day of Cablegate.]
These revelations are just some of what the world learned in December. By February, cables were being released that helped fuel the Arab Spring. One cable titled, “Corruption in Tunisia: What’s Yours is Mine,” validated widespread belief among Tunisians that President Ben Ali and his wife’s family, the Trabelsis, were the “quasi-mafia” and had been unaccountable and in power for far too long. In Egypt, cables revealed the FBI had trained Egypt’s secret police, which was known to torture terror suspects. They also showed President Hosni Mubarak would never reform his regime, how Egyptians were routinely victims of police brutality and how bloggers and activists were often targeted. And, they helped prevent Omar Suleiman, who was appointed vice president to contain the revolution, from gaining power as it was revealed he was willing to help Israel by interfering in Palestinian elections to prevent Hamas from winning and he had helped the CIA with rendition and torture in Egypt.
As Greg Mitchell documented in his book The Age of WikiLeaks, political leaders like former Governor Mike Huckabee called for the “execution” of any individuals that leaked information to WikiLeaks. GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called Julian Assange an “enemy combatant” who had committed an “act of war.” Sen. Claire McCaskill agreed with Sen. Lindsay Graham, who said the US was at war and should prosecute WikiLeaks. McCaskill added WikiLeaks needed to do “a gut check about their patriotism” and she hope the US would “go after them with the force of law.” Incoming chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King, urged Hillary Clinton to designate WikiLeaks as a terrorist organization because it met the “legal criteria.”
Additionally, as Mitchell summarized in his book, government agencies and institutions immediately moved to block people from being able to view the cables:
[The New York Times revealed] the White House had ordered military personnel and contractors to avoid WikiLeaks material online. Columbia University students in its International Affairs program received from administrators a warning to avoid linking to or commenting on WikiLeaks material at social networks or risk harming their budding careers.
The Library of Congress in DC blocked access to WikiLeaks for staffers—and for visitors. In fact, a memo from the Office of Management and Budget ordered all federal agencies to bar employees from going to WikiLeaks sites.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose State Department was the subject of the release, reacted:
Let’s be clear: This disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests..It is an attack on the international community – the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.
The Washington Post detailed how a “task force was appointed to run a 24-hour-a-day “war room” at the State Department” and assessments of the possible fallout from the release were drawn up ahead of the release.
The reaction from military leaders was typically that the release would endanger lives, but Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had the temerity to be measured in his remarks and said the result of the leak would be “fairly modest.” He even said, “Every government in the world knows the US government leaks like a sieve.”
No political leader was as incensed by the release as Sen. Joseph Lieberman. As Amazon refused to continue to host the main WikiLeaks site, Lieberman called on other companies to follow suit. He declared on Fox News on December 7 the release was, in his opinion, the “most serious violation of the Espionage Act” in American history. He went so far as to suggest the Justice Department should look into prosecuting news organizations like the New York Times that had published content from the cables. And Lieberman possibly played a role in convincing companies like Bank of America, VISA, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union to err on the side of security and impose a financial blockade on WikiLeaks. [The blockade, which began on December 7, has likely cost WikiLeaks millions of dollars in revenue that could be used to operate the organization.]
The media response shared some similarities. For example, TIME’s Joe Klein asserted, “Assange is a criminal” and “should be in jail” if any State Department “contacts” or informants were found to be “rounded up, defigured or murdered.” Washington Times’ Jeffrey Kuhner wrote a column calling for Julian Assange’s assassination because he posed a “clear and present danger to American national security.”
Media also chose to diminish the revelations, suggesting there was “nothing new” in the cables.”Washington Post (which would later publish cables themselves), said there was nothing “surprising” in the cables. A post on The Economist argued WikiLeaks had degenerated into “gossip” and that WikiLeaks was now basically “tattling.” The news organization, like others, questioned the decision to release all 250,000 or so cables as they may not all contain “damning” information. Debate arose on whether it was good journalism or not to cover the cables.
The response by the government, political leaders and media can be explained two ways: (1) WikiLeaks had struck a blow against the US control of information and revelations were now polluting the US narrative of America being a bright shining beacon of democracy for the world to follow and (2) having been scooped by WikiLeaks, media had to maintain its role in society by downplaying the significance of revelations and by fulfilling their duty as gatekeeper. For the government, this involved using fear to communicate to Americans how America could be in danger. For the media, this meant educating the public on how what WikiLeaks was doing was dangerous because with WikiLeaks there was no filter.
