COMMENTARY
 
The Age of Whistleblowers
Weekly Pulse
December 3-9, 2010
There may be nothing new in much of the quarter of a million US State Department cables disclosed recently by whistleblower website WikiLeaks, but the release and publication of these secret, confidential and classified documents in global electronic and print media certainly carries serious implications for the business of diplomacy as it is traditionally done. For in an age of information, it is difficult to keep secrets, especially if their dissemination is through electronic means.

As for the fallout of this latest leak for America’s relations with the world, it can be serious only in instances where US and others leaders are cited in despatches as privately saying what they do not pronounce publicly. Even in this case, given the level of distrust that is generally there between American leaders and diplomats, and their foreign counterparts, the damage to US standing in the world from the latest leaks by WikiLeaks may not be as great as it is being presumed. Did the world trust the Americans more in the past that it will start to trust them less in future?

It is interesting that so far every single leak by WikiLeaks has targetted the United States. Overtime, however, the implication of this novel trend of investigative journalism may not be limited to America alone. Tomorrow, WikiLeaks or another similar site can publish classified communication of other governments and even international institutions, which prefer to keep their perceptions and policies about sensitive issues in the realm of secrecy--and, in many cases, if not all, for the right reason. And if this is the future pattern in the world media—of diplomatic secrecy always at risk of becoming public- then, obviously, leaders and diplomats will have no option but to restrain themselves in bilateral or multilateral parleys and meetings.

Take, for instance, the cable quoting the remarks of Saudi King Abdullah about Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, stating: “When the head is rotten, it affects the whole body.” Whether the Saudi leader actually said it or not is a different matter, but this revelation does have the potential of damaging Pak-Saudi ties, at least as long as Mr. Zardari is in power in Pakistan. But if King Abdullah really did say so, then its revelation, however “irresponsible” it may be, means he should never be so candid while meeting American leaders again.

So goes for the Yemini leadership, which saw no problem in US bombing al-Qaeda targets in the country, even volunteering to claim such instances of bombardment as being conducted by Yemini forces themselves. Even if such possibility can be rationally understood, no Arab or other Muslim leader would like to publicly align with the United States on issues which are sensitive in terms of domestic public opinion. The same is the case with the entire Sunni Arab leadership urging the United States privately what the Israelis do publicly: attack Iran.

Premature Judgement

For now, only parts of the diplomatic cables from a host of US embassies around the world spanning several years have been published by a few international newspapers. WikiLeaks intends to place all the material on its website in phases, just as it did with the Afghan and Iraq War Diaries in July, interestingly numbering the same as the latest leaks. US Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst assigned to a battalion of a division stationed in Iraq, was the whistle-blower in that case, currently held up in a US military prison. No one is yet caught in the present case. Moreover, the despatches in question do not explain the sum total of US policy towards a country or a region, as they are individualistic expressions of American diplomats about what took place in a meeting, and who said what.

Only in some instances—such as one oft-cited memo sent to Washington by former US ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson in February 2009 and another cable about a November 2008 briefing to NATO representatives by US National Intelligence’s Director for South Asia Dr Peter Lavoy—we find the American diplomats attempting to broadly and comprehensibly assess an issue or area of vital security interest to the United States. However, barring some specific information included in the memos, they do not offer much in terms of pointing out a deep dichotomy of what Americans preach publicly in global diplomacy and what they actually believe about other countries, their leaders and governments.

Therefore, it should be premature at this stage to reach conclusions about how America actually conducts its foreign policy while publicly articulating it differently. One thing that US diplomatic communication made public thus far by global media clearly establishes is that the conduct of diplomacy in this information age is as shadowy a business as it was before.

Does the world need to conform to the realities of the modern age? Should all diplomacy be done openly and publicly? Is the fast-expanding cyber space making the traditional ways of doing things in the physical world redundant? Can governments any longer monopolise information, however secretive it may be? Does the physical world, and whatever state and other structures its human foundation is built upon, need to adapt to the unavoidable pressures and demands of the communication revolution?

Broader Questions

These are the broader questions that the sort of investigative journalism that Wikileaks does raises. In fact, this site is doing to governments what sites such as Napster did to the music industry a decade ago: breaking monopoly. Suddenly, music that was so expensive to buy was available for free and in whatever numbers. Official information that bureaucracies kept to their chest while creating laws to prevent its disclosure—for over 30 years in the US case—was overnight available for everyone to see globally, with embarrassing consequences for those from whom it came and for whom it was about.

A world that is more open today than before certainly clashes with the secret way in which diplomacy has been done for centuries. But, then, America itself has played the lead role in introducing this age globally. That the United States itself has become its lead victim is hardly surprising. In fact, states, big or small, and their governments, leaders and representatives may not have any other choice but to be more open and accountable in future.

However, this does not mean that everything done in diplomacy should become public knowledge. During an inter-state or intra-state crisis, it is better if some issues are not in public knowledge. If they are, then the crisis may conflagrate leading to war. If the United States, for instance, had not played a behind-the-scene role in defusing the 1990 nuclear crisis between India and Pakistan, South Asia could have faced a nuclear catastrophe.

There could be numerous such instances from world history when secret diplomacy during a crisis or a war produces peaceful outcomes. The same can be true for the current war against terrorism, provided the sanctity of an international organization, or sovereignty of a State or integrity of its leader is not jeopardised. Since terrorism is mostly a secret activity, much of counter-terrorism operations by indivdual states or the international community have to be secretly planned and carried out.

For instance, if US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has really urged US diplomats to spy on their United Nations counterparts, then this should be a matter of concern for the UN as the world’s foremost body for guaranteeing international peace and security. Offering Slovenian politicians to have keep prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for a meeting with President Obama also does not portray the United States in good light.

