Wikileaks – Cablegate, intelligence and diplomacy – 29 November 2010

The first tranche of US diplomatic cable leaks have made their way onto the internet, and the world has – thus far – continued to turn. Many of the documents relate to Iran and what to do about Iran and their nuclear weapons programme. Some Arab leaders will have woken up embarrassed or annoyed about their desires to see Iran given a bloody nose being so publicly aired. Other leaders will have smarted at the private assessment of US diplomats about their performances – Sarkozy is described as having authoritarian tendencies in one, while Karzai is described as being driven by paranoia in another (with the number of physical threats he faces, why shouldn’t he be?). But if politicians are in their business to be loved, and cannot take being poked at, then they shouldn’t be politicians  – many will have heard much worse about themselves, just not from diplomats in unguarded cables.

Did we learn anything significant?

Well, it is a little too early to say. A former colleague of mine at Bristol was asked about the impact of 9/11 on the international system: he said it would take 30years to know. I don’t think we need to wait that long, but we will need to observe a little bit of soak time. The cables concerning the Middle East merely tell us what we could have privately worked out (albeit unevidenced), and the cables about development aid going for an un-audited walk is the most open of badly kept secrets going. China running a massive computer hacking programme?  Well, they might not want it so openly discussed, but that’s a bit tough. They do it, everyone knows they do it, move on and get on with life. It’s no different to 50odd years of Cold War.

Some in the media have made much of the analysis that Russian officials and ‘organised crime’ are too close, but again this is not new and appeared (as analysis) in the New York Review of Books last year. And besides, which democracies exist without an uneasy relationship between malleable money and the political classes? For a fun account of this just watch the final series of ‘The Wire’.  The cables also cast doubt on Berlusconi’s abilities as a political leader. I have a subscription to The Economist, they’ve been saying this for years.

So, what we learnt was how to reference what we already knew. It is mostly gossip (and can happily be dismissed as such, embarrassing but gossip), but there are some real bits of national security information, which will cause longer term problems.

The USB Memory Stick – an intelligence WMD

In the good old days, someone nicking 2millions files would have needed a couple of lorries, and would – therefore – not have made it out of the vault. Now, in an attempt to join up the intelligence community post 9/11 a rogue officer (who  ever they might be.. because no-one has been tried yet) can download them onto a memory stick and send them to wikileaks.

So, everything’s going to have to be tightened up again. What Prince Andrew says in an unguarded way, shouldn’t be available to everyone with clearance – and I’m sure it won’t be henceforth. Pinging electronic communications around is also likely to become a museum piece. An official once said to me ‘I keep every single email I send and receive. If there’s ever an inquiry in this office, I know what will be in the paper trail, because I have all of it!’. And the lesson from that really was that he treated e-communications like paper, and he’s right to, because legally that’s what they are. The wikileaks revelations, as FOI has, will drive officials down a non-recorded line. Who dares write anything, when it might be revealed to world?

The globalisation of e-communications means that the rogue memorystick today went global. I have no idea how much it cost to mount these files online, but I’m guessing it’s buttons in the grand scheme of thing.  The days of the arm-chair intelligence analyst will be back in vogue again, and governments will smart and strain to repair some of these embarrassing written thoughts.

I’ve read many commentators saying the US is fair game, and I was called a ‘lover of authority’ by one twitter commentator. Fair play, say what you like, the world is as the world is, and I call it as I see it. If the diplomats had been writing for a world audience, they’d have written differently. The success of our nations diplomacy will be temporarily affected by these gaffs, but it will be business as usual again, I’m sure. But the bravery of wikileaks has thus far extended to yanking the chain of liberal democracies and certain religious groupings. If this global caliphate of the publish and be damned free wants to be brave, why does it only pick on the liberal west.. particularly when it says it is holding back documents from less free governments?

The release of these documents has been embarrassing to the governments involved, but diplomacy will keep going in the way it always has. It will change the way governments deal with sensitive documents, the way they vet those who can access it and the ease by which the information can be extracted… afterall the ease at which they were extracted would imply that a tech-savvy intelligence agency probably had them ages ago.. but this release has not changed the world, nor created a year zero, not yet.. it’s still 2010, at least in this part of the UK.


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