[Marxism] Wikileaks: Empire Unmasked
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 15 08:13:38 MST 2010
Counterpunch December 15, 2010
The Wikileaks Deluge
By VIJAY PRASHAD
"Secret diplomacy is a necessary tool for a propertied
minority, which is compelled to deceive the majority in order to
subject it to its interests. Imperialism, with its dark plans of
conquest and its robber alliances and deals, developed the system
of secret diplomacy to the highest level."
– Leon Trotsky, Foreign Affairs Commissariat, USSR, 1917.
On November 28, four newspapers and WikiLeaks' website released
the first tranche of almost 250,000 United States State Department
and embassy cables. Orchestrated with a great deal of care, the
website provided only the 291 cables that were being written about
separately by El País, Der Spiegel, The Guardian and The New York
Times. Each day a set of cables saw the light of day and the
papers reported on them in tandem.
A few days after the trickle, The Guardian provided a downloadable
index of all the cables, with information of their provenance and
their dates, but with nothing about their content. It whets the
appetite. What we have to look forward to are cables from 274
embassies and the State Department at Foggy Bottom, Washington, DC.
These cables cover the years 1966 to 2010, although the bulk of
them belong to the period after 2006. The cables carry such varied
material as Ambassadors' assessments of the political situation in
the countries they are deputed to, the State Department's
questions to Ambassadors, and Ambassadors' or political officers'
reports on meetings they attended. Some Ambassadors and political
officers are remarkably perceptive; others are, predictably, duds.
Thus far, just over a thousand cables are in the public domain.
WikiLeaks' public face, Julian Assange, is under arrest in the
United Kingdom, and capitals across the world are either in
nervous anticipation or in shocked disbelief. There is no question
that this deluge by WikiLeaks is the most significant blow to the
world of secret diplomacy since the Soviet Union opened the
Tsarist correspondence with the grandees of Europe in 1917.
In early 2009, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey wrote to
Hillary Clinton to prepare her for her visit with Egyptian Foreign
Minister Aboul Gheit. The cable is a model of diplomatic acumen,
providing a character sketch of Gheit ("smart, urbane with a
tendency to lecture") and offering a series of options that Gheit
might push Clinton on (such as an invitation to the Gaza Donors'
Conference in Cairo). Scobey, a career foreign services officer,
knows her business. No wonder that the Indian Ministry of External
Affairs asks its trainee diplomats to study the cables "and get a
hang of the brevity with which thoughts and facts have been
Early in the cable, however, Scobey reveals the problem with her
profession. She correctly points out to Hillary Clinton that Gheit
"may not raise human rights (specifically Ayman Nour), political
reform, or democratisation; but you should". Ayman Nour is the
leader of the El Ghad liberal party who had been in Cairo's
prisons since 2005 (he was released shortly after Clinton's
meeting with Gheit).
The problem here is that while Scobey tried to push the agenda of
human rights in one room, in other, more shadowy rooms, the
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and military intelligence
officials of the U.S. carried a more powerful brief. Since 1995,
the U.S. government has provided the Egyptian secret service (the
Mukhabarat) with various prisoners through the extraordinary
rendition programme. These prisoners, often suspected of being Al
Qaeda members, are alleged to have been tortured in those very
jails that Ambassador Scobey criticised.
Idealism vs new diplomacy
What the cables demonstrate, therefore, is the blind idealism of
the State Department, which has been sidelined by the new
diplomacy in the shadows conducted by the U.S. government's arms
In cable after cable, we read of the visits of U.S. military
officials and their conversations with heads of state in various
countries. The Ambassadors act as fixers or go-betweens for these
military luminaries. For instance, Ambassador Stephen Seche,
another career diplomat, filed a cable from Sana'a, Yemen, in
January 2010 on General David Petraeus' meeting with Yemen's
President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Seche sat by as stenographer as Petraeus and Saleh colluded
against Yemeni sovereignty and the U.S. public – the U.S. has an
active military presence in Yemen, and is at war there, something
that is not known in the U.S. and has not been admitted to the
"We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh told
Petraeus. His Deputy, Rashad al-Alimi, said he had just lied to
Parliament, telling it that the bombs are American, but fired by
Petraeus pointed out that Saleh must tell the Yemeni customs to
stop "holding up embassy cargo at the airport, including shipments
destined for the [Yemeni government] itself, such as equipment of
[Yemen's counter terrorism unit]". In other words, the diplomatic
pouch no longer carries only letters; it now carries military
In 2007, Deputy Chief of Mission in Berlin John Koenig wrote to
the State Department after a briefing at the German Chancellery.
