Wikileaks cables expose secrets and lies

December 3, 2010
Julian Assange.
Julian Assange.

More than 250,000 confidential files from United States embassies and consulates around the world sit in the database of whistleblower website Wikileaks.

The first 300 secret cables were made public over November 28-30 in what will become the “largest set of confidential documents ever to be released”, the website said.

“The documents [dating from 1966 to February this year] will give people around the world an unprecedented insight into US government foreign activities.”

The “activities” are wide ranging and cover almost every continent and global issue. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange described the cables from 274 embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions as a “diplomatic history of the United States”.

Wikileaks has released only a fraction of the documents it holds, but already evidence of backroom deals, spies and espionage, protection of war criminals and unbridled assault on countries that oppose US domination has been exposed for the world to see.

As journalists steadily tear through the notes, reports, communications and directives from his departments and officials, US president Barack Obama has tried to keep his distance from the expose.

But US secretary of state Hillary Clinton — who wrote or authorised more than 8000 cables — pledged to take “aggressive steps to hold responsible” the people who had revealed US secrets.

Most governments and media organisations have attacked Wikileaks’ action as criminal and dangerous, while downplaying the evidence it has revealed.

But the British Guardian has defended Wikileaks. “By making available Washington's own account of its international dealings, Wikileaks has opened some of the institutions of global power to scrutiny and performed a democratic service in the process”, it said on December 1.

From an undisclosed location after the first cables were published, Assange told journalists on November 28: “The general trend for US accountability of the US military is worrying”. But he said Wikileaks relied on people inside the military who wanted to see things change.

Putting lives at risk?

After Wikileaks’ release of the Afghan war diary and the Iraq war logs, US officials furiously condemned it for putting “American lives at risk”. No evidence has surfaced to show any content of the war logs has resulted in harm to any individuals.

The real damage was to reveal the US government’s lies about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Wikileaks exposed the blood on the US government’s hands.

Yet the same allegations were flung against Wikileaks for its newest release. Australia’s attorney-general Robert McClelland was among those who said the documents could “prejudice the safety of people referred to in the documentation”.

In the US, Republican and incoming chair of the House Homeland Security Committee Peter King called for Wikileaks to be designated a “foreign terrorist organisation”.

Think Progress’s Matthew Yglesias said on November 29: “King’s suggestion that we designate Wikileaks as a foreign terrorist organisation is in part grandstanding and in part an effort to devise a way to begin restricting freedom of the press.”

Meanwhile, right-wing former US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin said she wanted Wikileaks to be “hunted down” and “neutralised”. She said Assange was “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands”. Right-wing US websites have echoed Palin’s call.

The December 3 Sydney Morning Herald reported that Assange now feared for his life.

“When you have people calling, for example, for his assassination, it is best to keep a low profile”, said Wikileaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson.

Government officials said the US would move to take “criminal action” against those who staged the leak.

“This is a serious violation of the law”, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said on November 29. “This is a serious threat to individuals that both carry out and assist our foreign policy.”

But journalist Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked US secrets on the Vietnam War in 1971, told the BBC World Service: “The best justification they can find for secrecy is that lives are at stake.

“Actually, lives are at stake as a result of silence and lies, which a lot of these leaks reveal.”

“Certainly the same charges were made about the Pentagon Papers and turned out to be quite invalid over the years, the same things that Hillary Clinton is saying now about Wikileaks, as a matter of fact.”

Before the release, all quarter of a million cables were made available to US analysis. Wikileaks itself crosschecked all the content and many names in the cables are blanked out.

Assange has released emails showing that repeated requests to review the cables were rejected by US officials.

He sent correspondence to the US ambassador in London on November 26, which said Wikileaks “would be grateful for the United States Government to privately nominate any specific instances … where it considers the publication of information would put individual persons at significant risk of harm”.

Assange said Wikileaks would “respect the confidentiality of advice provided by the United States government”.

A legal advisor to the US department of state responded that US departments would “not engage in a negotiation” with Wikileaks about the classified documents.

It said Wikileaks should instead shut down its site, return the information to the US government and destroy all its sources and correspondence.

Assange responded: “I understand that the United States government would prefer not to have the information that will be published in the public domain and is not in favour of openness.

“That said, either there is a risk or there is not. You have chosen to respond in a manner which leads me to conclude that the supposed risks are entirely fanciful and you are instead concerned to suppress evidence of human rights abuse and other criminal behaviour.”

War crimes in the Middle East

The leaked cables reveal how much US “diplomacy” in the Middle East has involved attempts to extend its “war on terror” to Iran.