Cablegate provoked much more of a response than previous releases like the “Collateral Murder” video or the war logs releases because the release was so colossal. It made it more difficult to wage a secret propaganda campaign to manufacture support for launching or continuing illegal or illegitimate wars. It made it more problematic for America to use illegal detention, torture, and rendition on the world’s citizens when prosecuting the “war on terror.” It made it more complicated for America to use spying and blackmailing when engaging countries in diplomacy. And, it showed the astounding level of corruption in the world that is being covered up or sometimes fueled by US diplomacy.
As a result of conflict between The Guardian, WikiLeaks and former WikiLeaks spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg, all the diplomatic cables were published by September. In the time span between the beginning of the release and August, the following people either lost their jobs or faced political pressure because of the cables: Helmut Metzner, the German foreign minister’s chief of staff; Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe opposition leader; Gene Cretz, US ambassador to Libya; Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, former Tunisia leader; Pieter de Gooijer, Netherlands would-be ambassador to the EU; Berry Smutny, former CEO of OHB-System; Peru presidential hopefuls; Howard Davies, former London School of Economics Director; Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister; Carlos Pascual, former US ambassador to Mexico and Heather Hodges, US ambassador to Ecuador.
WikiLeaks acquired more than 50 partners over the course of the following months. It learned in order to maximize the cables’ impact it had to target the release of cables and give them to a media organization in the country, where cables originated. For example, The Hindu released India cables, Asahi released Japan cables, the DAWN Media group in Pakistan released Pakistan cables, Jamaica Gleaner released cables in Jamaica, La Jornada released cables on Mexico, etc.
While the cables released have had a limited impact on US policy that is not because the revelations were not significant enough to warrant a shift in policy. Former State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley, who played a role in helping the State Department do damage control in preparation for the release, even petulantly stated, “No US policy changed because of the WikiLeaks revelations. If that was Assange’s goal, he has failed.”
As I wrote when Crowley seemed to celebrate how US policy had not changed at all, it is very sad the US has not changed as a result of WikiLeaks revelations in the past year. WikiLeaks is not responsible for the US government’s failure to address crimes or misconduct. They should not be condemned for releasing information they thought would change America and didn’t. Those who should be condemned are those in the State Department, the White House, Congress and various other US agencies or institutions that chose to turn a blind eye to atrocities, blackmail, coercion, crimes, fraud and toxic neoliberalism being perpetrated by the United States.
The citizenry of the United States shares some of the responsibility, too, for setting low expectations for government, especially President Barack Obama. The Obama administration, which has decriminalized torture, allowed the military to continue to cover up and not investigate war crimes and waged a war on whistleblowing bears responsibility. It has not reversed any of the foreign policy of the Bush Administration; on the contrary, much of the “war on terror” (except for maybe much of the torture at Guantanamo) has been wholly embraced and escalated through the use of drone strikes and targeted assassinations. Additionally, the Obama Administration continues to prosecute an illegal war in Libya and allow weapons, like tear gas, to be shipped from the US to Egypt to be used against Egyptians trying to defeat a de facto military regime obstructing efforts to democratize the country.
The release of US State Embassy cables was one of the most remarkable events in the history of American foreign policy. The hundreds of thousands of cables currently exist in many locations on the Internet for people to browse at their leisure and even use to enhance reporting or any work they might do on a number of issues in the world. [For example, Cablegatesearch]
The world is better off because the contents of the cables are known (EFF documented at least five instances where the release had benefited “public discourse”), but the United States as a country is not. Its recoil and refusal to confront and apologize for the majority of what became known has put it on a path of further disgrace and shame. It remains committed to prosecuting accused whistleblower Pfc. Bradley Manning, even though he may have contributed to the betterment of humanity by playing a role in exposing Tunisians, Egyptians and others to details on corruption in their countries.
Sadly, as long as the political class and many of the country’s citizens consent to diplomats and military engaging in such actions described in the cables, the next ten years of diplomacy is doomed to resemble the appalling diplomacy unveiled by Cablegate. And as far as whistleblowing and transparency goes, a cancer of secrecy will continue to malignantly solidify and spread making it harder and harder to make society and government more open to heal this nation.