Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WikiLeaks: The fruits of inadvertent honesty


I have a nephew named Anfernee

Ever seen Mean Girls?

It's a guilty pleasure of mine. Not simply because it represents Lindsay Lohan at her absolute, all-too-early peak, but also because it's a brilliantly sharp look at how insular social groups often interact. Okay, it's about high-school girls who are mean to each other, but the climax of the movie has been on my mind lately. Lindsay is a formerly-homeschooled transplant from Africa—she's the daughter of a pair of research zoologists—who ends up having to navigate the wilds of the public school system for the first time. Without delving into the plot's Machiavellian complexity, Lindsay gets involved with The Plastics, a clique of the school's most popular girls. A lifelong trio, The Plastics have salted away a treasure trove of barbs aimed at their female classmates, known as the "Burn Book." In it, they cut out yearbook photos of their classmates and write nasty comments about them.

"Grotsky little byotch," proclaims one; "Made out with a hot dog," shouts another. A third accuses a gym teacher of making out with an underage student. Again without going into plot details, the Burn Book is explosively revealed in a single swoop, and all of the high school's girls suddenly know exactly how many of their secrets have been peddled without their knowledge for the advantage of others. The effect is sudden and tragic; all-out rioting breaks out, girl-on-girl violence seeding the halls in one great glorious paroxysm of vengeance and hair-pulling.

Fortunately, world leaders are somewhat more restrained in their exuberance than most high-school girls.

That's why her hair is so big. It's full of secrets

As some of you may know, the Department of State has recently had its version of the Burn Book suddenly published across the world, thanks to WikiLeaks. Suddenly, a huge number of unclassified, classified, and NOFORN documents have been unleashed.

WikiLeaks: We help you safely get the truth out

"NOFORN," incidentally, is a kind of Appalachian code for "NO FOREIGN"—meaning that the marked document should never be seen by a non-American. It's a fairly high-level classification.

But thanks to NOFORN, we now know, for example, that Muammar Qadafi, the Libyan dictator, is a devoted adherent of Botox and will not go anywhere without his "voluptuous" blonde Ukrainian nurse (and who could blame him for that?). We've discovered that Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of Italy, have a relationship that seems to be rather ... more than simply friendship. And that Dagestani weddings for family members of ethnic leaders in the Caucasus are alcohol-fueled orgies of eccentric decadence (my favorite part: Benya the Accordion King).

On a more sobering note, we've also discovered that North Korea did indeed sell 19 advanced missiles to Iran, which would enable Tehran to hit Western Europe or Moscow—should things go in that direction, of course. The United States is also concerned that Turkey's leader is falling into a den of Islamists who threaten the Turkish government's cherished secular tradition—and possibly the country's pending EU membership. And that Zimbabwe is slowly drying up in the grip of Robert Mugabe, who has voiced a willingness to take possession of the richest regions and leave the rest to their own devices if the situation grows dire enough.

Worst of all, though, are the equivalents to our statutory gym teacher: American secrets. We've attempted to sell Guantanamo prisoners to countries around the world in exchange for favors. We've threatened Germany with the consequences of prosecuting American government agents who captured and interrogated (and, yes, sodomized) the wrong guy—an innocent German. We've scammed United Nations delegates for their credit card numbers and fingerprints.

But no, Angela Merkel did not make out with that kielbasa.

Maybe it was only okay when Janis said that

In general, the documents that have been exposed are diplomatic communications. They contain little or no real military information and only represent the talk between diplomats and their mothership.

As such, the majority of the documents have a sort of gossipy tone. The Dagestani-wedding one, for instance, is a great example. A couple of State Department employees went to the wedding of a local tribe leader and discussed the political landscape underlying the celebration and how it can help the U.S. better understand how the Caucasus region of Western Russia works. They ended up describing how drunk several prominent government officials got and how solicitous their host was in extracting them from the drunken embraces of same.

I call them "gossipy," but their subjects will probably not take them very lightly. Several cables discussed, for example, several major figures in the German government, including the powerful and popular Foreign Minister, in singularly unflattering terms. The Chancellor herself—the one who has a normal relationship with sausage, I swear—was described as highly "risk-averse" and unable to improve the substantive content of the U.S.-German relationship, which isn't complimentary in some circles.

Others discussed the leadership of the UK, again in unflattering terms. This is the United States' honest, unvarnished opinion of its partners. And most of it is pretty uncomplimentary.

The rest of the documents, however, involve many very alarming developments in our relationship with the Middle East, and the revelation of this information will have unpredictable effects. For instance, Iran figures prominently, both as the subject of fear and distrust on the part of its neighbors and the object of a good deal of troubling actions relating to their ongoing militarization. How will Iran react when they realize that several of their largest allies in the region have been secretly asking—actually, begging, for several years—the United States to destroy them?

Or when they realize exactly how much restraint the United States has actually been showing them?

My shirt is stuck to my sweater, isn't it?

The broader foreign policy implications are best left up to both the experts and the course of future events.

