x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

My name in WikiLeaks shows the blind leading the blind

In an age of intellectual ghettoes isolated from real debate, the WikiLeaks cables offer more of an opportunity for confusion than transparency.

As journalists have embarked upon the largest spate of voyeurism of our time, I was among those navigating the WikiLeaks website eager to delve into the classified version of recent history. But as I ploughed through unflattering descriptions and titillating gossip about the great and the good, I was brought up short by a reference to myself. Suddenly, the voyeur's binoculars were reversed and I was the one caught in the goldfish bowl.

Unlike hundreds of others whose lives have been affected because they have been named by WikiLeaks, my appearance was rather anticlimactic. A cable assessing Ankara's relations with Washington had Turkish diplomats telling their US counterparts to depend on them more, because apparently they had influence over events in Tehran.

What was the Turkish diplomats' proof? They claimed that they had been instrumental in winning the freedom of a Greek journalist - myself - from an Iranian prison during the post-election violence last year.

The Americans held a dim view of these claims, not least because I was already on the record saying that the Greek Orthodox Patriarch's call for my release had probably been instrumental. But having just spent three weeks in solitary confinement, my grasp of the truth was as fragmented as the story offered by WikiLeaks.

The distorted picture painted by these cables - and the complete absence of reports detailing Pentagon and intelligence agency operations - is not unlike the tale about the three blind men and the elephant, recounted by the 13th century Persian mystic Jalal al Din Rumi. Asked to describe the shape of the beast, they each run their hands over different parts of his body. Predictably, their descriptions are wildly divergent: the one who touched the trunk said it resembled a water spout; the man who felt an ear concluded that elephants looked like fans; and the man who touched a leg thought it must be like a pillar.

In an age of intellectual ghettoes isolated from real debate, the WikiLeaks cables offer more of an opportunity for confusion than transparency. How many people will bother to sift through the data and make up their own minds? How many will simply accept their favourite media's filter of the information?

Predictably, the Guardian in the UK has focused on strategically embarrassing facts for the US; The New York Times has carried out damage control by emphasising cables that confirm the US State Department's worldview; Turkish and Arab newspapers generally imply an Israeli conspiracy by noting that little has been released on the wars in Lebanon and Gaza.

Amid these myriad different agendas, the WikiLeaks cables are already becoming all things to all people. Interest groups are cherry-picking the revelations that best suit their own view. And the distortion is not only after the fact. Many of the diplomats who wrote the cables were pandering to their audience within their embassy and in Washington, writing what their bosses wanted to hear. "People need to step back when reading this and factor in the Washington environment," said Alec Mally, a former US diplomat. "Cables were sometimes pumped up in tone and urgency so as to generate a specific reaction in the Washington bureaucracy or to convince some official of a need to visit or engage in policy dialogue."

Often, too, cables were the product of adversarial relations between embassies and their host government. "US embassies in any given country can be seen by Washington as having tilted towards or away from a given host country's leaders or policies," Mr Mally said.

But aside from details of cringe-worthy pressure applied by diplomats, we shouldn't forget that this Pandora's Box represents only the very public face of diplomacy. It gives no insight into the murkier pursuits of the US intelligence services or the Pentagon, the so-called unseen diplomacy that is often more decisive in shaping world events. We have yet to see leaks about covert operations, systemic abuse during interrogation, assassinations, drone strikes or kidnap squads in hostile and friendly countries alike. And these are just the "known unknowns".

Despite recurrent claims by the Iranian government - supported by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh and many others - that the US and Israel have conducted covert operations inside Iran for years, no details can be found in these documents.

I was hoping to shed some light on these fragmented half-truths when I bumped into US diplomats at a European consulate function in Istanbul last week. The two women were both public affairs officers tasked with protecting the United State's public image.

They didn't seem upset at all answering questions about the leaks. "It's been quite a pleasant surprise that so many people like us," one exclaimed brightly. "Why, the other day I even read a piece by the New York Times's Roger Cohen in which he praised our journalistic skills. Fancy that, The New York Times!"

It seemed a very blithe view on the most revelatory disclosures about her organisation in its history. But before rushing to judge, this could be one actual conclusion from the cables - after all, US law prohibits that diplomat from actually reading the leaks. Even from my own position inside the goldfish bowl looking out, things are far from clear.

 

Iason Athanasiadis is an Istanbul-based writer and photographer