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Geopolitical Weekly : Taking Stock of WikiLeaks

Released on 2012-02-28 15:00 GMT

Email-ID 942090
Date 2010-12-14 11:10:05
Stratfor logo
Taking Stock of WikiLeaks

December 14, 2010

Germany and the Failure of Multiculturalism

By George Friedman

Julian Assange has declared that geopolitics will be separated into
pre-"Cablegate" and post-"Cablegate" eras. That was a bold claim.
However, given the intense interest that the leaks produced, it is a
claim that ought to be carefully considered. Several weeks have passed
since the first of the diplomatic cables were released, and it is time
now to address the following questions: First, how significant were the
leaks? Second, how could they have happened? Third, was their release a
crime? Fourth, what were their consequences? Finally, and most
important, is the WikiLeaks premise that releasing government secrets is
a healthy and appropriate act a tenable position?

Let's begin by recalling that the U.S. State Department documents
constituted the third wave of leaks. The first two consisted of
battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. Looking back on those as
a benchmark, it is difficult to argue that they revealed information
that ran counter to informed opinion. I use the term "informed opinion"
deliberately. For someone who was watching Iraq and Afghanistan with
some care over the previous years, the leaks might have provided
interesting details but they would not have provided any startling
distinction between the reality that was known and what was revealed.
If, on the other hand, you weren't paying close attention, and WikiLeaks
provided your first and only view of the battlefields in any detail, you
might have been surprised.

Let's consider the most controversial revelation, one of the tens of
thousands of reports released on Iraq and Afghanistan and one in which a
video indicated that civilians were deliberately targeted by U.S.
troops. The first point, of course, is that the insurgents, in violation
of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, did not go into combat wearing armbands
or other distinctive clothing to distinguish themselves from
non-combatants. The Geneva Conventions have always been adamant on this
requirement because they regarded combatants operating under the cover
of civilians as being responsible for putting those civilians in harm's
way, not the uniformed troops who were forced to distinguish between
combatants and non-combatants when the combatants deliberately chose to
act in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

It follows from this that such actions against civilians are inevitable
in the kind of war Iraqi insurgents chose to wage. Obviously, this
particular event has to be carefully analyzed, but in a war in which
combatants blend with non-combatants, civilian casualties will occur,
and so will criminal actions by uniformed troops. Hundreds of thousands
of troops have fought in Iraq, and the idea that criminal acts would be
absent is absurd. What is most startling is not the presence of
potentially criminal actions but their scarcity. Anyone who has been
close to combat or who has read histories of World War II would be
struck not by the presence of war crimes but by the fact that in all the
WikiLeaks files so few potential cases are found. War is controlled
violence, and when controls fail - as they inevitably do - uncontrolled
and potentially criminal violence occurs. However, the case cited by
WikiLeaks with much fanfare did not clearly show criminal actions on the
part of American troops as much as it did the consequences of the
insurgents violating the Geneva Conventions.

Only those who were not paying attention to the fact that there was a
war going on, or who had no understanding of war, or who wanted to
pretend to be shocked for political reasons, missed two crucial points:
It was the insurgents who would be held responsible for criminal acts
under the Geneva Conventions for posing as non-combatants, and there
were extraordinarily few cases of potential war crimes that were
contained in the leaks.

The diplomatic leaks are similar. There is precious little that was
revealed that was unknown to the informed observer. For example, anyone
reading STRATFOR knows we have argued that it was not only the Israelis
but also the Saudis that were most concerned about Iranian power and
most insistent that the United States do something about it. While the
media treated this as a significant revelation, it required a profound
lack of understanding of the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf to regard
U.S. diplomatic cables on the subject as surprising.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' statement in the leaks that the
Saudis were always prepared to fight to the last American was
embarrassing, in the sense that Gates would have to meet with Saudi
leaders in the future and would do so with them knowing what he thinks
of them. Of course, the Saudis are canny politicians and diplomats and
they already knew how the American leadership regarded their demands.

There were other embarrassments also known by the informed observer.
Almost anyone who worries about such things is aware that Italian Prime
Minister Silvio Berlusconi is close to the Russians and likes to party
with young women. The latest batch of leaks revealed that the American
diplomatic service was also aware of this. And now Berlusconi is aware
that they know of these things, which will make it hard for diplomats to
pretend that they don't know of these things. Of course, Berlusconi was
aware that everyone knew of these things and clearly didn't care, since
the charges were all over Italian media.

