x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

US struggles with WikiLeaks damage control

With only a fraction of the documents obtained by WikiLeaks yet online, the ramifications of the leaks are still to be properly felt.

WASHINGTON // With only a fraction of the documents obtained by WikiLeaks yet online - not counting those given to a few media outlets for early review - their ramifications are still to be properly felt.

But there is little doubt that this fascinating and privileged peek into the diplomatic machinations of the world's only superpower could potentially have far-reaching consequences, not least for those very methods.

US officials have scrambled to contain the fallout of this latest WikiLeaks document dump. Over the weekend, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called the leaders of eight countries, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to forewarn them.

There will be equal embarassment about alleged instructions to US diplomats to engage in low-level spying by directing them to obtain basic biographical data for officials around the world, and even the biometric details of senior North Korean and United Nations officials. Phillip Crowley, the State Department spokesman, denied that this constituted spying. Rather, he suggested it was standard procedure.

"[O]ur diplomats are diplomats. They are not intelligence assets," Mr Crowley said on Twitter. "Diplomats collect information that shapes our policies and actions. Diplomats for all nations do the same thing."

The UN might object to that notion, and even if it so far has made no comment, the apparent instructions to diplomats to engage in basic intelligence-gathering will likely have some consequences for the US.

Nevertheless, the documents must also be read as involving participants who by and large understand the game. Conversations between diplomats may be private, but that doesn't mean they are honest. They are intended to send messages, some clear, some veiled.

That is why diplomats take the time to analyse and interpret these exchanges.

It is this candour that is the most fascinating aspect of the leaked documents and also the very thing that may be threatened by their release. What happens if US diplomats, accustomed to assuming that their musings and deliberations will remain secret for at least a 30- year period, begin to worry that their words may appear in the press tomorrow? How will this affect their relations with other diplomats, who will worry about the same thing?

"Diplomats," Cameron Munter, the new US ambassador to Pakistan wrote in a Monday op-ed in The News, a Pakistani daily, "must engage in frank discussions with their colleagues, and they must be assured that these discussions will remain private."

Joseph Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential candidate and now an independent senator for Connecticut, called the leak a "threat to our national security" as well as "outrageous, reckless and despicable".

On his personal website, he urged that the US administration use all legal means necessary" to shut down WikiLeaks.

David Mack, a former US ambassador to the UAE and assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs under the first President Bush, said the disclosures were a "disaster" for US diplomacy.

"Our diplomats work for years to establish relationships of confidence with government officials," Mr Mack said yesterday. "Obviously it's important to Washington that they be able to provide frank assessments and give accurate reports on conversations they have."

WikiLeaks has justified the release of the documents as following on from its full-disclosure principle.

"…[I]f citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what's going on behind the scenes," urges the site's front page for what it has called "Cablegate".

Moreover, WikiLeaks continues, if governments weren't lying to their people, "today's document flood would be a mere embarrassment.

"Instead, the US government has been warning governments - even the most corrupt - around the world about the coming leaks and is bracing itself for the exposures."

And some analysts saw little problem with the latest release.

"I'm all in favour of WikiLeaks doing more of this. I don't think it endangers our diplomacy or our foreign policy," said Mark Perry, an independent political and military analyst based in Washington.

"What's really new here? What I saw were judgements about foreign leaders that might be embarrassing. But if you don't want be embarrassed in an open government, don't say embarrassing things."