Jeffrey LewisWikileaks and “CableGate”

I know a lot of you with .gov and .mil addresses have been warned to stay far, far away from the Wikileaks material.  I am going to spend a lot of time over the next few weeks going through the cables carefully, pulling out the things that I think are most interesting.  So, even if you can’t wade through all the nitty gritty stuff yourself, I will do my best to pick out the nuggets of gold.

My overall reaction is that the cables are quite exculpatory.

Although Wikileaks claims the cache of purloined cables “reveals the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors,” I am not so sure.  Indeed, what I am struck by is how close the agreement is between what the United States says in public and in private.  Sure, cables are candid — such as when speculating on Muammar al-Qadhafi’s fondness for a certain “voluptuous blonde” — but certainly not scandalously so.  To put it another way, I can’t imagine another government that could suffer 250,000 prejudicially chosen cables being posted on the internet and come off looking more sober, professional and pragmatic.

Really, the State Department can hold its head up high.

I also want to highly recommend Steven Aftergood’s essay, The Race to Fix the Classification System, which does much better than Wikileaks in stating the real implication of these documents and what that ought to mean for a sensible public policy that is concerned with both transparency and the protection of genuinely sensitive national security information:

The Wikileaks project seems to be, more than anything else, an assault on secrecy.  If Wikileaks were most concerned about whistleblowing, it would focus on revealing corruption.  If it were concerned with historical truth, it would emphasize the discovery of verifiably true facts.  If it were anti-war, it would safeguard, not disrupt, the conduct of diplomatic communications.  But instead, what Wikileaks has done is to publish a vast potpourri of records — dazzling, revelatory, true, questionable, embarrassing, or routine — whose only common feature is that they are classified or otherwise restricted.


  1. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I’ve been reading the Mid East traffic and thus far I make this observation. None of these emails makes any note of intelligence. Reading these emails is like watching Dr Harry Keiser’s “Conversations With History” on Berkley’s YouTube channel. It’s educated insightful, informative, with raw observations but it seems to be devoid of a grounding in intelligence. Am I missing something? After spending $50 billion a year on our intel agencies are we not using them to further our diplomacy?

    I am enjoying the twist of reality vs expectations on the ever looming military strike on Iran drama of the past 4 years or so. The amount of self restraint shown by even the Sharon administration makes me wish Israel had more sway with the Bush administration on methods of self government.

    Israels ability to deal with the Russians on the S-300 to Iran vs arms shipments to Georgia and of all things rhetoric regarding the famine in the Ukraine in the 1930’s shows a capability for diplomacy on behalf of Israel that is impressive.

    However all in all I’ve not come across anything that someone who keeps up with “Jane’s Defense Weekly”, “Av Week”, “Foreign Affairs”, and “The News Hour” on PBS, would have missed. Granted I’ve just started. Looking forward to everyone’s observations.

  2. ataune (History)

    Keep in mind that, according to BBC (, only 6% of the 250000 documents are classified as secret and none of them are classified as top secret, i.e. solid inelligence material. These documents are most of all displaying the overall “personality” that the USG projects towards the outside world and cannot be considered as containing any real intelligence leak.

  3. MarkoB (History)

    I though this memo of a US-Russia Joint Threat Assessment meeting on Iran and North Korea’s missiles was kinda cool

    [Warning: This is the Wikileaks site!]

    • Anon (History)

      Thanks — this is great!

    • Jan (History)

      This is a broken link. Maybe somebody already has started to delete stuff?

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      So many of these posts keep telling me the same story. Don’t you find it somewhat strange that our diplomats operate at much the same level as the reader of arms control wonk? That memo is filled with speculation. The amazing thing is that there is speculation on both sides. The narrative for both the Russians and Americans sounds pretty much the same. Again, I find myself asking what am I getting for my $50 bil a year? If we are getting harder facts than this, one has to ask at what level of diplomacy does get to consider the hard known information. Then figure in what’s going on in Congress right now. Notice how what they say sounds very much along the lines of this cable? I’m beginning to think that the world’s intel agencies are far less effective than we’d like to think, and that it’s a very closely guarded secret how much in the dark they really are.

  4. MJS (History)

    Jeffrey –

    please either take down the link MarkoB posted or place it with a warning. I have not viewed its content, but as a reminder (as the link goes directly to wikileaks), ANYONE viewing classified information on an unclassified computer is conducting a security violation that should be reported to DSS. This (as you rightfully mention) is very hazardous to anyone with a .gov or .mil email.

    @ Andrew –

    It seems we should be thankful that PVT. Manning only had access to SIPRNet and not any other networks.

  5. Lemon (History)

    Those behind this are criminals. None of us have a “right” to anything, let alone classified information that can endanger the lives of others.

  6. FSB (History)

    Iran “hearts” US more than Russia?

