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WikiLeaks Scandal Blows Hole in U.S. Diplomacy Worldwide
The Washington Diplomat / January 2011

By Larry Luxner

For years, retired diplomat Edward “Skip” Gnehm has taught a class at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, in which he plays the ambassador of a small Middle Eastern sheikhdom under attack by terrorists. Gnehm’s students, assuming the role of a “country team,” must urgently help their boss draft a top-secret cable to the State Department, detailing how Washington should respond to the unfolding crisis.

Except that in real life, those cables would no longer be very secret.

For better or for worse, WikiLeaks has suddenly turned the world of diplomacy upside down with its release of classified State Department cables from 270 U.S. embassies and consulates overseas. What’s more, only a tiny fraction of the 251,287 transmissions have actually been published, though WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is threatening to set off a “thermonuclear device” of unexpurgated government files if he’s arrested or harmed in any way.

Even if that doesn’t happen, the biggest diplomatic bombshell in recent U.S. history has already been “devastating and destructive” for American diplomats overseas, according to Gnehm, a former director-general of the Foreign Service and U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, Australia and Jordan. He was also posted to Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia over the course of his 35-year career.

“This has broken our confidence and has left most of our interlocutors fearful and angry,” Gnehm told The Washington Diplomat in a phone interview from Amman, where he had just given a WikiLeaks-related press briefing to Jordanian reporters, at the behest of the State Department. “In the future, people are going to be wary about talking to us, and it’ll be harder for us to give our own governments the information they need to make analytical decisions.”

Susan R. Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), complained that the leaks “draw attention to our diplomats but undermine diplomacy,” and that “WikiLeaks cannot justify these actions in the name of transparency.”

Gnehm and Johnson are hardly lone voices in the wilderness. Their concerns are echoed by many other U.S. and foreign diplomats interviewed by this newspaper — which, as a publication devoted to diplomatic coverage, continues to be fascinated, if not astonished, by the WikiLeaks revelations unfolding almost on a daily basis.

As fascinating as it is to get a window into the vast world of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, the wide-ranging ramifications of prying open closed doors remains to unknown. And just as WikiLeaks has exposed a massive mountain of information, the subsequent debate over its actions has unearthed an avalanche of questions. What does this mean for the future of U.S. diplomacy? How will it impact our foreign policy goals, whether on Iran or Afghanistan or North Korea? Who’s really to blame for the fiasco? Will the government abandon its information-sharing efforts because of the breach? What are the pros and cons of conducting more diplomacy out in the open?

Despite the prevailing uncertainty, a general consensus seems to have emerged amid the international media frenzy and soul searching at Foggy Bottom. First, although embarrassing for U.S. officials and ego-denting for some foreign leaders, most experts agree the leaks won’t significantly damage long-term U.S. interests. While revealing, the cables don’t say anything that most foreign policy junkies didn’t already know. For some observers, they’ve even affirmed that America’s diplomats are a lot smarter and insightful than they originally assumed.

That being said, the cables have eroded trust, and effective diplomacy fundamentally hinges on trust. Perversely, in its stated effort to bring greater transparency to U.S. diplomacy, WikiLeaks may have had the opposite effect, making governments more paranoid and thereby less open. After all, it will be hard to find people anywhere on the planet who won’t be thinking about WikiLeaks in the back of their mind before they say anything to an American diplomat. So the public may have gained a bounty of insider information in the short term, but the government may suffer from a dearth of critical information in the long term.


From Saudi Arabia to Slovenia, from Qatar to Korea, just about every country on the globe has been touched in some way by the scandal. In terms of sheer numbers, so far the largest numbers of cables emanated from U.S. missions in Ankara (7,918); Baghdad (6,677); Tokyo (5,697); Amman (4,312); Paris (3,775); Kuwait City (3,717); Madrid (3,620); Taipei (3,456); and Moscow (3,376).

Some of the most damning back-channel cables originated at U.S. posts in Afghanistan and Pakistan — supposedly America’s allies in the war against terrorism. Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote about that country’s president, Hamid Karzai, in less than glowing terms last summer, in one of the first cables exposed by WikiLeaks.