The Bush administration was afraid that the German government
would pursue a case against the 13 CIA agents who were responsible
for the extraordinary rendition of a German national, Khalid
el-Masri. The CIA kidnapped, tortured and then released El-Masri
when they discovered that they had the wrong man. The Germans
found out the names of the agents and traced their orders to
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
As legal scholar Lisa Hajjar put it to me, "the cables indicate
that the U.S. exerted political pressure on the German legal and
political system to shut down the criminal case, a serious and
unlawful intervention in the domestic law enforcement process of a
sovereign state." Once more the embassy is doing the legwork of
the CIA and the NSA, both of whom have begun to run foreign policy
but use the State Department to clean up behind them.
Even here, diplomacy is reduced to naked power. The Deputy Chief
of Mission "pointed out that our intention was not to threaten
Germany, but rather to urge that the German government weigh
carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations
with the U.S." This is, of course, a threat. Much the same dance
took place in Madrid.
Spying on U.N. staff
No surprise then that the State Department, in July 2009, asks its
embassy staff to collect credit card information, frequent-flyer
numbers and biometric data of members of the United Nations
Security Council and of the U.N. Secretary-General. What is
revealing is that we do not know who has asked the State
Department to collect this information and what will be done with it.
It is unlikely that the State Department has use for such
information; more likely that this goes off into the entrails of
the Defence Intelligence Agency, the CIA and the NSA. These
shadowy entities are the only ones with the wherewithal to use
this kind of data. They have smothered the capacity of the more
urbane State Department to conduct its kind of handshake diplomacy.
The embassy now appears as the emissary of the military and the
CIA. This is precisely what Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke meant
when he called for the diplomatic arm to be a "support for the
Cloak and Download
The WikiLeaks cable dump brought embarrassment to capitals across
the world. In Beijing there were shudders when the U.S. cables
quote officials calling the North Koreans "spoilt children" and
when the cables pointed fingers at Chinese officials for the
cyber-attack on Google.
A tremor crossed Buckingham Palace when the well-written cable
from Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller showed up Prince Andrew's nasty
side. Ex-government officials in London blushed when the cables
suggested that they had released the Libyan prisoner Abdel Basset
Ali al-Megrahi because of pressure from Tripoli, where Gaddafi
must be unhappy that the world knows that he cannot climb more
than 35 steps at a time.
Italy's Silvio Berlusconi must enjoy the notations about his
notorious party-life, as much as Germany's Angela Merkel must
despise the characterisation that she "avoids risk and is seldom
The cables from the Gulf had the royals, in a position of utter
subservience, telling the Ambassadors what they think the U.S.
wants to hear: during the Bush administration begging them to
attack Iran, and then during the Obama administration calling for
The Gulf royals are a mirror of Washington's whims. American and
Israeli newspapers saw the selective calls for a military attack
on Iran as confirmation of the views of their own governments.
If Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan called
for Iran's nuclear programme to be stopped "by all means
available", on another day his government was "clearly nervous
about any U.S. actions that could upset their much larger and
militarily superior neighbour". By 2009, the Crown Prince worried
that a military strike "would have little impact on Iran's
capabilities", even as he fulminated, "Ahmedinejad is Hitler" (the
last quote was highlighted in The New York Times).
Evidence of U.S. operations in Yemen was not as devastating as
evidence of its Special Force operations in South Waziristan.
Ambassador Anne Patterson's agony is evident. In February 2009,
she wrote to Washington that the relationship with Pakistan is
"transactional in nature," as well as "based on mutual mistrust".