Several Middle East countries including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan were revealed to have urged the US to attack Iran to eliminate its nuclear program. Saudi ruler King Adbullah said the US should “cut off the head of the snake” and take military action against Iran.

The cables also revealed Saudi nationals remain among the biggest donors to Al-Qaeda and that the US considers Qatar an unreliable ally in the “war on terror”.

Afghanistan’s then vice-president Ahmed Zia Massoud was discovered carrying US$52 million in cash through Dubai airport in October 2009. A key US ally in Afghanistan, he was able to keep the money.

Most of the cables between Israel and US officials detailed “defence” cooperation and plots against Iran.

In April 2009, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told US diplomats: “If Iran goes nuclear, peace will fail.” In another cable, the United Arab Emirates military said it believed Israel would attack Iran “with little or no notice”.

A report from the US embassy in Tel Aviv said: “Netanyahu praised President Obama’s commitment to missile defense, and commented that US-Israeli cooperation on missile defense sends a strong signal to Israel’s enemies.”

Yet another cable said Netanyahu described Israel’s main threats as “Iran’s nuclear program, the build-up of rockets and missiles in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza and the Goldstone report”, which details Israeli war crimes — including the use of toxic white phosphorous on civilians — during its 2008-09 war on Gaza.

Diplomats or spooks?

A leaked secret directive from the US state department sent to more than 30 embassies ordered diplomats to collect detailed intelligence about United Nations officials.

In July 2009, a “national human intelligence collection directive” (NHCD) was issued under Hillary Clinton to US diplomats to gather “personalities, biographic and biometric information” about key UN officials, council representatives and heads of state.

It showed US state department officials were ordered to spy on ranking North Korean diplomats, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, and the four other permanent representatives of the security council — China, Russia, France and Britain.

The secretary of state also wanted personal details about heads of peacekeeping operations, arms control bodies and other UN agencies, as well as the World Health Organization and the UNAIDS council.

The NHCD, which appeared to involve the CIA, the FBI and the US department of homeland security, said the directive was issued to know the “plans and intentions” of key UN officials on a range of global issues, including the situations in Darfur/Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Somalia, Iran and North Korea.

It also included detailed requests for personal financial details, credit card information, computer passwords, communications, frequent-flier membership and work schedules.

The UN has said diplomats spying on its representatives “breached international law”, the Guardian said on November 30.

Assange told Time magazine on December 1 that Clinton “should resign”.

“If it can be shown that she was responsible for ordering US diplomatic figures to engage in espionage in the United Nations, in violation of the international covenants to which the US has signed up. Yes, she should resign over that.”

The leaked cables show similar US directives for “reporting and collection needs” were made for several African, Latin American and Middle Eastern countries, including Palestine.

Nukes in the Netherlands

Many cables stressed the US’s global influence over “indentified” nuclear development.

A large part of international media coverage has focused on Iran’s nuclear program, the information that Iran and North Korea were trading in missile technology, and that Iran had allegedly acquired nuclear missiles that could “hit Western Europe”.

But a top-secret cable from US embassy in Islamabad, sent to Washington and several US embassies, discussed a long-term bid to get “highly-enriched uranium spent fuel” out of Pakistan. It also showed effort to cover up the plans.

In July 2009, an official (whose name was blanked out) told the ambassador’s office that a “recent [Pakistani government] interagency review of the program concluded that the ‘sensational’ international and local media coverage of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons made it impossible to proceed at this time.

“If the local media got word of the fuel removal, ‘they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons,’ he argued.

“The visit will have to be delayed for 3-4 months or until the political climate makes it more conducive to hosting a US visit, he stated.”

Other memos from European countries detail the proliferation of US-owned nuclear weapons hosted in several locations, including Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey.

A confidential memo from the embassy in Berlin inadvertently referred to a proposal to “seek the removal of all remaining nuclear weapons from Germany”.

It read: “[German diplomat Cristoph] Heusgen said that from his perspective, it made no sense to unilaterally withdraw ‘the 20’ tactical nuclear weapons still in Germany which Russia maintains ‘thousands’ of them. It would only be worth it if both sides drew down.

“A withdrawal from Germany and perhaps from Belgium and the Netherlands could make it very difficult politically for Turkey to maintain its own stockpile, even though it is still convinced of the need to do so.

Sri Lanka’s war crimes

A report from the US ambassador in Colombo, Sri Lanka, showed that the Sri Lankan government and its army were resisting accountability for war crimes committed against the Tamil population.

The report “updated the Secretary of State on war crimes accountability following the end of the country’s long and bloody conflict”, Wikileaks said on December 1.

It read: “There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power.

“In Sri Lanka this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President [Mahinda] Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate General [Sarath] Fonseka.”