“Two contrasting portraits emerge. The first is of a paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation-building and overly self-conscious that his time in the spotlight of glowing reviews from the international community has passed,” Eikenberry said, telling his superiors that Karzai “does not listen to facts” but instead is swayed by anyone who reports even the most bizarre stories or plots against him. “The other is that of an ever-shrewd politician who sees himself as a nationalist hero who can save the country from being divided” by political rivals.

Yet another cable from Kabul to Washington describes the rampant corruption under Karzai’s rule, quoting an Afghan official who described the four stages at which money is skimmed from U.S. development projects: “When contractors bid on a project, at application for building permits, during construction, and at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.”

In neighboring Pakistan, Ambassador Anne W. Patterson reported in May 2009 that the government of President Asif Ali Zardari was refusing to schedule a visit by U.S. technical experts hoping to remove highly enriched uranium from a research reactor because, as a Pakistani official said, “if the local media got word of the fuel removal, they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s weapons.”

Wendy Chamberlin, president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to both Pakistan and Laos, said that despite the scandal, Washington’s relationship with Islamabad will endure.

“The government of Pakistan has been circumspect in its public remarks about the leaks,” Chamberlin told The Diplomat.“But the Pakistani media is publishing far more of the stolen cables than we are seeing here. The reaction there is far more anger among the people than what we in the U.S. realize.”

A senior Pakistani official who asked not to be named told the Washington Post that the revelations “will only feed further paranoia” about U.S. designs in his country. He added that “even when there are no major secrets revealed, the WikiLeaks cables embarrass a lot of people for making comments in private that they would never make in public.”

Meanwhile, outright duplicity of foreign officials is laid bare by one cable recounting a meeting last January between Gen. David Petraeus — then-commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East — and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who jokes about the U.S. role in missile strikes against the local branch of al Qaeda.

“We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh told Petraeus, also complaining about smuggling from nearby Djibouti, telling the five-star general his concerns were about drugs and weapons, not whiskey, “provided it’s good whiskey.”

Although America’s role in Yemeni counterterrorism operations is one of the worst-kept military secrets around, Saleh’s undiplomatic candor could prove problematic for the authoritarian ruler of a conservative Muslim nation intensely opposed to American meddling.

Indeed, many of the cables affirm what many people already know: Saudi Arabia — a staunch ally of the United States — is also the world’s largest source of terrorist funds for extremist groups, along with three other wealthy oil sheikhdoms, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Russia is described as “a virtual mafia state” under which President Dmitry Medvedev “plays Robin” to Batman, i.e. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The North Korea-related cables also confirm what’s widely known — that not much is known about the hermit kingdom. Another shocker: China has engaged in cyber attacks aimed at U.S. military and political data, and its leaders have been obsessed with Google’s role in China.

Some revelations, although common knowledge, nevertheless may have a profound impact on future negotiations or foreign policy thinking. At the top of the list will be Iran, which cables confirmed is a major concern for America’s Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, all of whom have been reluctant to publicly denounce Tehran’s nuclear aims.

Privately, however, the cables paint a very different picture. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, compared in one cable to Adolf Hitler, accuses the Zionists of fabricating the leaks to bolster support for Israel and justify a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. In fact, one secret cable says King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly asked Washington to “cut off the head of the snake” — a reference to Iran’s nuclear program — while there was still time.

One cable dated Feb. 24, 2010, and based on a meeting between Russian officials and a State Department nonproliferation expert, revealed that North Korea was able to smuggle 19 advanced, Russian-designed missiles to Iran. According to Politico, “the shipment of R-27 components to Iran was already widely known in intelligence circles, but the WikiLeaks disclosures represent the first confirmation that Iran now possesses complete missile systems capable of delivering nuclear payloads.”