    “The Iranians have said they are willing to meet with Solana, but have told the Turks that they have serious problems with Cooper and the British. They have “more trust” in the U.S.

    The Iranians would also prefer to get fuel from the U.S. rather than the Russians. ”

    Jeffrey, why not start a post where readers can feed you their fav cable? Crowdsourcing is in.

  7. FSB (History)

    Another Mossad prophecy that has not/will not come true:

    “A representative from Mossad said Tehran understands
    that by reacting positively to engagement, Iran can continue to “play for time” and avoid sanctions while pursuing its strategic objective to obtain a military nuclear capability.

    From Mossad’s perspective, there is no reason to believe Iran will do anything but use negotiations to stall for time so that by 2010-2011, Iran will have the technological capability to build a nuclear weapon — essentially reducing the question of weaponizing to a political decision.”

    oh wait! its 2010-2011 already!

  8. Peter Burt (History)

    I agree that the Wikileaks disclosures serve as an “assault on secrecy” and that the US government so far has managed to deal with them pragmatically and professionally – in contast to some of the more extreme comments from other politicians in the US and elsewhere.

    However, I’m not sure that they demonstrate that what the US government says and does in public is much the same as what it says and does in private.

    Cables released so far show that the US worked hard before the May NPT RevCon to sideline Egypt and block discussion on a Middle East nuclear weapons free zone – actively canvassing Israel and France on how to do this. Given the key role that Egypt is generally seen to have played in bringing the RevCon to a successful conclusion, I’m not sure that this was a smart move – and personally I don’t think it squares with the progressive image that the Obama Administration was at the time cultivating on arms control issues.

    See for more.

  9. Andy (History)

    One important point that gets missed in the classification debate is that information is often classified because of its source, not because of its content. A lot of the “cablegate” information is going to seem pretty obviously unclassified, but what matters is usually who said it or how it was obtained.

    The reason for classifying seemingly innocuous diplomatic cables is to protect the confidentiality of people who talk to us. If private views are going to be made public then foreign leaders and sources are not going to be candid with us.

    That’s really where I see the damage from “cablegate.” If foreign leaders believe we are unable to keep what they say confidential then that is going to materially damage our diplomatic efforts across the board. I do not envy Secretary Clinton who must somehow assure governments around the world that we can prevent publication of their private views.

  10. Jael Strom (History)

    There’s a great article on the whole WikiLeaks thing, worthy of checking out – WikiLeaks: The fruits of inadvertent honesty:

  11. 3.1415 (History)

    There is really nothing fancy, but if Wikileaks is allowed to operate, it will probably attract fancier leaks in the future. We are social animals designed to talk. The urge to speak up should not be underestimated. Let’s see who gets there first, those who want to shut it down and those who want to use it in a big way.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      I’m wondering how this will play out as well in the long run. There are two memes in conflict here. Certainly big nations with a well developed intelligence aparat will want to see it gone. However small nations or nations lacking in the ability to penetrate other nations might view this as a means of collecting intelligence themselves. If operations like Wikileaks survive, I’d expect the establishment to try to flood it with self serving fiction if they find they lack the ability to shut it down. Should be interesting to see how this all falls out. We may be seeing the birth of a new era, or a small peek into what could have been.

      What I do find interesting is the point of view I’ve seen that basically says ‘the people’ have no business reading this stuff. I mean you have to assume every intelligence agency in the world had a complete copy within 20 min of the orig publication. It’s interesting to see the group of people who get bent out of shape because some schmuck on the net might decide to take a look at what his government is doing. They talk as if the damage is deepened every time some pair of uncleared eyes reads this stuff.

  12. R Steff (History)

    Many of us ‘analysts’ who follow global politics and strategy are not all that surprised by the content of these latest leaks. As Jeffrey says:

    “I am struck by is how close the agreement is between what the United States says in public and in private.”

    But I don’t think these leaks are aimed at ‘us’ – they are designed to impact upon the ‘street’ – upon the layman in Europe, the Middle East, etc, that could force short-term policy changes upon their governments.

  13. P.E.T. (History)

    “But I don’t think these leaks are aimed at‘us’…”

    Ah, dezinformatsiya :)

    • George William Herbert (History)

      I don’t think the leaks are aimed, at all.

      Assange has a quixotic viewpoint on geopolitics – essentially, all government secrecy is a function of and supporting aspect of oligarchical non-democratic / authoritarian behavior, and should be fought. And more generally, that applies in his viewpoint to almost any organization operating out of view.

      He aimed, as it were, at destroying hipocritical US behaviors, but has mostly demonstrated to date that there were no big evil secrets or malfeasance in play (a lot of little ones, and a lot of sensitive comments from other leaders etc, but nothing truly relevatory). He seems to have released information that disproves his fundamental thesis.

