WikiLeaks’ latest flood of sensitive U.S. documents, provided by genuine American traitors, consists largely of State Department reporting and instruction cables. These cables are the official channel for disseminating authorized decisions and policies and conveying definitive assessments and analysis between Main State and our hundreds of diplomatic posts around the world. Even in an age of e-mails and Twitter, they are the real deal.
Wikileaks has compromised the confidentiality and integrity of U.S. diplomatic communications, causing damage that will reverberate for years in incalculable ways. Foreigners—whether government officials, members of opposition parties in democracies, political rivals, authoritarian rulers, business, religious or civic leaders—will now wonder if what they say in trust will remain private. Communications will dry up or be reduced to rote repetitions of “safe” talking points. While candor will hopefully return over time, the ever-present risk of reading in a newspaper what was said in whispers to an American diplomat will never be far from the minds of our interlocutors.
For example, when I was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, there were several instances when the ambassador of another Security Council permanent member was especially unhelpful to us. His subordinates told their counterparts at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York (“USUN”) that their ambassador was not following his instructions from home. They knew this, of course, because they read the instructions in cables comparable to what Wikileaks has released. We reported to Washington and to our embassy in the capital in question exactly what USUN staff was being told, urging our colleagues to weigh in with the foreign government to bear down on their wayward ambassador. You can bet kind of helpful information will now disappear or become a trickle.
And take the Arab leaders quoted as urging America to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons program. To be sure, this is hardly news to anyone who has been paying attention: Arab states don’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons any more than Israel does. But there is a world of difference between saying that in confidence, and reading it in the New York Times.
Also gravely wounded is candor in American diplomatic reporting, both in atmospherics and analysis. The State Department’s sprawling bureaucracy and widely varying “turf” interests are badly in need of reform. But even after that happy day, it will be critical to effective policy formulation that State officials operate from a common information base, as honestly and colorfully reported, as possible. If Ambassadors and embassy staffs fear that their unvarnished assessments of the foreigners they deal with will be read by those same foreigners, they will button up and tone down their reporting.
If anything, State employees are already too tame in both reporting and expressing their opinions. The clash of argument is frowned on in State’s corridors, and the idea of decision memoranda sent to the Secretary in disagreement sends chills down diplomatic spines. That culture needs drastic reform to open up the stuffy channels of debate. Wikileaks will push State in precisely the opposite direction—precisely the wrong direction—toward even more internal circumspection. Moreover, while information will still be reported back, it will come through risky non-secure e-mails and telephone calls, and will not be distributed as widely to people who really need it, to the significant detriment of informed outcomes. This effect may not be felt in tangible form in the next few weeks, but as a cultural phenomenon it will be devastating long term.
Whether and to what extent some released cables are deliberate frauds or mistakes is also unclear, and will require further analysis. At a minimum, some are not what they appear to be. For example, some of the cables seem at first glance to call for State Department personnel to engage in intelligence activities. One, from July, 2009, appears to direct personnel at USUN to spy on the UN Secretariat to obtain biographical and personal information such as computer passwords and frequent flyer numbers. Similar cables were purportedly sent to U.S. embassies overseas.
I can safely say in all of my years at State and USAID, I have never seen a State cable like the one purportedly sent to USUN. Even the sequential numbering on the cable, published by The Guardian, seems out of sync with the cable’s date, which itself is a red flag. I cannot explain the provenance of this particular document, but there is little doubt that Typhoid Mary would now receive a better reception in many countries than Department officers who will now be treated as though they were filching documents from copy machines. Silly as it sounds, this is the kind of cancerous breach of faith that WikiLeaks has intentionally caused.
The cure? Most important is the maximum punishment of every U.S. citizen in any way engaged in this treason. And for whomever allowed the lapse to occur for the downloading of these documents, even if not part of the espionage, firing or debarment from any future federal contracts for as far as the eye can see. Show no mercy.
And as for Wikileaks itself, and anyone cooperating with its malicious enterprise, now is the time to test our cyber-warfare capabilities. Fire away.
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