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Labelgate

December 1, 2010

WikiLeaks has rolled out its newest trove of confidential material that many world leaders presumably wished you hadn’t seen. This one is being called Cablegate because anything scandalous or revelatory about political actors becomes a “-gate” so that journalists can imply to the public that the events were damaging without having to grow the requisite pair of testicles to directly say so. And WikiLeaks happens to like shaping the implications of the media’s rhetoric just as much as its explicit reportage.

In Cablegate, WikiLeaks has released the confidential communications between diplomats and U.S. embassies. These communications are mostly just embarrassing communiqués revealing diplomats’ candid or conniving takes on world events. Such revelations included:

  • Fears in Washington and London over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, with officials warning that as the country faces economic collapse, government employees could smuggle out enough nuclear material for terrorists to build a bomb;
  • Suspicions of corruption in the Afghan government, with one cable alleging that vice-president Zia Massoud was carrying $52m in cash when he was stopped during a visit to the United Arab Emirates;
  • Allegations that Russia and its intelligence agencies are using mafia bosses to carry out criminal operations, with one cable reporting that the relationship is so close that the country has become a “virtual mafia state”;
  • Concern over the extent of the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi, with allegations of “lavish gifts,” lucrative energy contracts and the use by Berlusconi of a “shadowy” Russian-speaking Italian go-between;
  • Arab leaders expressing greater fear of ascendant Iran than Israel and calling for military intervention by the U.S.;
  • China expressing growing impatience with North Korean antics;
  • A few innocuous anecdotes like the story of a 75-year American old man escaping Iran by horseback.

Most of these cables demonstrate facts and opinions that would have been totally unsurprising to anyone with a sufficient understanding of the power dynamics at play, without any insider’s knowledge. Indeed, 3 million people already had access to these documents. Suffice it to say that the more interesting ramifications are that nobody had leaked these cables with any regularity before, and that WikiLeaks has once again caused the media and politicians to explode into a bl00dthirsty mob chorus of censorship. Rep. Peter King (R-Who Cares) has won the race to the spotlight by calling for WikiLeaks to be officially labeled a terrorist organization and for Julian Assange to be prosecuted.

As Evgeny Morozov poignantly observed, “WikiLeaks is what happens when the entire US government is forced to go through a full-body scanner.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That tends to happen when everyone treats a topic so breathlessly.

It is valid to say that some of these cable messages may lack all of the necessary context to give a fair cast to what each message actually communicates. Some cables might be pure gossip, some might require knowledge of other previous unwritten communications. However, WikiLeaks consistently dumps enough documents to give the secondary reporters a fair chance to sort through and create their own narratives; as I’ve said before, it’s great that WikiLeaks is just the first draft of the first draft of history. What one can readily see about the resultant coverage of the leaks is that various news outlets have their own freedom to pick and choose what to cover about the targets of the leaks or the leakers themselves.

On the other hand, what is legitimately troubling about this particular disclosure is that these communications have been traditionally subject to tight-lipped protection for the sake of the backroom political dealings that need an air of privacy for most of them to see the light of day. In international diplomacy, nothing is more important than “maintaining face” (i.e., the facade of strength, competence, potence, capability, and other qualities which demonstrate the ability of a leader to attain their country’s interests in an international arena). Why is it so important? Because populations value politicians who appear to be successful at attaining their best interests and who appear to be respected or even feared by their peers. Maintaining face effectively determines how strong you appear to and are treated by other political players. For example, if a politician lobbies for some political action that won’t happen, if that lobbying is made public, it looks as though that politician cannot achieve what he or she sets out to do. Alternatively, if a politician promises something to another politician but cannot publicly bring their own country around to that position (e.g., those Arab leaders who fear or detest Iran), they appear publicly incapable of following through and thus require other politicians to be publicly wary of further dealings with that politician. All of that leads to the conclusion that what is most significant is that the U.S. cannot claim to have the tightest ship in the game. These cables are now directly attributable to the people who voiced them, meaning that politicians are losing the political cover of “plausible deniability.” One can almost certainly bet that these channels will pucker up a bit in the interim.

Critics often claim that WikiLeaks ought to focus on exposing the inner workings of bad corporations rather than disillusioning citizens’ faith in governments that often need cover to bring their citizenry around to their side. Of course, WikiLeaks is doing that too: they have exposed large amounts of toxic waste dumping by a UK company off the coast of Africa and have had documents on an Albanian oil well blowout as well as materials from inside BP. And it has announced that the next leak target will be a major U.S. bank (probably Bank of America).

What can be said of WikiLeaks, by and large, could have been said–and was said–of the Pentagon Papers (those reports that candidly and dutifully reported to the top brass that the Vietnam War wasn’t going so well as the official story would have it). Daniel Ellsberg received the name “the most dangerous man in America,” from none other than Henry Kissinger after his famous leak. The reason wasn’t because the leaked documents revealed something that practically threatened operations on the ground by revealing troop movements or anything like that; it was because it threatened the austerity of the deference given to the political establishment that controlled the flow of information to the public. WikiLeaks usually strives to protect the practical, on-the-ground interests but loves undermining the sense of political infallibility politicians strive to cultivate. In this case, WikiLeaks asked the State Department for help redacting potentially injurious information but the State Department refused. Indeed, at bottom these leaks mainly served to show that these documents could be leaked at all.

The United States faces difficult choices right now: whether to attempt to stop up these leaks by revising its own internal security policies or by going after WikiLeaks for receiving the information, or both. The former will almost certainly happen without public report. And based on its tendencies in the copyright world, it seems pretty clear that the United States is willing to intercede into controlling speech on the Internet, regardless of overtures made by Obama, discussed supra. For example, the United States has pointlessly seized domain names on behalf of copyright holders, even though those sites will continue to operate via other channels. All of that is so that the Obama Administration can save face to the entertainment industry, and so those CEOs in turn can maintain face for their shareholders, even though there will be collateral damage to freedom of speech in the process.

Of course, the United States’ response, whether measured or reactionary, doesn’t stop people like Rep. King or Fox News from claiming the implications of WikiLeaks are literally life-threatening. But telling the truth, even if damaging, should not and cannot be equated to terrorism. If telling truths that happen to damage power is sufficient to qualify as terrorism, then liberty is an illusion and raw power is all that is relevant. If that is the case, it is a good thing that WikiLeaks is working to erode and disperse that power.

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