Other cables shed light on the gritty details of diplomacy and creative statecraft. For instance, as recently as last February, the U.S. ambassador in Seoul, Kathleen Stephens, said in a confidential cable to Washington that U.S. and South Korean officials had begun discussing the prospects for a unified Korea following the eventual collapse of the communist regime in Pyongyang. In the cable, Stephens says South Korean officials believe that the right business deals would “help salve [China’s] concerns about living with a reunified Korea” that is in a “benign alliance” with the United States.

Still other cables expose a type of stealthy statecraft that borders on spying. One secret directive signed by Hillary Clinton and sent to American diplomats sought detailed intelligence on United Nations leadership — including cell phone numbers, e-mail addresses, credit-card details, encryption codes, frequent-flyer accounts and even biometric data on top U.N. officials. Even if American diplomats didn’t abide by the intelligence order, the revelation caused an uproar at Turtle Bay, with U.N. officials demanding an investigation.

Not all the cables deal with life-or-death issues. In one, the Slovenian government is told to accept one prisoner from the detainee camp at Guantánamo Bay in exchange for some face time with President Obama. The tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati — population 108,000 — was offered millions of dollars in incentives to take in Chinese Muslim detainees.

And Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, noted in one scintillating dispatch — which has gotten heavy media play — that Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi doesn’t go anywhere without his “voluptuous blonde” Ukrainian nurse and is scared of flying over water or staying on upper floors.

Meanwhile, diplomats’ blunt descriptions of some world leaders, including U.S. allies, are just plain embarrassing, leaving egg on everyone’s face. Putin is labeled an “alpha-dog,” Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is “feckless, vain” and “appears increasingly to be the mouthpiece of Putin,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel allegedly “avoids risk and is rarely creative,” while French President Nicolas Sarkozy has a “thin-skinned and authoritarian personal style.”


Since WikiLeaks began publishing the cables on its website Nov. 28, reaction around the world has ranged from the angry to the absurd. Italy’s foreign minister calls the document dump “the 9/11 of diplomacy” and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky labeled Julian Assange a “high-tech terrorist” who should be tried for treason — while at the other end of the spectrum, leftist political commentator Noam Chomsky said the WikiLeaks cables reveal “a profound hatred for democracy on the part of our political leadership.”

The official response from Washington, though far more muted, warns that the leaks jeopardize national security. “Such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals and people around the world who come to the U.S. for assistance in promoting democracy and open government,” President Obama said in a carefully crafted statement. “By releasing stolen and classified documents, WikiLeaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals.”

Likewise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the leaks an attack on the international community, arguing that the illegal disclosure of classified documents “puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security, and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems.” At the same time though, she added that the administration’s diplomatic relationships could weather the upheaval.

Although some released documents provide a list of sensitive sites around the world — from hydroelectric dams in Canada to vaccine producers in Denmark — that could in theory offer terrorists potential targets to hurt American interests abroad, many experts say it’s a stretch to say the cables directly endanger national security. None of the leaked cables, in fact, rank higher than a “secret” clearance, to which some 3 million people in the U.S. government have access (many are unclassified and none are marked “top-secret” — the government’s most secure communications status).

To be sure, WikiLeaks has its defenders — including, strangely, Republican lawmaker Ron Paul of Texas and populist President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

“In a free society, we’re supposed to know the truth,” said Paul, a one-time presidential candidate. “In a society where truth becomes treason, then we’re in big trouble. And now, people who are revealing the truth are getting into trouble for it.”

Chávez, spouting off on state television, said the scandal “exposes the U.S. empire for what they are” and declared: “I have to congratulate the people of WikiLeaks for their bravery and courage. Clinton should resign. It’s the least she can do with all of this spying and delinquency in the State Department.”

Some of the defenders though are a bit less dramatic — conversely praising the skills of American diplomats. The National Journal’s Michael Hirsh said they look more like “a breath of fresh air than a national security threat.” The New York Times’s Roger Cohen called members of the U.S. Foreign Service “thoughtful, well-informed and dedicated servants of the American interest who write in clear, declarative English sentences.”

Time Magazine’s Fareed Zakaria argues that “the sum total of the output I have read is actually quite reassuring about the way Washington — or at least the State Department — works.”