However, the broader context in which such controversial matters have been reported individually by US diplomatic staff must not be ignored in passing the ultimate judgement. Even otherwise, the US dislike of the UN, especially when it tries to do things differently, is nothing new. After all, just seven years ago, the US led the ‘coalition of the willing’ invasion of Iraq, without seeking the mandate of the Security Council. There is also nothing unusual about the Slovenian case. Washington has had serious issues with the European Union over the practice of rendition, when al-Qaeda detainees were kept, investigated and allegedly tortured, in Polish or Romanian prisons in their way to Guantanamo Bay.

Nothing New

And, as stated at the outset, much of what the latest WikiLeaks’ leaks reveal is already in public knowledge, insofar as the actual conduct of US foreign policy is concerned, or the public perceptions the United States has had of world leaders and their governments, as well global issues and crises. For instance, the corruption of the Karzai regime; the only new information in the cable is about specific instances—especially one where Ahmed Zia Massoud is caught carrying $53 million in Dubai. The Americans have also long believed that there is a connection between the Putin regime and Russian mafia.

Take also the case of American concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Despite the fact that Pakistan has time and again argued that its nuclear assets are in safe hands, American media, scholars and even officials, during both Bush and Obama administrations, have consistently argued differently, suggesting the same doomsday scenario—of al-Qaeda making a nuclear device with a fissile material and technology stolen from Pakistan—as mentioned in several US embassy despatches quoting from Russian experts to Israeli spy chief and former prime minister Ehud Barak.

There is also nothing secret about Dr Lavoy’s remark made during the above-cited briefing—that despite pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world—since a story in The New York Times published on the eve of the nuclear security summit in Washington in April begins exactly with that information.

The only new thing in the State Department leaks pertaining to Pakistan’s nuclear programme is a specific instance: A May 2009 dispatch purportedly revealing a classified American effort dating back to 2007 to secretly move highly enriched uranium out of a Pakistani research reactor. In the despatch, the ambassador Patterson reportedly stated that Pakistani officials were denying American requests to visit the unnamed facility, citing the concerns of an anonymous Pakistani official that if the local media caught wind of the story, “they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan's nuclear weapons.”

Even this specific revelation of a secret US document does not state anything unusual. Just last year, Seymour Hersh wrote in a New Yorker article about on-going consultations on nuclear security between the two capitals and that the US wanted specially trained units to be called in to help secure the Pakistani arsenal in case of trouble. The information that is worth-considering for Pakistan, if it is correct and has a broader context, is about Israeli concerns about the nuclear safety in Pakistan ridden with terrorism, and also about Iran’s perception about Pakistan as a “nuclear competitor” in the region.

Last but not the least, there is also nothing new about Turkey trying to keep India out of a regional meeting on Afghanistan in January. It is reported that during a February 2010 meeting with US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, William Burns, Turkish diplomat Rauf Engin Soysal, who then was the Turkey's deputy under-secretary for bilateral political affairs, disclosed that Turkey had not invited India to the Afghan neighbours' summit “in deference to Pakistan’s sensitivities.”

Again, given the historically close ties between Pakistan and Turkey, it should be understandable as to why a Turkish diplomat would try to serve Pakistani interests, especially in the case of Afghanistan with whom, unlike Pakistan, India does not share any geographical or ethnic connection. Mr. Soysal served as an ambassador to Islamabad until late last year, and is currently the head of the UN Mission in Pakistan overlooking the country’s flood relief effort.

Future Uncertain

Whether and how far the US succeeds in limiting the damage done by the “unauthorised” and “irresponsible” release—as US and Pakistani officials stated respectively in their condemnation of the WikiLeaks—cannot be visualised now. So may be the case with the governmental bureaucracies’ ability to reshape their ways in doing business in an age of information. Whatever the case—the physical world, which is still very much organised into states, organisations and communities—would have to get used to chaotic and anarchic outcomes thrown in its face by the fast expanding world of cyber space.

There are, of course, options available for the states to tackle the challenge from whistleblowers and WikiLeaks. One option, insofar as maintaining traditional secrecy in diplomacy is to revert to the old ways of taking hand-written notes to prevent the dissemination of memos electronically. But this won't work--as it contradicts with the fast-paced reality of the modern world.

The other option is to adopt stringent laws against whistleblowing and unauthorised disclosure of classified or secret state information on the Internet. This is the option that US Congress has already moved to exercise. Ms Clinton may be right to a large extent in her condemnation of the WikiLeaks' latest exposes, since it not only jeopardises America's diplomatic ties with the world but also potentially harms the interests of the rest of the international community that deals with the United States.

Meanwhile, Interpol, the world's premier policy body, has issued an international warrant for the arrest of WikiLeaks' founder, who is facing rape charges in Sweden and is currently believed to be hinding in Britain. Whether the charges against him are politically motivated, as WikiLeaks publicly claims, is a debatable question.

Julian Assange, whose arrest may now be only a matter of time, and his whistleblowing comradesseem to be the modern equivalents of anarchists and left-wing revolutionaries, voluntarily busy exposing the excesses of an imperial power or—as their next promised leak may be about—the corruption of the capitalistic system. Their voluntarism may be caused by the failure to compete and succeed in a highly competitive world of today, as most people do. Those who don't or can't have many options to try, from comitting terrorism as Leftist revolutionaries did until the 60s, to sabotaging G-8 meetings, as their neo-Leftist comrades did back in the 90s. Though, in the present case, there is one exception from the past: the tool the disenhanted lot have at their disposal, the world-wide-web, is so powerful that it has tremendous capacity for global good as well as for a world full of chaos and anarchy.