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Clinton Emails Reveal More About How State Department Shaped Media Coverage Of WikiLeaks

The latest batch of emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server shed light on who was influencing their institutional stance on WikiLeaks. Emails additionally reflect public relations operations to control the narrative in United States media, including requests to The Washington Post to not expose “regime change” efforts in Syria.

Also, three emails contain adversarial perspectives toward WikiLeaks, which Clinton appeared to fully support.

In April 2011, two high-ranking diplomats expressed concern the Post would identify groups the U.S. had supported in Syria and endanger lives [PDF].

“WaPo is considering only reporting the names of those organizations outside Syria that are public and already known to the Syrian government and may report only that we support pro-democracy activities generically and not get into the specifics which concern us most,” Hammer wrote in an email.

“Still, [Near Eastern Affairs] worries that WaPo will overcrank that we have been working for regime change and we anticipate it will be a bad story as it will allow the Syrians to blame outside forces (us) for their internal problems to try to justify an even tougher crackdown.”

Under the headline, “U.S. secretly backed Syrian opposition groups, cables released by WikiLeaks show,” the Post described the State Department’s secret financing of groups and projects, such as a “satellite TV channel” that beamed anti-government programming into Syria. But the Post agreed to withhold “certain names and program details at the request of the State Department.”

A now infamous cable on vulnerabilities in Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which could be exploited to spur regime change, was entirely overlooked. But it was among the 100,000 cables published by WikiLeaks in August.

State Department plants questions in “60 Minutes” interview with Julian Assange

On January 28, 2011, State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley emailed Clinton [PDF], “I just received confirmation from 60 Minutes that a piece on Julian Assange will air Sunday night. He will be the only person featured. We had a number of suggestions for outside experts and former diplomats to interview to ‘balance’ the piece.”

“60 Minutes assures me that they raised a number of questions and concerns we planted with him during the course of the interview. We will be prepared to respond to the narrative Assange presents during the program,” Crowley added.

While it is unknown what questions and concerns were “planted,” Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” asked Assange if he was anti-American, if he deserved prosecution because some say he operates outside the rules, why he runs a secretive organization when he is committed to exposing secrets, what he thinks of people who see him as a “cult-like figure,” and whether he is an agitator trying to “sabotage” governments.

Washington Post refuses to censor cables on US-Turkey Relations

In September 2011, just after WikiLeaks published all the cables, including around 100,000 unreleased cables, the State Department moved to stop The Washington Post from publishing a story on revelations related to US-Turkey intelligence cooperation against the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK, a group the U.S. government labeled a terrorist organization.

Michael Hammer, Assistant Secretary of State of Public Affairs, emailed [PDF], “They will not make redactions we requested so expect the WikiLeaks cables to be published in full.”

The Washington Post reported how Turkey had grown dependent on Predator drones, U-2 spy aircraft, and other U.S. intelligence “sources” in its fight against the PKK. Turkish officials repeatedly “pressed their American counterparts to escalate their involvement against the PKK and eradicate the group before U.S. forces leave Iraq.”

Working with European and Near East American press, they deployed talking points claiming Turkey remained a “longstanding ally and partner of the United States,” and the U.S. would “continue to support Turkey in its struggle against PKK terrorism through various forms of cooperation.”

“We support continued cooperation between Iraq and Turkey in combating the PKK, which is a common enemy of Turkey, Iraq and the United States.”

The above talking points were printed verbatim in the Post’s report.

Another email [PDF] indicates the State Department was especially troubled by Der Spiegel’s characterization of cables: “If one were to believe the gloomy reports from the embassy in Ankara, Turkey is on a slippery slope to volatile Islamism, spurred on by the narrow-minded government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is portrayed as being reliant on a group of incompetent advisers.”

But all talking points used in diplomatic conversations with a Turkish diplomat are censored in the released email.

One email [PDF] from November 26, 2010, which was before the first cables were published, reveal calls made to Gulf Cooperation Council “counterparts” — Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates.

Former chief strategist for Clinton suggests “bounty for the capture of those responsible”

Referred to as “wikithink,” Mark Penn, former chief strategist for Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, emailed his views on WikiLeaks on November 28. Clinton shared them with others in a message [PDF] that said, “Fyi.”

“The administration seems quite weak to me,” Penn argued. “This is not like the Pentagon Papers or even the videos of the bombings, this is a wholesale capturing of the diplomatic material of the country.”

“No State Department can operate if it can’t keep its own classified cables and internal orders confidential. I think this is unprecedented in history. And if this is [what] WikiLeaks can get, what can the Chinese or others [secure]?” Penn asked.

