Cablegate – Changing the Way of Keeping Secrets

The Guardian is featuring a video presenting a discussion of the State Department cable release with two of its editors, a historian, a writer, and the former chief of staff to Tony Blair.

Part 3 of the WikiLeaks dossier is diplomatic traffic as opposed to military traffic. And what it is, is a lot of cables, nearly a quarter a million of them, of diplomats from around the world, reporting back to Washington about their perceptions of the regions, the countries they’re in.

The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, El Pais, and the New York Times have formed a partnership to feature selected cables from the quarter million provided by WikiLeaks. To date, the Guardian has featured about one hundred of the US embassy memos.

It’s a bombshell. It’s a historian’s dream. It’s a diplomat’s nightmare, because you see how the State Department works at the middle level.It doesn’t have the most sensitive stuff, but it’s the most extraordinary window into how American diplomacy works.

It is unprecedented for those presenting the historical record for future generations to have such a trove of diplomatic correspondence at their fingertips.

At one level, as a former diplomat and government employee, it’s fascinating to be able to read someone else’s telegrams, to read especially those called NOFORN. NOFORN means no foreign distribution, so no foreigners are supposed to see them. So it’s interesting to see actually what good analysis the American diplomats had, how well informed they were, how well connected they were, and how much they knew about actual physical situations.

The State Department is under the microscope of its allies and adversaries. Likewise the US intelligence apparatus is getting scrutinized as to the quality of the intelligence it is providing to the diplomatic corps.

We’ve seen big information releases like this previously, but what really strikes me about this information is that it is giving an idea of what’s happening all around the world, not just from one country, but this is how the United States government is operating in a number of countries.

The overall diplomatic strategy of the US, or lack thereof, has been laid out for the world to see. Judging from the reaction of the Secretary of State, the unexpected exposure is not giving a very flattering picture.

Some of the most interesting stuff is what the Arab states in the region truly think of Iran, which I think maybe they are reluctant to say publicly.

The prime focus of the embassy cables to date have been those focused on Iran. The intense involvement of the Arab states in opposing Iran was not something well understood in the West. The involvement of those Arab states needs to be kept in mind when members of Congress ramp up the rhetoric for belligerency against Iran. The motives of those Congresspersons must be questioned.

The US has put together a huge electronic archive through something they call the SIPDIS. This is something that they brought in in order to share information among the USG agencies so that the people know what was going on a bit better, especially in the wake of 9/11. And therefore these cables have been designed to be automatically loaded on the the website of other government agencies, such as the US military.

It would be interesting to review the specifications for SIPDIS, to see if any consideration was given to its potential vulnerabilities.

I think anybody who had what they thought of was a private conversation with an American diplomat over the last 5 or 10 years would be astonished to think that that information had been shared with 3 million others so that young corporals in their 20s in Baghdad were able to access this stuff and read it and now as we know, copy it.

That would be putting it mildly. It remains to be seen where the State Department Damage Control Unit is focusing most, calming furor over the content of the memos, or stifling the outrage over the broad distribution of the “secret” correspondence.

The thing about digitization, it means that you don’t have to take huge truckloads of paper out of a government body, it’s really as simple as putting it on a data stick or a hard drive. Increasingly information is a commodity, and where governments use information for power, it is much harder for them to monopolize that power because it can be dispersed so readily and rapidly.

An invincible superpower is not expected to have such a glaring vulnerability, where its entire diplomatic archive can be squirreled away on a thumb drive and and slipped into an individual’s pocket.

I assume the State Department, the US government is going to take a very close look at its procedures for disseminating this material and tighten up actually. I think that is one thing that is going to happen.

The person making the comment here is speculating. There is enormous inertia in large organizations such as the State Department. Procedures can be changed to eliminate some vulnerabilities, but new ones will inevitably emerge.

There may of course in those telegrams be revelations that do actually endanger lives. The countries that aren’t democracies, in the former Soviet Union for example, or some in the Arab world, where if the sources were known they would be in very, very serious trouble and very serious danger. So I think there is a risk to peoples’ lives somewhere in those telecomms but not in the ones I saw.

WikiLeaks did approach the State Department and is if it would redact in the cables the names of persons who might be considered at risk, but the State Department’s response was to ignore WikiLeaks. Names of at-risk individuals are being redacted by the editorial staffs of the five partnering news outfits.

It’s the kind of thing that has never been leaked before, and it’s likely to cause a world-wide diplomatic crisis for the United States. And not only for the United States, but for many of the countries which contain harsh judgements or disclosures that we see in these cables. So I think there are going to be shock waves around the world.

One does not need to be a rocket scientist to realize that the US image has been knocked down quite a few pegs by its sieve-like diplomatic database.

It think Britain actually should take a long hard look at itself in the mirror from these documents, because what we’re told is that we have these illusions about this special relationship, which clearly American diplomats themselves don’t believe. So why are we clinging to those illusions.

This was the question posed to the diplomatic staff of Great Britain. It is a question likely to be repeated in capitals across the globe.

It’s very hard to provide frank advice for people back home if you know it’s going to be splayed all over the place. So I think it won’t change the way diplomacy’s done, I think that people will change their systems, they’ll try to keep their secrets as they have for hundreds of years. That’s the only way you can really have a frank dialog. It would be nice if the dialog in public was also well informed.

Yes indeed, it certainly would be nice if there were slightly less deception made on those pay the bills for the foreign policy decisions, regardless of the intelligence of those decisions.

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