"Pakistan hedges its bets on cooperation because it fears the U.S.
will again desert Islamabad after we get Osama bin Laden," she
wrote perceptively. "Washington sees this hesitancy as duplicity
that requires we take unilateral action to protect U.S. interests.
After 9/11, then President [Pervez] Musharraf made a strategic
shift to abandon the Taliban and support the U.S. in the war on
terror, but neither side believes the other has lived up to
expectations flowing from that decision. The relationship is one
of co-dependency we grudgingly admit – Pakistan knows the U.S.
cannot afford to walk away; the U.S. knows Pakistan cannot survive
without our support." It is hardly the kind of thing that the
State Department would like to have in the public domain, even as
it demonstrates that Washington does not operate without the
benefit of reality.
Everybody denounced the leaks and rejected the claims made by U.S.
Ambassadors. Washington, DC, reacted in an obvious way. It went
after the messenger. A charge that Julian Assange did not use a
condom when he had consensual sexual relations in Sweden (which
has some of the best rape laws in the world) was resurrected
miraculously by the prosecution office in Gothenburg; the Swedish
Chief Prosecutor, Eva Finne, had declined to prosecute the case in
August of this year.
The American right wing went off the deep end, with several
prominent people calling for the assassination of Assange. Even
Democrats lost their commitment to free speech – Senator Diane
Feinstein called for Assange to be jailed for 2.5 million years (a
10-year sentence for each offence, and with 250,000 documents the
sentence is biblical). Senator Joe Lieberman put pressure on
Amazon to remove WikiLeaks from their web server. It complied, and
so did MasterCard, Visa, Tableau, PayPal and EveryDNS. The Hindu's
editorial on December 5 called this a procedure of "Digital
Why is there this massive outrage at these cables when there was
virtual silence at the release of the Iraq and Afghan war logs?
These cables show the elite at their venal worst, conniving with
each other, making light of each other's failings. Imagine what
must be in the Russian diplomatic dispatches or those of the Saudi
intelligence services. The war logs, on the other hand, showed the
misadventures of teenaged working-class soldiers, suborned to a
war that they did not understand. Their violence was dismissed as
the work of a few "bad apples", men and women who had not been
sufficiently civilised. In these cables, on the other hand, the
civilised talk about their "dark plans of conquest". It is an
Before his arrest Assange took on the liberal concept of free
speech. In a chat on The Guardian website, he noted, "The West has
fiscalised its basic power relationships through a web of
contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings, and so on. In such
an environment, it is easy for speech to be ' free' because a
change in political will rarely leads to any change in these basic
instruments. Western speech, as something that rarely has any
effect on power, is like birds and badgers."
Assange's dry, elliptical wit emerged once more in his last
published dispatch ( The Australian, "Don't Shoot the Messenger
for Revealing Uncomfortable Truths," December 8). Here he compared
his endeavour to the campaign of Rupert Murdoch's father Keith.
Keith Murdoch fought to bring to light the sacrifices of
Australian troops at Gallipoli because of muddled British
commanders. "In the race between secrecy and truth," the elder
Murdoch wrote, "it seems inevitable that truth will always win."
Assange then went on to say, "Democratic societies need a strong
media and WikiLeaks is part of that media. The media helps keep
government honest. WikiLeaks has revealed some hard truths about
the Iraq and Afghan wars, and broken stories about corporate
The point about "corporate corruption" is withering. WikiLeaks has
already announced that it is set to release documents from a major
U.S. bank. In haste, Bank of America pre-emptively said it may be
the bank. It wants to take the sting out of the surprise.
When the talk of assassination heated up, Assange and his team
released an insurance file to their allies. This heavily encrypted
file contains damaging material on British Petroleum, Guantanamo
Bay and other matters. It sits on computers, awaiting the
256-digit key. The WikiLeaks team has appropriately called this
the Doomsday File.
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South
Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity
College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A
People's History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book
Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He
can be reached at: vijay.prashad at trincoll.edu
A version of this piece originally ran in Frontline.
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