Penn continued, “This security breach is not a targeted breach to make a whistleblower point, it is a wholesale leak that should be treated as putting lives in danger. For what it’s worth, I think you need to order a full scale review and upgrading of the cyber security of the State Department immediately. To offer a bounty for the capture of those responsible. And as I see you doing, take an aggressive position on WikiLeaks.”

As far as the world knows, the State Department never put out any “bounties” for the “capture” of anyone involved. It did know in the summer WikiLeaks was going to publish cables. Procedures were established and a review of federal agencies was conducted to increase security safeguards for electronic information. A WikiLeaks Working Group operated 24/7 to respond to disclosures as they were covered by the press.

WikiLeaks exposed “vast number of official acts of rightdoing”

Daniel Baer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, shared some thoughts with Clinton [PDF], which led to her ask someone to print a copy of the commentary.

“Whistleblowing is when someone reveals an act of official wrongdoing, and because it is official wrongdoing we assume that it’s in the public interest to know about this and hold the culprits accountable,” Baer wrote. “Instead what WL is exposing, by and large, is a vast number of official acts of rightdoing—diplomats engaged often with partners from other governments or civil society, in solving the kind of practical problems that arise in a world made up of nearly two hundred nations.”

Baer suggested, “While we can and should maintain a general commitment to transparency, we also can and should recognize that a responsible government that that is to be held accountable for delivering benefits for its people, will sometimes need to work in confidence in order to do so. Whistleblowing exposes misconduct that runs counter to the interests of citizens. WikiLeaks undermines good conduct on behalf of citizens.”

For the record, the general “rightdoing” and “good conduct” was revealed to include: US diplomats spying on United Nations leadership, the Yemen president agreed to secretly allow US cruise missile attacks that he would say were launched by his government, Iceland’s banking crisis had partly been a result of bullying by European countries, US and China joined together to obstruct a major agreement on climate change by European countries, US government was well aware of rampant corruption in the Tunisian ruling family of President Ben Ali, the FBI trained torturers in Egypt’s state security service, the administrations of both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama pressured Spain and Germany not to investigate torture authorized by Bush administration officials, and diplomatic officials doing the bare minimum to respond to foreign contractors managed by DynCorp, who hired Afghan boys to dress up as girls and dance for them.

Additionally, Baer argued Assange sought to harm “confidential communication among governments.”

To the extent that officials attempt to guard secrets that would reflect poorly on the U.S. if revealed, it is probably true he wanted to send a message to the U.S. government to stop hiding misconduct and wrongdoing.

“If WikiLeaks seeks to undermine this mode of international politics, it’s not clear what it seeks to replace it with,” Baer concluded. “A world in which every step of climate negotiations were exposed in real time would not be more prepared to confront the threat of climate change. A world in which every discussion among finance ministers were immediately publicized would not have fewer financial crises. A world in which every discussion of how to counter plots of terrorists or secure dangerous nuclear materials were on the front page of the world’s newspapers would not be more safe.”

“The opposite of the Pentagon Papers”

For what it’s worth, Sidney Blumenthal, a journalist connected to President Bill Clinton and known to have advised Hillary Clinton via email numerous times, shared his view [PDF] that WikiLeaks disclosures were the “opposite of the Pentagon Papers.” Hillary called it an “interesting perspective.”

“The Pentagon Papers provided evidence from an internal study conducted by the Department of Defense that the U.S. administration was not telling the truth about the Vietnam War,” Blumenthal argued. “On the contrary, the WikiLeaks papers prove that the U.S. government today has been telling the truth about the threats we face in the world. Our government is telling the truth.”

“The WikiLeaks papers prove that American diplomats are hard at work at the difficult, often frustrating job of protecting and advancing our interests in the world,” Blumenthal maintained. “These documents are testimony to the diligence, intelligence, and clear mindedness of our diplomats. Our diplomats are doing their work on the frontlines of national security.”

In other words, maintaining a superpower can be a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

BTW, what does FUBAR mean?

William J. Burns, Deputy Secretary of State, emailed on December 2 [PDF] to say it was “kind of a zoo” at the State Department. He wrote, “DOD still in denial over their lapses, and their tendency to lowball damage in public is really unhelpful.”

Days prior, Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared, “I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought.” Consequences for U.S. foreign policy would be “fairly modest. Countries would continue to deal with the U.S. because it is an “indispensable nation.”

On December 4, Clinton wanted to know what FUBAR meant [PDF]. “FUBAR is unprintable on civil email,” one State Department official replied, as she was about to hop on a “wiki” conference call.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."