“First, there is little deception. These leaks have been compared to the Pentagon papers. Which they are not…. The WikiLeaks documents, by contrast, show Washington pursuing privately pretty much the policies it has articulated publicly,” Zakaria writes, adding, “The cables also show an American diplomatic establishment that is pretty good at analysis.”

“If we're looking for bad government policies, perhaps the place to look is not in the cables but in the new data-sharing craze. The leaks are, in some ways, an unintended consequence of Washington's finally getting its information act together,” he concludes. “Our anger at WikiLeaks should not obscure the fact that it is Washington’s absurd data-sharing policy that made this possible. That’s the scandal here that needs fixing.”


Yet we couldn’t find one U.S. diplomat who had any sympathy for WikiLeaks or Assange, its 39-year-old Australian founder. While his campaign to promote “transparency” may not be overtly dangerous, many say it’s a pointless exercise in embarrassment that will only complicate much-needed U.S. diplomacy around the world.

“These WikiLeaks seem to have no end in sight,” said Richard Murphy, former assistant secretary of state for the Near East and South Asian affairs. “I gather that there has been enough detail released in their military analyses of Afghanistan and Iraq to threaten the lives of those who have worked with us, but when it comes to the diplomatic releases, it’s not a question of life or death — it’s a question of access.”

Murphy, now a scholar with the Middle East Institute, told The Diplomat that “in many cases in which access to leaders is limited, you must rely on other people to give you insights into the way they’re thinking, people like journalists who have access to those who do not like to talk to Americans.”

This is especially true of deeply suspicious countries like Saudi Arabia, according to Murphy, who served as U.S. ambassador in Riyadh from 1981 to 1983.

“While this may not lead to death threats against those who have talked to us, it certainly will lead to more caution, and less information from sources where the leadership is not available to talk over issues,” he told us. “The Saudis recognize that Americans have a very difficult time keeping their mouths shut. So this will make the conversations more difficult, at least in the short term.”

Murphy added: “Historically, governments expect to have confidential discussions, and that those confidences will be respected. This violates that trust, and when you violate it, you raise questions about how difficult your own career — if not your life — is going to be.”

“Most people don’t understand what a cable is,” the George Washington University’s Gnehm explained. “They don’t understand that embassies get information from people in and out of government, and pass that to Washington, where it becomes part of a larger pool of information. Only then do you have a full picture that Washington is able to use, to analyze whether a particular cable from a particular post is worthy. You can’t just look at one of the leaks and say you know the whole picture, because you probably don’t.”

Gnehm said “it’s no surprise to anybody,” for example, that conservative Arab governments throughout the Persian Gulf are terrified that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons.

“It’s clear that these leaders are concerned about Iran and its nuclear capability, but it’s embarrassing that their officials were quoted,” said the professor, who knows many of those leaders personally from when he was ambassador to Jordan and Kuwait. “You’re trying to keep your relationship with these countries as strong as possible. At the same time, you’re not trying to provoke a crisis — and to have [these private conversations] come out in such stark terms is an embarrassment.”

Carne Ross, executive director of Independent Diplomat —a nonprofit advisory group based in New York — says “most diplomats are pretty outraged and rather shocked” at the damage Assange and his team have done to world diplomacy.

“We are worried about the short-term political fallout, which is pretty unpredictable. Neither WikiLeaks nor the State Department can know what all this means,” said Ross, a British diplomat who was responsible for his country’s Iraq policy at the U.N. Security Council. He resigned in protest over the Iraq war.

“I think this has really done grave damage to the notion that information can be assumed to be kept confidential. One of the reasons it was so shocking to U.S. diplomats is that the United States is widely regarded as a technologically sophisticated country, and it was assumed the U.S. had pretty good procedures for protecting its data,” Ross told The Diplomat.

“This is quite a profound shock to the system. The immediate reaction in many diplomatic services will be to restrict the circulation of sensitive data, to restrict information management. But there’s a problem with that, which is that the reason data is circulated is because it makes diplomats more effective. The more you restrict data, the more ineffective diplomacy becomes. This is a real conundrum.”

Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, is Germany’s former ambassador in Washington and the country’s former deputy foreign minister. Writing in the New York Times, he says the WikiLeaks paradox is that it will lead to “less openness and a lot more secrecy” rather than the transparent information universe WikiLeaks idealists may have dreamed of.

“Some leaks are harmless, some lethal — and some have even led to war. But one thing is certain: Every single leak damages or destroys trust, in one way or another. And trust is the single most precious commodity in diplomacy. That is why the ongoing WikiLeaks publication of hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables endangers the entire species. It puts the business of diplomacy at risk.”

Ischinger argues that governments in democracies must be held accountable for their actions, but that a citizen’s right to know applies primarily to the policies of his or her own government.

“Whistle-blowing in cases of governmental or business misconduct or criminal behavior may be a legitimate ingredient of a modern society, but the right to know should not be interpreted to include information presented or discussed by foreign countries under rules of confidentiality,” he wrote. “Once trust has evaporated, it is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to rebuild.”

Chamberlin agrees, telling us in a phone interview that “we diplomats should have the right to protect and not disclose the names of our confidential sources, just as you journalists do.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose country has so far come out smelling like roses, nevertheless conceded in a speech to foreign correspondents in Tel Aviv that “journalism is built on revelations. And the result of what happened with WikiLeaks, in my view, is that it will be harder for you to do your work and it will be harder for us to do our work.”

One silver lining to come out of all this may be renewed respect for U.S. diplomat overseas — who rarely get the limelight they often deserve and are only noticed when things go wrong.

Peter Hakim, former president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, says that “indeed, one cable discussing the constitutional questions surrounding the 2009 coup in Honduras demonstrated the U.S. Embassy’s exceptional grasp of issues and context, and its capacity for sophisticated and balanced analysis.”

Columnist Cohen of the New York Times says, “I’ve not heard much in the torrent of Wiki-chatter about these admirable career diplomats whose diplomacy is now condemned to be unquiet. Yet it is they whose lives have been upturned. Every journalist knows that if their correspondence over several years was suddenly made public, they would lose most of their sources. That should give every journalist pause.”

“With 99.9 percent of the WikiLeaks cables still yet to drop, the American people are going to learn a lot more about how their Foreign Service works. And if that means they can all start talking about their foreign policy like adults, that’s a good thing,” Joshua Kucera wrote in the Foreign Policy article “U.S. Diplomats Aren’t Stupid After All.”

Yes, it may be a benefit, says retired diplomat Murphy, “but it is outweighed by the lack of trust our representatives will encounter as they try to do their jobs.”

Indeed, when asked if he’d do anything differently post-WikiLeaks if he were still an active Foreign Service officer, Gnehm told The Diplomat: “I’d continue to do reporting, but I’d be more circumspect about identifying a person by name. If for example I were writing a cable out of a Mid-Eastern country that had a parliament, I’d say I had dinner with six prominent senators whose opinions I respect, rather than name them.”

Ross — whose New York consulting group now advises such clients as Burma, the government of Southern Sudan, the Polisario Front of Western Sahara and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus — doesn’t think it’s the end of the world as we know it, although the world will be talking about WikiLeaks for some time to come.

“Diplomats are a pretty hard-bitten bunch,” he told us. “Most of them feel that eventually — and fairly soon — things will go back to business as usual. But I personally think it will change things for good. If diplomats now think that what they say may ultimately end up on the Internet, they’ll be more careful about what they say. What I hope it also means is that governments will realize they’ve got to close the gap between what they say they’re doing and what they are actually doing. It’s only embarrassing if there’s a real discrepancy between what governments do in private and what they say in public.”

Chamberlin agrees. “A lot of feelings got hurt, but there won’t be long-term damage. The State Department has been at the center of the scandal because our reporting is so good,” she said. “Maybe now, the American public will understand the value of our hard-working diplomats.”

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