I am not cherry-picking the Saudi or Italian memos. The consistent
reality of the leaks is that they do not reveal anything new to the
informed but do provide some amusement over certain comments, such as
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev
being called "Batman and Robin." That's amusing, but it isn't
significant. Amusing and interesting but almost never significant is
what I come away with having read through all three waves of leaks.

Obviously, the leaks are being used by foreign politicians to their own
advantage. For example, the Russians feigned shock that NATO would be
reassuring the Balts about defense against a potential Russian invasion
or the Poles using the leaks to claim that solid U.S.-Polish relations
are an illusion. The Russians know well of NATO plans for defending the
Baltic states against a hypothetical Russian invasion, and the Poles
know equally well that U.S.-Polish relations are complex but far from
illusory. The leaks provide an opportunity for feigning shock and anger
and extracting possible minor concessions or controlling atmospherics.
They do not, however, change the structure of geopolitics.

Indeed, U.S. diplomats come away looking sharp, insightful and decent.
While their public statements after a conference may be vacuous, it is
encouraging to see that their read of the situation and of foreign
leaders is unsentimental and astute. Everything from memos on senior
leaders to anonymous snippets from apparently junior diplomats not only
are on target (in the sense that STRATFOR agrees with them) but are also
well-written and clear. I would argue that the leaks paint a flattering
picture overall of the intellect of U.S. officials without revealing,
for the most part, anything particularly embarrassing.

At the same time, there were snarky and foolish remarks in some of the
leaks, particularly personal comments about leaders and sometimes their
families that were unnecessarily offensive. Some of these will damage
diplomatic careers, most generated a good deal of personal tension and
none of their authors will likely return to the countries in which they
served. Much was indeed unprofessional, but the task of a diplomat is to
provide a sense of place in its smallest details, and none expect their
observations ever to be seen by the wrong people. Nor do nations ever
shift geopolitical course over such insults, not in the long run. These
personal insults were by far the most significant embarrassments to be
found in the latest release. Personal tension is not, however,
international tension.

This raises the question of why diplomats can't always simply state
their minds rather than publicly mouth preposterous platitudes. It could
be as simple as this: My son was a terrible pianist. He completely
lacked talent. After his recitals at age 10, I would pretend to be
enthralled. He knew he was awful and he knew I knew he was awful, but it
was appropriate that I not admit what I knew. It is called politeness
and sometimes affection. There is rarely affection among nations, but
politeness calls for behaving differently when a person is in the
company of certain other people than when that person is with colleagues
talking about those people. This is the simplest of human rules. Not
admitting what you know about others is the foundation of civilization.
The same is true among diplomats and nations.

And in the end, this is all I found in the latest WikiLeaks release: a
great deal of information about people who aren't American that others
certainly knew and were aware that the Americans knew, and now they have
all seen it in writing. It would take someone who truly doesn't
understand how geopolitics really works to think that this would make a
difference. Some diplomats may wind up in other postings, and perhaps
some careers will be ended. But the idea that this would somehow change
the geopolitics of our time is really hard to fathom. I have yet to see
Assange point to something so significant that that it would justify his
claim. It may well be that the United States is hiding secrets that
would reveal it to be monstrous. If so, it is not to be found in what
has been released so far.

There is, of course, the question of whether states should hold secrets,
which is at the root of the WikiLeaks issue. Assange claims that by
revealing these secrets WikiLeaks is doing a service. His ultimate
maxim, as he has said on several occasions, is that if money and
resources are being spent on keeping something secret, then the reasons
must be insidious. Nations have secrets for many reasons, from
protecting a military or intelligence advantage to seeking some
advantage in negotiations to, at times, hiding nefarious plans. But it
is difficult to imagine a state - or a business or a church - acting
without confidentiality. Imagine that everything you wrote and said in
an attempt to figure out a problem was made public? Every stupid idea
that you discarded or clueless comment you expressed would now be pinned
on you. But more than that, when you argue that nations should engage in
diplomacy rather than war, taking away privacy makes diplomacy
impossible. If what you really think of the guy on the other side of the
table is made public, how can diplomacy work?

This is the contradiction at the heart of the WikiLeaks project. Given
what I have read Assange saying, he seems to me to be an opponent of war
and a supporter of peace. Yet what he did in leaking these documents, if
the leaking did anything at all, is make diplomacy more difficult. It is
not that it will lead to war by any means; it is simply that one cannot
advocate negotiations and then demand that negotiators be denied
confidentiality in which to conduct their negotiations. No business
could do that, nor could any other institution. Note how vigorously
WikiLeaks hides the inner workings of its own organization, from how it
is funded to the people it employs.

