Sunday, 5 December 2010

The US embassy cables and the storm around Wikileaks

Last week, Wikileaks began publishing 251,287 leaked United States embassy cables. This was the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain, and it has sent the US government and others into a tailspin.

The importance of this event was outlined by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU);
The WikiLeaks phenomenon — the existence of an organisation devoted to obtaining and publicly releasing large troves of information the U.S. government would prefer to keep secret — illustrates just how broken our secrecy classification system is. While the Obama administration has made some modest improvements to the rules governing classification of government information, both it and the Bush administration have overclassified and kept secret information that should be subject to public scrutiny and debate. As a result, the American public has had to depend on leaks to the news media and whistleblowers to know what the government is up to.
However, others did not see it that way. The White House said that "open and transparent government is something that the President believes is truly important. But the stealing of classified information and its dissemination is a crime."

Hilary Clinton echoed this sentiment, calling the leak "an attack on the international community, the alliances and partnerships, the conventions and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity."Republican Congressman Peter King went further, claiming that "WikiLeaks presents a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States," and "meet[s] the legal criteria" of a terrorist organisation.

Whilst this is certainly hysterical bluster, there have been more than words thrown at the site in recent days. A hacker or hackers have hit it with a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, which forced it to move some pages to Amazon. Subsequently, Amazon complied with a demand to dump the site, and it can now be found here.

So, what information was in the leaked cables to produce such a response, when neither the Afghan War Diaries nor Collateral Murder drew more than harsh words?

One of the most discussed subjects in the cables is Iran. The media has made much of the fact that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states put pressure on the US to attack Iran. This is being read by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin netanyahu as a vindication of Israel's stance.

However, as WSWS elucidates, the US's role is much more vital;
The documents reveal a wide range of efforts by the US government over the past decade, and especially in the last three years, to mobilize support for its campaign against Iran—as well as to forestall a premature Israeli air strike against the Islamic Republic, which US officials feared would be counterproductive and strengthen Iran in the long run.

The most provocative allegation contained in the documents is the claim, in a February 24, 2010 cable describing a US-Russian meeting, that North Korea had shipped Iran 19 medium-range, Russian-designed missiles, capable of delivering nuclear warheads. This claim was trumpeted in US media accounts of the WikiLeaks documents, as though it was a smoking gun, but it amounts to no more than an unsupported US government allegation, similar to lies used by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The New York Times devoted a lengthy article to the claim of a “cache” of missiles which it said would give Iran the ability to strike cities 2,000 miles away: “If fired from Iran, that range, in theory, would let its warheads reach targets as far away as Western Europe, including Berlin. If fired northwestward, the warheads could easily reach Moscow.”

The Times account was crafted in collaboration with the Obama administration—as the newspaper’s editors shamelessly admit, explaining, “At the request of the Obama administration, The New York Times has agreed not to publish the text of the cable.”

The WikiLeaks documents also demonstrate that US embassies throughout the Middle East and Central Asia were instructed to focus their espionage activities on Iran, particularly in those countries with a common border. This was necessary because there has been no official US presence in Tehran since the 1979 takeover by militant students, who branded the embassy—with perfect justice—as a “nest of spies.”

Washington pursued a course of heavy-handed diplomatic pressure on countries with important economic relations with Tehran, particularly China, Russia and Germany. The Bush administration intervened with China in November 2007, seeking to intercept a cargo of missile stabilizers en route from North Korea to Iran via Beijing, one of at least a dozen such diplomatic exchanges targeting cargo ranging from carbon fiber to gyroscopes to ordinary chemicals.

Particularly significant are the repeated entreaties by the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and other Arab sheikdoms for American military intervention against Iran. All of the crowned heads of the Persian Gulf still tremble at the memory of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which destroyed the absolute monarchy of the Shah, at the time the most powerful ruler in the Middle East.

As early as 2005, two years into the US war in Iraq, Arab rulers who nominally opposed the US invasion, because of overwhelming popular hostility, were urging Washington behind the scenes to extend its war of aggression into Iran. Tailoring their arguments to the lies used by the Bush administration to justify the attack on Iraq, they argued that Iran would certainly develop a nuclear bomb if left undisturbed.

Saudi King Abdullah frequently pressed the US to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities “to cut off the head of the snake,” while officials in Bahrain and Jordan also told their US interlocutors that military means should be used against Iran if necessary. “The danger of letting it go on is greater than the dangers of stopping it,” Bahrain’s King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa told visiting US General David Petraeus.

The transparent falsity of these arguments—urgently warning that an Iranian bomb was “inevitable” in 2006, 2007 or 2008—provides a useful yardstick for evaluating similar arguments today, made by both the Obama administration and Israel.

The uncensored views of the Arab sheiks also shed light on a major foreign policy initiative of the Obama administration, the extension of US military relationships with the Persian Gulf states, and in particular, the resumption of massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its smaller neighbors. In September, the Pentagon publicly endorsed a record $60 billion sale of weapons, including advanced fighter jets, to Saudi Arabia.

These sales have both a political/diplomatic and a military/technical component, since the huge influx of US-built weapons means that American troops can operate seamlessly with their counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman. “We are helping these allied and partner nations create their own containment shield against Iran,” a US officer told the press at the time. “It is a way of deterring Iran, but helpful to us in so many other ways.”
Elsewhere, we discover that US diplomats are expected to obtain "personal details, such as frequent flyer numbers, credit card details and even DNA material" from those they meet. In particular, there was a directive to gather intelligence on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and other UN officials, including biometric information, passwords, and personal encryption keys.

Britain vowed to protect US interests” during the Chilcott Inquiry. Our government also concealed a loophole in the ban on use and storage of cluster bombs from Parliament, allowing the US to store their munitions here.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Little wonder, as Reporters Without Borders put it, "countries such as France and the United States suddenly bringing their policies on freedom of expression into line with those of China." Nor that, in their frenzy to do so, the irony of this "attempt at the international community level to censor a website dedicated to the principle of transparency" is entirely lost.

Wikileaks continues to be an important resource, as proven several times over by the ferocious attacks against it. It represents a challenge to the assumed right of states and other power centres to stifle the flow of information in their own interest, and that challenge must be maintained.