WikiLeaks: Information in the public good (Comment)

By Rajiv Dogra, IANS
Sunday, December 12, 2010

Julian Assagne’s fatal mistake was the interview he gave last month to a journalist. In this, he claimed to have information about a major American bank that would cause a scandal to rival the one about Enron. Assagne had already taken on the establishment; now he was daring the big business as well.

But if governments vacillate in face of a challenge, big business is unforgiving.

For the latter, every threat has an existential dimension. Still, locking up Assagne has not stemmed the flood; the leaks continue, like the American television series “Dallas” to give us our daily dose of surprises.

Perhaps at some point the general public may tire of the cables, but professional diplomats across the world would be delighted by the abundance of material that this flood from Wikileaks has provided to them. Never before was it so easy to get first hand and candid information about people, places and policies in such enormous quantities.

Once, not too long back, spies would stake their lives to get just a single secret document concerning a foreign state, especially a hostile one. They would trawl the waste-paper bins outside an embassy for the shredded and discarded documents to get just one tiny link that could lead them to a whole chain. Spies stopped at nothing; from money to honey traps, all this was fair game in this battle for illicit information. Nor is it a matter of remote past, in fact the trade craft is alive and thriving even now.

Just a few weeks back the Americans discovered to their horror that a Russian spy ring, inclusive of a femme fatale, had been operating for years on the American soil. And the British are just beginning to discover that their bearded black-cab driver is actually an off duty Taliban marking his time till he makes his next bombing run on behalf of Taliban/ ISI. And why just the West, we ourselves were duped by a reverse honey trap when a female staffer at our mission in Islamabad finally confessed to being run by the Pakistanis for years.

It is true that intelligence agencies around the world continue to regard human intelligence as invaluable. But look at what the internet has done. America’s contribution to the world is now threatening to turn its own world upside down. With just a single effortless click of the mouse, anyone, and that includes the Chinese hackers as well, will be able to access close to a quarter million diplomatic cables. Some of them trash the leaders they are commenting on; from the obvious ones like Berlusconi the stallion and arrogant Sarkozy to mercurial Gadaffi who prefers being nursed by a blonde bombshell from Ukraine.

All this is delightful stuff of course. Much of it was already public knowledge to a greater or lesser extent; yet when one reads it in communications marked secret, the voyeuristic pleasure multiplies, and there is also the stamp of authenticity that comes with it being diplomatic stuff. But the cable traffic wasn’t just about proving that the leaders of men have feet of clay, and that much else in their bodies was made of common stuff. These cables were meant to serve a purpose; despite their low intelligence potential, they provided a valuable psychological profile of the person.

There is a large quantity of other dispatches that concern the more serious affairs of state. It is another matter that many of them end up substantiating what is increasingly being whispered around the globe - that America is no longer the omnipotent power that it has long pretended to be.

As a matter of fact, a quick sampling of some of the cables only proves the point:

- Since 2007, the United States has mounted a highly secret effort, so far unsuccessful, to remove from a Pakistani research reactor highly enriched uranium that American officials fear could be diverted for use in an illicit nuclear device.

- Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like Al Qaeda, and the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar, a generous host to the American military for years, was the “worst in the region” in counter-terrorism efforts, according to a State Department cable last December. Qatar’s security service was “hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the US and provoking reprisals”, the cable said.

- Cables describe the United States’ failing struggle to prevent Syria from supplying arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has amassed a huge stockpile since its 2006 war with Israel. One week after President Bashar al-Assad promised a top State Department official that he would not send “new” arms to Hezbollah, the United States complained that it had information that Syria was providing increasingly sophisticated weapons to the group.

These instances serve to prove the point that America is no longer feared; that chancelleries sometimes listen to American diplomats only to defy them. But the variety of problems that they detail also point to the complex, often deceitful and dangerous world that we are living in. The issue therefore is twofold; whether the publication of these cables will make the world a less dangerous place, and second whether the sanctity of sharing information with the foreign diplomats in general, and the Americans in particular, has been compromised forever?

The answer to the first derives from the age old battle between the censors and those who believe that societies can truly flower in an atmosphere free from fear and censorship. To the latter, freedom of expression means axiomatically the ability to share all that becomes available. And a main quality of internet is availability of information in large dollops.

The second issue concerns the confidentiality of diplomatic communication. There is no doubt that people will be on their guard at first. Some leaders may be hesitant to open up. But in the end, need overcomes all obstacles, even the risk of exposure to public scrutiny.

The loss of credibility, if any, suffered by American diplomats after these leaks will be temporary. America is still enormously powerful, and leaders around the world need it, and its representatives, not just as their sounding boards but often also as their confidants and advisers. But long after the cables have been read by the curious, they will continue to serve as instruction material to succeeding generations of new diplomats because they are a fine example of brevity and a uniformly high standard in the information they convey. It is just too bad if in the process some dramatis personae appear sans clothes.

(12.12.2010 - The writer is a former Indian ambassador. He can be contacted at

Filed under: Diplomacy

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