Assange's claims are made even more interesting in terms of his
"thermonuclear" threat. Apparently there are massive files that will be
revealed if any harm comes to him. Implicit is the idea that they will
not be revealed if he is unharmed - otherwise the threat makes no sense.
So, Assange's position is that he has secrets and will keep them secret
if he is not harmed. I regard this as a perfectly reasonable and
plausible position. One of the best uses for secrets is to control what
the other side does to you. So Assange is absolutely committed to
revealing the truth unless it serves his interests not to, in which case
the public has no need to know.

It is difficult to see what harm the leaks have done, beyond
embarrassment. It is also difficult to understand why WikiLeaks thinks
it has changed history or why Assange lacks a sufficient sense of irony
not to see the contradiction between his position on openness and his
willingness to keep secrets when they benefit him. But there is also
something important here, which is how this all was leaked in the first

To begin that explanation, we have to go back to 9/11 and the feeling in
its aftermath that the failure of various government entities to share
information contributed to the disaster. The answer was to share
information so that intelligence analysts could draw intelligence from
all sources in order to connect the dots. Intelligence organizations
hate sharing information because it makes vast amounts of information
vulnerable. Compartmentalization makes it hard to connect dots, but it
also makes it harder to have a WikiLeaks release. The tension between
intelligence and security is eternal, and there will never be a clear

The real issue is who had access to this mass of files and what controls
were put on them. Did the IT department track all external drives or
e-mails? One of the reasons to be casual is that this was information
that was classified secret and below, with the vast majority being at
the confidential, no-foreign-distribution level. This information was
not considered highly sensitive by the U.S. government. Based on the
latest trove, it is hard to figure out how the U.S. government decides
to classify material. But it has to be remembered that given their level
of classification these files did not have the highest security around
them because they were not seen as highly sensitive.

Still, a crime occurred. According to the case of Daniel Ellsberg, who
gave a copy of the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam to a New York Times
reporter, it is a crime for someone with a security clearance to provide
classified material for publication but not a crime for a publisher to
publish it, or so it has become practice since the Ellsberg case. Legal
experts can debate the nuances, but this has been the practice for
almost 40 years. The bright line is whether the publisher in any way
encouraged or participated in either the theft of the information or in
having it passed on to him. In the Ellsberg case, he handed it to
reporters without them even knowing what it was. Assange has been
insisting that he was the passive recipient of information that he had
nothing to do with securing.

Now it is interesting whether the sheer existence of WikiLeaks
constituted encouragement or conspiracy with anyone willing to pass on
classified information to him. But more interesting by far is the
sequence of events that led a U.S. Army private first class not only to
secure the material but to know where to send it and how to get it
there. If Pfc. Bradley Manning conceived and executed the theft by
himself, and gave the information to WikiLeaks unprompted, Assange is
clear. But anyone who assisted Manning or encouraged him is probably
guilty of conspiracy, and if Assange knew what was being done, he is
probably guilty, too. There was talk about some people at MIT helping
Manning. Unscrambling the sequence is what the Justice Department is
undoubtedly doing now. Assange cannot be guilty of treason, since he
isn't a U.S. citizen. But he could be guilty of espionage. His best
defense will be that he can't be guilty of espionage because the
material that was stolen was so trivial.

I have no idea whether or when he got involved in the acquisition of the
material. I do know - given the material leaked so far - that there is
little beyond minor embarrassments contained within it. Therefore,
Assange's claim that geopolitics has changed is as false as it is bold.
Whether he committed any crime, including rape, is something I have no
idea about. What he is clearly guilty of is hyperbole. But contrary to
what he intended, he did do a service to the United States. New controls
will be placed on the kind of low-grade material he published. Secretary
of Defense Gates made the following point on this:

"Now, I've heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy
described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those
descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is,
governments deal with the United States because it's in their
interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not
because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments - some
governments - deal with us because they fear us, some because they
respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as
has been said before, the indispensable nation."

"Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S.
foreign policy? I think fairly modest."

I don't like to give anyone else the final word, but in this case Robert
Gates' view is definitive. One can pretend that WikiLeaks has redefined
geopolitics, but it hasn't come close.

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