Please Use Wikileaks Responsibly

Posted on January 5, 2011

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While there’s been much  political sunshine blown about the dangers Wikileaks supposedly creates for the US, there is, it turns out, something dangerous about Wikileaks. That, is, like anything, it must be used responsibly.

Today, El Pais, one of the five papers of record that have collaborated with Wikileaks to publish some of the cables in the massive leak known as “cablegate”, published a rather weird article entitled, “The US Didn’t Give Saddam Hussein a Green Light to Invade Kuwait”.

Weird for two reasons. In the first case, its difficult to understand why this cable was ‘leaked’. It was declassified years ago, and was made available to the public through the Washington Post, which published it as a PDF document on line in 2008. A transcript of the meeting that the cable purports to report was published by the New York Times in 1990, in the run up to the invasion. What’s more, there are few still willing to argue against the “green light” version of the story–the issue is either completely ignored, or it is discussed within the very obvious parameters of the language contained in the cable and the transcript, and the historical context of 1990. At the time that Glaspie made the statements she claims in the cables, Iraq was emerging from its near-decade long war with Iran which the Reagan and Bush administrations supported, funded and ran interference for in congress to end-run around sanctions against  Iraq. Like Glaspie and State Department spokespeople, El Pais claims that Glaspie’s statement about the US’s intolerance for violent resolution of conflicts was an admonition against invading Kuwait, counteracting the other seemingly supportive statements. But any argument along these lines is really absurd in the extreme. This was a rare meeting between Hussein and the ambassador, where it was obvious that Hussein was seeking guidance on how to proceed, viz the US. From both the cable and the transcript of the meeting, we know that Glaspie either told Hussein that the US didn’t have an opinion about Arab-Arab conflicts–a statement attested to by the previous eight years of support for Hussein in his tragic war with Iran; or told Hussein that the US didn’t have an opinion about Arab border disputes. Or both!

Thus, its difficult to see the point of this article, which merely recasts the establishment view that Glaspie somehow warned Hussein that the US does not support armed conflict in the Middle East, despite the fact that it had supported his armed conflict for the previous eight years.What has been for over a decade a fairly dead issue, is now brought into question again.

Another article from El Pais re-broadcasts a US Bolivian embassy rumor that Evo Morales staged an attempted assassination plot against himself. The source in the embassy cable is not named, nor is any evidence offered. This is simply El Pais--inadvertently, perhaps–helping the US smear a leader it doesn’t like.

These two articles are highly irresponsible uses of Wikileaks. In the first case, the El Pais article doesn’t state that the cable in question is declassified and has been available in the Bush library for nearly three years and thus is no “leak” at all. The El Pais article ignores the fact that there is also a transcript at wild variance with some of the content of the cable, and, most importantly, that the cable was written by Glaspie and, as such, is her interpretation of events, filtered through her position as ambassador. El Pais falls victim to this same very obvious problem in the Bolivian link.

If the embassy leaks have revealed one thing above any other, it’s that our embassies in the developing world function as little more than assistants to US policy for those countries. As such, they can be used as evidence of the US’s ideological position, about  US official’s tone of ownership when speaking of the developing world, of US complicity in on-going human rights abuses, of US complicity in corruption and intimidation. But the tales told in these cables by career political animals entrusted with furthering US global policies have to be taken with a deep, deep, almost cynical skepticism. Their views of the world’s leaders and their policies are not evidence of any kind, any more than George Bush’s smiley-faced  memoir of his disastrous crime-spree as President has any evidentiary value.

Update: The Guardian has a pretty good example of how cautiously these cables have to be read. In the context of reporting training for a Bangladeshi  special policing unit with a clear record of human rights abuses including murder and torture, the Guardian refers to another cable that they claim state:

One cable makes clear that the US would not offer any assistance other than human rights training to the RAB – and that it would be illegal under US law to do so – because its members commit gross human rights violations with impunity.

That seems to be only half the message of the cable, however. Much of the cable relates the US attempts to help clean up the unit so that the US government can get around the Leahy Act, which prevents the US from giving aid to police or military units with human rights violation records, and fund this group:

In these previous meetings, USG officials informed the RAB of our desire to help improve its human rights record and build its counter terrorism and law enforcement capacity but underscored the need for greater transparency and accountability. The officials explained that our ability to offer training or assistance is currently constrained by the RAB’s alleged human rights violations, which have rendered the organization ineligible to receive training and assistance according to the Leahy legislation.