      In terms of the aim of the original source – presumed to be Pvt. Manning – I don’t think “aimed” is accurate, either. He seems to have been a very confused 22 year old who was unhappy in his job and upset to be discovering that militaries in wartime kill people, some of whom weren’t bad people and shouldn’t have been killed. One of the TV stations interviewed Adrian Lamo about Manning last night (again); he used the MICE espionage breakdown and suggested Ideology (evolved if naive antiwar feelings from what he saw happening) and Ego (Hey, look what I can do).

      But what he stole seems to have just been a wide swath of data, not uncovering new secret things that belie public stances or statements or show misbehavior. Again, seems like he undermined his own ideology, or that he had a very naive and thin ideology to start with.

  14. Ian (History)

    Does anyone have a feel for the US freedom of information system? If someone put an FOI request for all diplomatic cables other than those exempt from release for whatever reason, what would be allowed out, and what would the exemptions be?

  15. Arnold Evans (History)

    I can’t imagine another government that could suffer 250,000 prejudicially chosen cables being posted on the internet and come off looking more sober, professional and pragmatic.

    Wait, you think that 250,000 prejudicially chosen cables have been posted on the internet?

    It seems to me that fewer than 300 chosen cables have been posted on the internet, and there is a prejudice in presenting them, it is (at best) the prejudice of the New York Times, Guardian and Spiegel – not parties particularly interested in the US foreign service looking unsober, unprofessional or unpragmatic.

  16. Jeffrey (History)

    I should have been a little more careful in how I wrote that. What I meant was that 250,000 prejudicially chosen cables were given to the media, some of which were posted on the internet. (As you point out, about 300 as of last count.)

    The point is that half a dozen major news outlets had access to 250,000 cables and posted the juiciest ones.

    And while they are newsworthy, it doesn’t seem to demonstrate “the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors.”

    At least not to me, and I can be as critical of US foreign policy as the next person.

    • Anon (History)

      It appears Peter Burt has some evidence of “the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors.” e.g.

      “Among the US diplomatic documents released today (29 November) by Wikileaks are secret communications from US Embassies in Tel Aviv and Paris which reveal how the US government plotted to block discussion on a Middle East nuclear weapons free zone and neutralise Egypt’s attempts to raise the issue at May’s Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.”

    • Arnold Evans (History)

      I’ll say that if these were Chinese, Russian, Indian, Iranian cables or anybodies, and the leading newspapers of that country itself and three or four of that country’s closest allies sorted through the cables, they most likely would produce about what the New York Times, Guardian and Spiegel produced.

      If, not when, there is a full dump of cables that can be independently searched (about 10 years from now at the current pace) then we’ll be able to draw limited conclusions about the sobriety or professionalism of the US foreign service.

      Also, yes, you probably can be as critical of US foreign policy as the next US citizen. The writers at Xinhua, Dawn, Asia Times Online, or Al Jazeera might question exactly how critical that is.

      When those news organizations get the access to the papers the NY Times has it is nearly certain a different story will be produced. And there is a question of why such efforts have been expended so far to prevent that from happening.

  17. Lemon (History)

    Anyone seen Julian Assange over the last couple of days?

  18. Hairs (History)

    Can anyone comment on whether the publications would present a danger to USA’s ciphers?

    From what little I know of encryption, one of the ways to attack a cipher is through knowledge of the underlying plaintext. I know encryption has moved on massively in the digital age, but presumably the fundamental tenets of cipher security have remained unchanged e.g. don’t release the plaintext and ciphertext of the same message, don’t encrypt the same text twice with different keys, etc.

    Maybe the release of information in the documents themselves won’t be too damaging, but if the release of so much plaintext assists hostile nations to break into other mesaages that were intercepted – but could not be broken at the time – then it’s just possible that the real damage caused by the release will be in areas that we, the public, won’t see.

    • Arnold Evans (History)

      From memory, that question came up during a hearing in the 1970s regarding the Pentagon papers, in which the US wanted the transcripts reported in the NYTimes as paraphrases instead of verbatim.

      The NYTimes attorney told the judge that the judge may well be the only person in this room old enough to remember a time when plain text would be helpful in cracking up-to-date encryption.

      The judge did rule that the transcript would be paraphrased, but from everything I’ve read the NY Times attorney was right 40 years ago. Modern encryption would not be compromised by the availability of plaintext translations.

  19. 3.1415 (History)

    Here’s the “official” Chinese take on Wikileaks:

    and the English version that lost a lot of juice:

  20. Mark Lincoln (History)

    Lots of interesting gossip. Some neat speculation. A pinch of fact. And nothing really ‘new’.

    Very revealing of the classification system. Did stuff reported in newspapers at the time need to be ‘Classified” much less ‘Secret”?

  21. Lemon (History)

    Interesting that we read that Mubaruk of Egypt has on his desk top the sign “It’s Iran stupid’.

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