Granted, most of the secrets that have been let out of the bottle are things the United States would really prefer that nobody find out about, like assessments of American allies (if you can, look for the one about Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan Prime Minister's brother—it's a fascinating read!), secret deals and horse trading, and the blurring of the line between diplomacy and espionage, as when Hillary Clinton ordered her diplomats to begin compiling confidential information—such as credit card numbers and fingerprints—on UN delegates.

But the truth is, nearly all of it does not constitute a clear and present danger to national security. It reduces our standing in the world a little further and erodes the trust other countries have in us as the world's sole superpower (so far), but the only truly unsavory deeds in which we are implicated are twofold: the bugging of the UN, which is illegal according to a 1974 convention, and the bombing under false pretenses of local Yemeni tribes unpleasant to the leader of that country's government.

Moreover, these communications were transmitted over a system that, though classified, was accessible to over 2.5 million people in the military and American embassies all over the world. A leak was bound to happen, and the really dangerous confidential stuff remains safe. On top of that, nearly all of it was written with the understanding that this information would be revealed—eventually. Granted, 25 months instead of years is a big difference, but it's certainly not alien-autopsy material.

...These communications were transmitted over a system that, though classified, was accessible to over 2.5 million people in the military and American embassies all over the world. A leak was bound to happen, and the really dangerous confidential stuff remains safe.

What it really does is reveal some of the cards we have in our hand in the ongoing poker game of global influence and diplomacy. In certain respects—such as negotiating with China over restraining North Korea after the recent shelling of a disputed island—our position is weakened considerably. However, the mentality of entities like the State Department and the diplomats of other nations is such that these things will generally be totted up as a loss, and they will move on. The most important of our allies were briefed in depth prior to the release, and those relationships, though slightly more strained now, remain strong. Everyone else ... well, it's a crapshoot.

More seriously, this incident exposes some of the weaknesses in our current system. I mean ... 2.5 million people? Seriously?

The kicker is that all of this stuff was extracted from the system by Pfc. Bradley Manning, a low-level intelligence analyst who pulled it off by using a CD marked with "Lady Gaga." Manning has since disappeared into the loving embrace of the U.S. Government, thanks to these cables and to several other incidents in which classified military videos were released, also through WikiLeaks. Lady Gaga's current whereabouts are unknown.

It's not your fault you're so gap-toothed

Setting aside the obviously interesting possibilities for American foreign relations, one thing to consider is the broader implications of the existence of a site like WikiLeaks and its opportunities to capitalize on the numerous holes in the government information infrastructure.

Although the secrets that have been revealed are mostly of the type that are actually the norm in diplomatic circles—and in government circles in general, which is permeated with an "I scratch your back, you scratch mine" mentality—it affords the American public a rare glimpse behind the scenes. Whether this glimpse is desirable or not remains to be seen.

In any case, the only really problematic fallout is forecast to hit the Middle East and UN. Our allies are less than perturbed by the content of these cables—they do the same things themselves, after all; one of Clinton's fellow travelers said, "You should see what we say about you"—but Iran and its regional partners suddenly have some hard truths to grapple with. Israel in particular must now cope with the revelation of their military preparations, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt need to address their own nations' tendencies to encourage the West to do their dirty work for them.

But has this sort of thing irretrievably messed us up? No. For instance, take a look at this New Republic article. It perfectly illustrates what I said before; the really dangerous stuff is never made available to 2.5 million people, least of all to the State Department. And generally, outside of the gossipy descriptions permeating these cables, none of this is news to the countries discussed.

It's just a hot dog, guys. Making out with it is embarrassing but it's not the end of the world. Suck away.

One time she punched me in the face. It was awesome

As for WikiLeaks and its masters, including the now-famous Julian Assange, the globetrotting Australian who will probably never set foot on American soil again, the future is murky. He can't be charged for treason against the United States, because he isn't a United States citizen. The site itself can't be shut down, because it is located on servers in countries friendly to troublemakers.

However, WikiLeaks was the subject of a DDoS attack (distributed denial of service, in which servers are flooded with millions of spurious requests and subsequently overwhelmed) the day that the cables were released by The New York Times, Der Spiegel, El Pais (not much of an English version; Google Translate is your friend), and Le Monde (ditto, but in French). And Assange himself has been the subject of much discussion in governmental circles; it now appears likely that he may somehow be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. He is meanwhile the subject of several investigations in other countries, including his homeland of Australia, and in Sweden, where he has been accused, rather conveniently, of rape.

I doubt WikiLeaks will be taken down, and neither will Assange—at least not for long. Although the United States Government is probably out for vengeance, the initial damage has been done. But we'll see.

It's not over, though. Assange has said there's more. And it's about a major American bank.

Oooh ... burn!

Jim McCarthy is a deaf graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of South Florida and is currently a student in the School of Life and Human Folly (SLHF).


  1. Jim -

    What is the purpose of the non-sequiturs interlacing the article?

  2. They're lines from "Mean Girls" with some thematic connections to each section. I'm just happy to have gotten away with it.


  3. So funny about the analogy to Mean Girls! Another brilliant article by Jim MCCarthy! You rock!