However:

7. (C) A strong message from many civil society interlocutors was that the RAB enjoys a great deal of respect and admiration from a population scarred by decreasing law and order in the last decade. Moreover, given the persistent corruption and ineffectiveness of other elements of the police, the RAB has come to be seen by many as a preferred alternative. According to some NGO sources, people in remote areas, particularly women, feel more comfortable coming forward to the RAB because they think their complaints will be dealt with in a more effective and honest manner. The team noted that the RAB and many civil society representatives seem prepared to accept that some notorious individuals will die in encounters with the RAB, and they seem to prefer that outcome as opposed to the chance of the currently ineffective and backlogged court system acquitting the guilty. What this highlights is that our desire to improve respect for human rights will require not only engagement with the RAB, but efforts to help improve other elements of the Bangladeshi judicial systems and police. Our recently approved 1210 proposal would establish a community policing program that could assist such effort.

Our multi-agency and multi-disciplinary team signaled the seriousness with which the USG views potential RAB engagement. We were clear in our meetings with the GOB that we are eager to engage, but committed to doing so in a manner consistent with Leahy legislation. We expect that the Bangladeshi Government will reciprocate by providing us with some of the additional information we need to move forward. At the same time, we may need to ensure that a few unenthusiastic bureaucrats do not foil plans for further cooperation that are strongly supported by the RAB and at least some senior government officials.

But more to the point, simply reading this cable at face value would give one the idea that US administrations actually care about the Leahy Act in some way. Since the Act’s passage in the late nineties, one administration after another has found a way to circumvent the act’s prohibition against arming and training human rights violators, beginning with the Clinton Administrations granting of a waiver to Colombia to ignore most of the Act’s prohibitions. I wrote about some of that here, and you can read more about it here.

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Another pretty clear view of the highly biased viewpoints of US diplomats, and the disparaging manner in which they discuss all but the most vocally pro-American international actors, can be viewed here, in this cable summarizing the embassy’s attempts to help poor little McDonald’s prevail in El Salvador’s court system. Some passages are quite funny:

On December 7, 2005, an appeals court ruled that McDonald’s had illegally terminated its contract with a local franchisee on July 1, 1996, and therefore owed him $24 million in losses and damages. McDonald’s is appealing the decision, but the composition of the chamber that will hear the case makes it unlikely that justice will be served.

Two neutral judges have recused themselves based on previous involvement in the case. Judging from her case record on the bench, the third judge, an FMLN partisan, will rule against McDonald’s regardless of the merits of the case…McDonald’s has filed a motion to have the FMLN-linked judge recused from the proceedings on the grounds that her well-documented anti-Americanism will prevent her from hearing the case impartially.

Obviously, by definition, justice is government-pressured victory [euphemistically known in the cable as “the rule of law’]  for McDonalds. Anything else is anti-Americanism. At least that’s what our ambassador to El Salvador thinks, as he promises the struggling American under-dog corporation that he will help them in their extensive pressure-tactics of Salvadoran government officials to rig the judicial process in McDonald’s favor.

The most shocking revelation in the cable is how cavalierly and masterfully McDonald’s considers using its muscle to scuttle current free trade legislation in the US that affects the entire Central American region, in order to win the case.

Meetings with Civil Society Provide Nuanced View ============================================= ===

6. (C) In order to provide the assessment team with a balanced view of the RAB, we arranged meetings with members of civil society in Dhaka and during field visits. As a result, team members were able to hear from journalists, academics, human rights advocates, and business leaders, and informally through people requesting assistance from the RAB, about perceptions of the RAB’s past and current conduct. There were reports of abuses and a pattern of misrepresentation by the RAB regarding so-called “encounter/crossfire killings.” The Assessment Team interviewed NGOs, media personnel, and members of civil society who reported that members of the RAB, possibly on instruction from senior government officials, have unlawfully used lethal force to eliminate their targets. All we talked with agreed, however, that the RAB’s human rights performance had improved during the current Caretaker Government and under the leadership of the current Director General (a career police officer and DS/ATA graduate).

7. (C) A strong message from many civil society interlocutors was that the RAB enjoys a great deal of respect and admiration from a population scarred by decreasing law and order in the last decade. Moreover, given the persistent corruption and ineffectiveness of other elements of the police, the RAB has come to be seen by many as a preferred alternative. According to some NGO sources, people in remote areas, particularly women, feel more comfortable coming forward to the RAB because they think their complaints will be dealt with in a more effective and honest manner. The team noted that the RAB and many civil society representatives seem prepared to accept that some notorious individuals will die in encounters with the RAB, and they seem to prefer that outcome as opposed to the chance of the currently ineffective and backlogged court system acquitting the guilty. What this highlights is that our desire to improve respect for human rights will require not only engagement with the RAB, but efforts to help improve other elements of the Bangladeshi judicial systems and police. Our recently approved 1210 proposal would establish a community policing program that could assist such effort.

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