WikiLeaks release sparks alarm over diplomacy

Updated - November 28, 2021 09:32 pm IST

Published - November 30, 2010 04:32 pm IST - JERUSALEM

A news stand displaying newspapers, some carrying the story on WikiLeaks' release of classified U.S. State Department documents, at a newsagent in central London, on Monday. Photo: AP.

A news stand displaying newspapers, some carrying the story on WikiLeaks' release of classified U.S. State Department documents, at a newsagent in central London, on Monday. Photo: AP.

Is diplomacy in danger?

The torrent of condemnation heaped on WikiLeaks from around the globe did suggest a widespread sense -- among the great and the good, but also among the sometimes more jaded observer and analyst class -- that in releasing U.S. diplomatic documents the group crossed a dangerous line.


The prime minister of Israel, a man hardly accustomed to representing global consensus, on Monday found himself in lockstep with most of his peers as he warned that statecraft itself was imperilled by a reality in which no secret is safe if it is written.

“It will be more difficult for talented American diplomats to put into cables and reports things they once would have,” Mr Benjamin Netanyahu said. Governments would more likely hoard information, he warned, restricting the circle of people in the know to minimise the chances of a leak.

It is a delicate message for elected leaders to make, of course, because it depends on the proposition that there is a limit to what the people should know, or at least when they should know it.

Mr Netanyahu argued that the ability to communicate under a cloak of secrecy was critical to Israel’s ability to reach a peace deal with Egypt in 1979. Had the Israeli public known that Prime Minister Menachem Begin was preparing to cede the entire Sinai desert, captured in 1967, the foment might have scuttled the emerging agreement, Mr Netanyahu suggested.

“Transparency is fundamental to our society, and it’s usually essential -- but there are a few areas, including diplomacy, where it isn’t essential,” he said.


But that time-honoured government effort to control transparency took a massive hit this weekend, when WikiLeaks began publishing more than 250,000 leaked United States embassy cables -- a cache it described as the largest set of confidential documents ever released into the public domain.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asserted on Monday that WikiLeaks acted illegally in posting the material. She said the administration was taking “aggressive steps to hold responsible those who stole this information.”

As world reaction poured in, the condemnation was nearly universal.

Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said “the perpetrators of these leaks may threaten our national security.” In Switzerland, the Basler Zeitung newspaper called it a “diplomatic disaster.” The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry called it illegal and harmful.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was a tad more diplomatic, proposing that it was hardly “an altruistic act.”

Indeed, it was remarkable how absent was the halo that often accompanies the exposure of state secrets -- that sense among pockets in the public that the exposure, while perhaps illegal and indiscreet, while damaging to certain interests to be sure, serves the greater purpose of casting light on an important truth.


Instead there was a sense that an often effective way of doing things was being challenged for the sake of the challenge itself. And that the art of diplomacy -- often seen as a force for good in the world, for avoiding war and resolving conflict -- was under attack.

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica lamented that “the history of diplomacy ... must start over on a new basis, knowing that there can always be a pair of electronic eyes looking over the shoulders of the person who is writing.” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini called it a “watershed” and reportedly urged world leaders to stand united “without backtracking on the way of diplomacy.”

The United States has certainly used the cloak of secrecy for diplomatic ends- President Nixon’s historic opening to China in 1972 was preceded by secret talks in which Pakistan was an intermediary. At one point, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, while on a trip to Islamabad, feigned illness and made a secret trip to Beijing.


But more common, of course, are the reports that diplomats send home -- on political issues, key players, economic matters, even gossip.

Michael McKinley, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, said the vulnerability of diplomatic correspondence does “immense damage ... to U.S. diplomats’ ability to engage in frank, confidential dialogue not just with government officials but with all manner of politicians and non-governmental actors.”

For the system to work, diplomats need their contacts to trust in their discretion.

“Valuable contacts who provide useful understanding and context may now be reluctant to speak candidly in confidence to U.S. officials for fear their comments could reach the media, and political rivals or partners,” agreed Ali Engin Oba, a Turkish strategic analyst and his country’s former ambassador to Congo and Sudan. It’s “a dreadful development for diplomacy.”

Echoing a popular view, he said that “the leaks have to usher in a revolution in the way diplomatic cables are sent and archived. There has to be a new technological breakthrough.”


It was a recurrent theme in Monday’s discussions- Over the years, the diplomatic pouch has been largely replaced by e-mails and phone conversations {hbox}” sometimes over encrypted lines and sometimes not.

What to do?

Stelian Tanase, a Romanian political analyst, said diplomats will learn to speak in code, “using double-language and metaphors.”

Aaron David Miller, former State Department Mideast negotiator, predicted the encryption process is likely to become more elaborate.

Sergio Romano, an Italian analyst and former ambassador to Moscow, told state-run Italian radio that “the first reaction of all governments will be to make the confidentiality rules more strict.” “Without confidentiality, diplomacy doesn’t work,” he said.

Elliot Abrams, a former National Security Council official under President George W. Bush, predicted diplomats would increasingly use secure e—mail, which can be sent to a select audience, instead of traditional diplomatic cables, which routinely reach dozens, even hundreds, of people.

He warned, however, that this could have a price: “Some of the people who need to know are going to end up not knowing,” he said.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden agreed people will “put a lot less in cables now” and stick to phone calls -- which could deprive not just policymakers of information but historians of an understanding of what happened as cables are eventually declassified.

For many, it is ironic that the breach of security affected the United States -- a country seen as often questioning the security systems of others.

“In the past, it was always the case that the Americans worried about the security of their allies, now it’s America’s allies who worry about the security of the United States,” said Anthony Glees, Director of the Center for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham in Britain. “This is very big ... (It) shifts the relationship with America’s allies.”

Among the most damaging revelations involved a major ally- the king of Saudi Arabia supposedly urged the United States to attack Iran to wipe out its nuclear weapons program {hbox}” comments supported in other cables by Jordan and Bahrain.


The remarks are important because they suggest that Arab states had privately supported such a strike, despite what might have been said in public about the program.

Beyond that were some revelations of undiplomatic behavior by diplomats - that some were being asked to gather biometric data on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki—moon and other diplomats shocked the United Nations — as it goes beyond what is considered the normal run of information-gathering expected in diplomatic circles. A cable urging diplomats to collect passwords and details of computer system also prompted unease.

“What worries me is the mixing of diplomatic tasks with downright espionage. You cross a border ... if diplomats are encouraged to gather personal information about some people,” Mr Ban said.

Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli deputy foreign minister, was among the few who kept an even keel through Monday’s tumult: “People will be careful for two to three months and then they will return to their old behaviour,” said Beilin, whose diplomatic success, the 1993 Israel—PLO Oslo Accords, was the fruit of months of secret talks.

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