29 November 2010

Wikileaks: The Cables and A Hacking...

Obama and Clinton do not look happy!

Is there a cable between the US and the US Embassy in Sweden detailing a plan to derail Wikileaks by derailing its founder, Julian Assange, with trumped up rape and sexual molestation charges? The mind boggles!

Wikileaks is a bit of a juggernaut when one considers what they have been able to obtain and release over the last month or so. Let's face it, the Afghan and Iraq war documents that, among other things, detailed military and civilian casualties was a real eye-opener for many. The 250,000 cables that Wikileaks claim that it is preparing to release over the next 24 hours will be a revelation of the inner workings of US diplomacy as these cables will detail some of the nitty gritty that goes into negotiations throughout the world. The cables, particularly the public release of them, is going to ruffle a lot of feathers.

Interestingly, Wikileaks might have to release a lot of these cables through other channels as the Wikileaks website is currently subject to a "denial of service" attack. Essentially, access to Wikileaks has been compromised on a wide scale. The attack, though, is unlikely to prevent the release of the documents. Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks and an Australian, has been noted as stating that the distribution will go on through other outlets if Wikileaks remains down.

Furthermore, Assange believes that the release is tantamount to the diplomatic history of global affairs. However, my understanding is that the majority of the cables relate to diplomatic exchanges over the past three years. So, whether their release is accurately described as a global history of diplomatic affairs remains to be seen. That said, preliminary indications suggest that there is a lot of "juicy" stuff in the cables to be released.

The US government has been clear in stating that it will not negotiate with Wikileaks over the documents. The simple rationale being that the US government position is that the documents have been illegally obtained and as a result Wikileaks cannot legally publish them. If Wikileaks does publish the cables then it will be breaking US law. Nevertheless, the US government has sent a letter to Wikileaks requesting that Wikileaks does not go ahead with the planned release. The US has made it plain that any release of the cables is going to put countless lives at risk.

In essence, the letter places the ball firmly in Wikileaks court. If Wikileaks goes ahead with the release then any subsequent deaths are blood on the hands of Wikileaks. This poses an interesting moral and ethical dilemma; the need to ensure people are protected and the right to know information that effects and affects the lives of ordinary people. It would seem to be a precarious balance that Wikileaks will have to strike. Yet, judging by past history, Wikileaks seems destined to publish these documents based on the mission and vision that it has adopted with respect to making information known, particularly considering that Assange maintains that no single individual has come to any harm as a result of a Wikileaks expose of classified documents.

On that point, the cables are primarily classified as secret and / or confidential. There are no Top secret cables in the batch acquired by Wikileaks according to reports on the website Politico.

The counter position to this is basically that any release will jeopardise counter-terrorism operations and place all of the US relationships with allies and others at risk. This might be true when it is being reported that some of the cables have some pretty frank assessments of world leaders; Vladimir Putin is an 'alpha dog', Hamid Karzai is paranoid, Angela Merkel avoids taking risks at all costs, Ahmadinejad is Hitler incarnate, and Muammar Gaddafi cannot leave home without his voluptuous Ukrainian nurse.

The reality is that these documents are probably more likely to damage US diplomatic relations with their allies as the cables from reports to date suggest that they deal with the nuances of diplomacy on a personal level and involve a lot of frank assessments of the characters and personalities of a lot of important world leaders. The embarrassment factor is going to be high. Although, there are other risks here as well. The cables allegedly reveal how the US has been spying on the UN and the UN leadership. Yet, truth be told, most people expect that all countries are spying on each other and therefore countries, including the US, spying on the UN is not outside the realm of possibility.

The biggest problem with the release of these cables is that the dirty laundry in many cases has come outside to be laundered. Some of the more interesting cables apparently refer to corrupt politicians in a number of countries. Revelations of corruption might be confirmation of what is already suspected of a few of the politicians identified. Then again, it might include some new names of politicians who were thought to be clean.

I tend to lean towards publication of these cables.


pj said...

I am finding myself against the publication of these documents. Mr Assange has certainly taken a lot onto himself. He was not elected to be the moral arbiter of the world. I find the situation analogous to writing a personal letter to an aquaintance - and having the aquaintance publish it on the internet. I would never trust that aquaintance again. I would imagine that diplomats worldwide would be facing a similar feeling of distrust and betrayal and I don't see how engendering such distrust would be a good thing.

I am interested to know why you are in favor of their publication.

Rob Baiton said...

@ PJ...

Thanks for commenting. It is always good to have you and your voice of reason around. I enjoy the challenging arguments that you put forward, and then trying to have to come up with a half-sensible answer to them.

I agree. No one has died, gone to heaven and then made Julian Assange the arbiter of all things moral or ethical. The Swedish rape and sexual molestation charges are denied only in so far as saying that the sex was unprotected and consensual.

That said, I think the private life details of the rape and sex charges is separate from the decision to publish.

Yes and no on the analogy. The problem is not that the writer of the critique or the matter-of-fact frank assessments of some world leaders was not the one that released these documents.

The US position, and most other states for that matter, is that the cables have been obtained illegally and therefore must not be published on these grounds.

The problem really is one of how do the diplomats, or others, that wrote these critical assessments continue to work in these circumstances. For example, I cannot see Putin calling in his critiquer for a couple of shots of vodka to shoot the breeze any more.

Nevertheless, diplomacy, spying, and the other stuff is business as usual. And, this business as usual will continue irrespective of how much more Wikileaks has to leak.

Perhaps, there will be a review of security and access procedures to secret and confidential files. But, that said, technology means that 250,000 documents can fit onto a hard-disk or ten. Imagine if all these documents were paper-based ;)

To be honest, if you are involved in diplomacy and the world of spookdom, then I am thinking that there is already a healthy serving of distrust as part of the equation already, isn't there?

I am in favour, generally. I am in favour based on a belief that there is a need for freedom of information. Leaning towards publication is not a blanket endorsement of what Wikileaks has done...