The State Department has responded to a six months-old FOIA request filed by the ACLU to compel the release of twenty-three US State Embassy cables by releasing eleven of the cables. However, the eleven cables released contain redactions leading the ACLU to conclude this latest development “reveals” the State Department’s “penchant for excessive secrecy in defiance of all reason.”
In a blog post, the ACLU further explains how astonished they are by the State Department’s decision to release but censor parts of the cables:
…The cables released by WikiLeaks are available to anyone with an internet connection and a passing interest in U.S. foreign policy. But the government has spent the last year insisting, over and over, that the WikiLeaks cables are still classified, going so far as to forbid certain government employees from accessing them and interrogating a State Department employee who linked to one of the cables from his personal blog. Now, the State Department has reversed course and acknowledged that at least some of the cables can be released to the public without harming national security. That’s what we’ve been saying all along (and, according to reports, what some government officials have been saying too)…
The ACLU put together a website to make it easy to further scrutinize the State Department’s nonsense. The censored cables are posted along with the uncensored versions of the cables released by WikiLeaks. But, before mentioning examples, it is worth admitting that it is not terribly surprising that the State Department made redactions.
The US government is currently holding a US soldier in custody and has charged this soldier, Bradley Manning, with an “aiding the enemy” charge that gives the government the ability to charge him with the death penalty for allegedly releasing classified information to WikiLeaks. As mentioned above, the government has threatened to fire a State Department employee who linked to a US State Embassy cable on his blog. The Justice Department has been actively investigating Julian Assange and WikiLeaks to find a way to charge Assange and members of the organization under the Espionage Act. It has opened up a grand jury investigation in Alexandria, Virginia. It has sought to compel Twitter to release user data on three former WikiLeaks volunteers. It has seized Bradley Manning Support Network organizer David House’s laptop. It has blocked all federal employees from being able to view the released WikiLeaks cables on government networks, for example, in the Library of Congress. It has prohibited attorneys that represent Guantanamo Bay detainees from using released information to defend their clients from prosecution. When you consider all of that, it is in a way stunning that the State Department actually went ahead and released some cables.
The ACLU understands “the information released by the State Department is perhaps more sensitive than the cables themselves, revealing what the government thinks the public should and should not be able to see.” For example, a Hague cable [censored / uncensored version] had portions censored that would invite criticism of US foreign policy.
Government discloses discussions that paint the United States in a positive light while withholding embarrassing critiques of American policy. In this cable from the U.S. embassy in The Hague, Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot’s praise for U.S.-Dutch relations was released, but the details of Dutch disapproval of the handling of Guantánamo detainees remain classified as a matter of national security.
Another censored Hague cable shows the State Department was willing to declassify diplomatic opinions on North Korea and Iran but not on “Dutch condemnation of secret CIA prisons” (which the ACLU points out was already publicly available information).
The State Department censored a Lisbon cable containing details on the Portuguese backlash against the government’s use of the country’s airspace for transporting Guantanamo detainees. The ACLU concludes:
The government seems to be trying to hide the unsurprising insight that past illegal actions by the U.S.—specifically, the government’s rendition and black-site prison program—continue to complicate the United States’ relationships with foreign governments.
Four of the cables the ACLU submitted a FOIA request to release involve how the US government was interfering in the Spanish judicial system, as investigating Baltasar Garzon tried to open up a “universal jurisdiction” case into six Bush administration officials that created the legal framework permitting torture. The State Department released three of these cables. One of the three [09MADRID392] show the State Department was willing to release a paragraph containing minimal background information on what the cable involves exactly but was unwilling to release the entire remainder of the cable, which contains details that reflect poorly on US diplomacy—how the US was conspiring against Judge Garzon.
Why were some of the twenty-three released and others not? The ACLU wonders:
What is it they don’t want the public to see? Allegations that a former detainee sustained an injury during interrogation at Guantánamo, mention of the tension created between the U.S. and the British and Irish governments over those countries’ disapproval of the U.S. government’s extralegal rendition flights, an account of the Yemeni government’s role in facilitating U.S. airstrikes in Yemen, an explanation of why torture at Abu Ghraib made the United States less secure, and a description of pressure brought by the U.S. government on Germany to prevent Germany from holding the U.S. accountable for kidnapping, torturing, and secretly detaining German citizen Khaled El-Masri. All of these cables describe issues of widespread public concern, so what’s the point of withholding them but not the others?
The questions posed, in a way, answer themselves. The cables must be kept secret so the US government can cling to the sliver of secrecy that continues to shroud the kidnap, torture and detention of El-Masri. The cables must be kept secret so the US can pretend the world does not know the Yemeni government has covered up drone strikes. The State Department must maintain official denial that European countries have ever had any problem with CIA rendition flights. Why? Because this state of denial permits the continuation of programs and policies integral to the “war on terrorism,” a war of fear and insecurity on a tactic that has no conclusion in sight and also one that has been expanded by President Barack Obama through the use of drone warfare and targeted assassinations.
To the ACLU, the issues are of widespread concern to the public. For the State Department, public knowledge of this material is of widespread concern. What the State Department considers “public interest” is not the same as what the ACLU considers “public interest.”
The State Department and US government do not want to admit they have lost a major battle in an information war. The US narrative that America is not a “self-interested empire” but rather is “one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known” is greatly polluted by the information WikiLeaks published. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said when the cables were first released, “This disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community,” suggesting the releases could have far greater implications if citizens in foreign countries read the contents because that could put stress on US diplomacy. (If you look at the “casualties” from the Cablegate release, this fear of the world reading about how US diplomacy really works is not unfounded.)
Going forward, it is the US government’s zeal for continuity and the doubling down on policies and programs that may be alienating or not “working” but yet are believed to be necessary to foreign policy that will color how the Obama Administration and the military handles further efforts to declassify information already made public by WikiLeaks. And it is this mania of American superpower that will also influence how the government works to shape public perception of the prosecution of Bradley Manning during his pre-trial hearing this month and, later, his court martial.