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Lessons from Wikileaks | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The disclosure of a new batch of classified American documents via ‘Wikileaks’ has caused a great sir across the world. Although the site has been in existence for approximately three years, a lot of people were unaware of it, until classified U.S. documents began to be leaked, firstly regarding military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most recently U.S. diplomatic activity. The documents contained embarrassing information, regarding the U.S. administration, and how it perceives a number of world leaders, including the heads of state of several allies.

The leaked memos detail views stated during meetings between US diplomats, and several world leaders. They also reveal instructions issued by the U.S. Department of State to its diplomats abroad, requesting them to obtaining intelligence and personal information about foreign officials and international organizations.

The controversy will go on for some time, especially if we consider the magnitude of the leaked documents, consisting of over 250,000 cables exchanged between 274 embassies, diplomatic missions, and consulates around the world, in correspondence with the United States. The memos are dated up to the end of February 2010, and are not written in conventional diplomatic language. The correspondence took place behind closed doors, and those involved did not expect such documents to be publicly released in the near future.

But is it worth all this fuss?

The documents, without question, shed light on important issues, and they might even bring about a change in some diplomatic practices. However, they are unlikely to lead to any substantial change in U.S. strategic goals and policies, or even in the relations between the U.S. and its allies mentioned in the documents. Everyone is aware that a fundamental task of embassies around the world is to submit reports to their native foreign ministries. Every country expects its embassies to provide it with reports on issues that affect its interests, or in some cases to secretly gather intelligence.

Regardless of the information revealed in the documents, and the controversy they have caused, there is a fact which cannot be ignored: diplomatic work cannot be entirely transparent. Bilateral relations between countries require talks behind closed doors. Otherwise, talks between allies would be revealed to their foes, in an increasingly entangled world.

When some politicians criticise ‘Wikileaks’, they tend to forget that the harm done to diplomatic relations does not come from this website alone. Many western politicians, after they have left office, have tended to disclose some of what took place during secret talks with leaders and officials. We have seen examples of this with George W.Bush and Tony Blair, who revealed such information as a means of promoting their memoirs, for which they are paid millions of dollars. However, events are not usually recorded in this way, for history is much better suited to historians than politicians.

We can be certain that the publication of these documents, in addition to the earlier leaks related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; will have a lasting impact on information security, and ways of dealing with online documents. This was highlighted by Christopher Mayer, former British Ambassador to the United States during the term of Tony Blair. Although he said that these documents will not prevent diplomats from disclosing their views via cables to their governments, as it is their duty, he stated that such leaks would make governments pay more attention to the issue of information security, and the confidentiality of online documents.

This is exactly what Washington has done, having announced the day before yesterday that it has provided instructions to its governmental bodies to handle classified information with utmost strictness. The U.S. has also placed restrictions on the information available to each employee, so that no one has access to anything other than what they need in order to do their job.

The challenge won’t be easy, especially considering that the military official accused of transferring these classified documents to ‘Wikileaks’, revealed in an online chat discussion, obtained by the US authorities after his arrest, that the whole process was like ‘child’s play’ to him. He would go to work, as a data analyst, carrying a CD with music on it, before deleting the music files and recording classified information instead. To further mislead any potential surveillance, he would play songs via his mobile phone, giving the impression he was listening to the music on his CD, which he had inserted into his computer to obtain the classified information.

Finally, we should be cautious when dealing with leaks, even if they are proven to be official documents, as is the case with the U.S. government cables, whose authenticity has not been disputed by the Obama Administration. The controversy surrounds how such information was leaked, and the purpose that it serves. ‘Wikileaks’ has always been selective about what information it posts, when it posts it, and what parts it chooses to highlight. The leaked documents may help us see the overall picture, yet for a clear interpretation, we must move away from the present climate of suspicion.