It continued: “Most of the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] leadership was killed at the end of the war, leaving few to be held responsible for those crimes.”

The Sri Lankan government is “holding thousands of mid- and lower-level ex-LTTE combatants for future rehabilitation and/or criminal prosecution.

“It is unclear whether any such prosecutions will meet international standards.”

Rajapaksa believed there was an “international conspiracy against Sri Lanka and its ‘war heroes’”, the embassy report from January said.

Latin America

The Guardian showed 16,495 cables came from embassies in Central and Latin America, including 2340 from Venezuela; 1958 from Honduras, where the US government supported an unelected coup-installed government; and 2461 from the embassy in Colombia.
Among the documents released over November 28-30 was extensive evidence of US moves to destroy popular governments across the continent, particularly plots to isolate Venezuela and marginalise its president Hugo Chavez.

Venezuela and Cuba were singled out; Paraguay’s left-wing president Fernando Lugo and Argentine president Christina Fernandez were targeted for information collection; and stability concerns were used as a pretext to establish aerial surveillance over Colombia’s borders.

Chavez praised the efforts of Wikileaks on national television and said Assange was “brave and courageous” for pursuing the openness of world governments.

“The empire stood naked”, he said on November 29. “I do not know what the United States is going to do … how many things have been disclosed.”

He said Clinton “should resign, it is the least she can do”.

“They should give an answer to the world rather than attacking and saying that it was a theft.”

From Brazil, cables detailed meetings between US officials and Brazilian minister of defence Nelson Jobim, which showed US efforts to alienate the progressive government of Venezuela.

In a cable dated February 12, 2008, Jobim and the US ambassador discussed the “possibility of Venezuela exporting instability” and advanced strategies to “bring Chavez into the mainstream of the continent”.

Wikileaks released several cables that revealed US efforts to use Brazil’s influence in Latin America, viewed by the US as the “anchor of South America”.

A confidential document from March 2008, after defence minister Jobim’s visit to Washington, outlined joint US-Brazil research and production projects, the exchange of military personnel and training, and the establishment of a “South American Defense Council”, which the US would oversee.

A particularly damaging document outlines a request from Clinton for information on Argentine president Christina Fernandez’s “mental state and health”.

Addressed to the embassy of Buenos Aires, the December 2009 secret cable said: “Washington analysts are interested in Argentine leadership dynamics, particularly with regards to Christina Fernandez de Kirchner and Nestor Kirchner [former president and Fernandez’s husband] … We are currently preparing a written product examining the interpersonal dynamics between [them].

“We would like to develop a more well-rounded view of Christina Fernandez de Kirchner’s personality.”

The note continued: “How is Christina Fernandez de Kirchner managing her nerves and anxiety? How does stress affect her behaviour toward advisors and/or her decisionmaking?”

Clinton also wanted to know about Fernandez’s political views and “on the job” details, and also asked if she was on medication. Some 2233 of the obtained cables were from the US consulate in Buenos Aires, the Guardian said.

Another document, from March 2008, classified as secret and “noforn” (for no foreign national), outlined the US’s “reporting and collection needs in Paraguay”.

In the lead-up to the April 2008 election, the US officials sought to acquire from leading candidates their views on foreign governments, especially the US, Venezuela and Cuba.

It specified the need for: “Biographic and financial information on all leading contenders, and especially … Fernando Lugo; and biometric data, to include fingerprints, facial images, iris scans, and DNA, on these individuals.”

It focused particularly on what financial or material support for Paraguay was coming from Venezuela and Cuba, even for student exchange programs or donations.

Bid to silence Assange

The US announced it would investigate the Australian-born Assange for violating espionage laws, and Australian officials said it was likely he would be arrested if he returned to Australia.

Wikileaks said 1008 of the leaked cables yet to be released came from the US embassy in Australia. Of these, 79 are labelled “secret”. A further 75 cables are from the Melbourne US consulate.

Australia’s attorney-general Robert McClelland said a “whole-of-government” taskforce would investigate the cables and the Australian Federal Police had been instructed to investigate Assange.

“From Australia's point of view, we think there are potentially a number of criminal laws that could have been breached”, McClelland said. “The Australian Federal Police are looking at that.”

The taskforce would include officials from the PM’s cabinet, spies from ASIS and ASIO and officials from the defence department.

On December 1, Interpol issued an international arrest warrant for Assange, alleging he was wanted for “sex crimes”. Similar accusations were raised against Assange after the Iraq war logs were released.

Assange told Forbes on November 29 that once Wikileaks has leaked the entire trove of diplomatic cables, the next target would be big business. Specifically, he said, a major US bank would find its books involuntarily opened to the world.

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