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Diplomatic storm

Published : Dec 31, 2010 00:00 IST

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In Sydney, Australians rally in support of Assange on December 10.-GREG WOOD/AFP

In Sydney, Australians rally in support of Assange on December 10.-GREG WOOD/AFP

The leak of cables from U.S. embassies worldwide reveals a lot which angers America's allies as also adversaries.

THE arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in London on December 7 is described as a desperate attempt to silence the group. The ongoing leak of diplomatic cables by the WikiLeaks whistle-blowers group has so far caused the greatest embarrassment to Washington. Its diplomats, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to sundry Ambassadors across the globe, have been shown as being vainglorious, interfering or foolhardy in their comments and appraisals of other countries and their leaders.

Top officials of the United States, including the Attorney-General and the Secretary of State, were vociferous in their demand for the silencing of the WikiLeaks founder. Assange's arrest coincided with the WikiLeaks website showing that the U.S. considered a number of civilian facilities around the world as essential for its national security.

The importance of many of the sites mentioned is obvious even to a layperson. They include the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, the Baku-Ceyhan-Tbilisi pipeline and the ports of Shanghai and Hong Kong. The U.S. State Department has called the release of this particular information a threat to national security. Defence Secretary Robert Gates described the arrest of Assange as good news.

America's allies, including Sweden, the United Kingdom and Australia, have played an active role in the attempts to strangle WikiLeaks. Assange was arrested on the basis of what appears to be frivolous charges of improper sexual behaviour in Sweden; it was Sweden that got Interpol to issue an international arrest warrant.

The Centre-Right government in Sweden has emerged as one of America's staunchest allies. Gone are the days when Swedish Prime Ministers were in the forefront of the peace movement. The WikiLeaks diplomatic cables show the American Ambassador in Stockholm boasting about the close links between the two countries. The British authorities, already smarting under WikiLeaks revelations, have been quick to execute the arrest warrant. Australia, Assange's country of birth, has actively cooperated in the interdiction of its own citizen. Before his arrest, Assange said that the Australian government wants to shoot the messenger because it does not want the truth to be revealed. Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd stated after Assange's arrest that it was the U.S. government that was responsible for the leaks and not citizens.

Switzerland, where Assange was said to be seeking asylum, closed down WikiLeaks' bank account, depriving the group of a key fund-raising tool. The U.S. Ambassador in Berne warned of dire consequences if neutral Switzerland granted political asylum to Assange.

Websites such as Amazon, involved in the dissemination of the cables, were coerced into cutting links with WikiLeaks. But Assange promised that his organisation would continue with its whistle-blowing activities, with or without him. He warned his state tormentors that heavily encrypted versions of unreleased tapes containing more damaging information about U.S. diplomatic skulduggery would be released if his staff were also arrested.

The new revelations, focussing almost exclusively on diplomatic cables, complemented the earlier WikiLeaks war logs on Iraq and Afghanistan, which provided proof of war crimes. This time the analysis is based on diplomatic talk not military intercepts, sometimes bordering on irrelevant details and personal foibles of world leaders.

9/11 of diplomacy

Many of the stories that have emerged so far from the raw data have set off a diplomatic maelstrom. Among them are stories relating to U.S. suspicions about the Pakistani security establishment's willingness and sincerity on the issue of tackling the various militant groupings that have cropped up all over the country since the 1980s. Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini described the leaks as the 9-11 of diplomacy.

The rampant corruption in Afghanistan and the temperamental ways of Afghan President Hamid Karzai figure in the diplomatic chatter. The current U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Kai Eikenbery, described the Afghan President in a 2009 cable as insecure and paranoid and weak. A hitherto unknown instance of corrupt practices in the higher echelons of government is highlighted by a cable that describes the country's Vice-President, Ahmad Zia Masood, as landing in Dubai with $52 million in cash. Many other instances of high-level corruption are mentioned in the cables.

The WikiLeaks data give further proof of the fact that the civilian-military establishment in Islamabad allowed the U.S. military to station its Special Forces on Pakistani territory and to launch drones from there. More than 700 Pakistani civilians were killed as a result of these operations in 2009 alone. This year the number could be more.

On Pakistan

The diplomatic cables also reveal the extent of U.S. interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan. One cable speaks of U.S. determination to ensure that the civilian government completes its full term in office, another reports about the contingency plan of Pakistan's Army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to replace President Asif Ali Zardari with another politician.

From the leaked data on Pakistan, it appears that the U.S. used its influence to restrain the Army chief. The then American Ambassador in Pakistan, Anne Patterson, stated in one of her dispatches: Zadora [Zardari] is our best ally in Pakistan right now.

The cables also throw light on the abortive attempt by the U.S. to remove highly enriched uranium from a Pakistani research reactor. Top Pakistani military officials reacted to the leaks by alleging that the real aim of U.S. strategy is to de-nuclearise Pakistan. One official said Pakistan had transited from being the most sanctioned ally to being the most bullied ally of the U.S.

The U.S. Ambassador's concerns about the stockpile of highly enriched uranium falling into the wrong hands are expressed clearly in the cables. There was enough to build a dirty bomb, she commented. The Pakistani government, Patterson wrote, had not fulfilled its commitment made two years ago to hand over the stockpile to the U.S. The cable also revealed that the civilian government was more sympathetic to U.S. interests in the region than the real power in the country the military establishment.

In one of the audiotapes that were released, Zardari is heard telling visiting U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden about the threat to his life and to his office from the Army. According to the leaks, the Army chief had planned a coup in 2009, during the lawyers' agitation. The tapes reflect the U.S. administration's frustration at not getting the Pakistan Army's full support in the fight against the Taliban operating on both sides of the Af-Pak border.

There is also evidence of the Pakistan Army giving its tacit approval for joint operations, involving U.S. Special Forces, on Pakistani soil. This information had started trickling out earlier in the year through official U.S. sources. The U.S. military spokesman in Islamabad had issued a statement that at the request of the Pakistanis small teams of U.S. Special Operations forces move to various locations with their Pakistani military counterparts throughout the country.

The cables reflect the deep scepticism of U.S. policymakers about Islamabad's policies. In one, Ambassador Anne Patterson writes that Pakistan will never completely give up its support for militant groups it had a role in nurturing. It is common knowledge that Islamabad depends on these groups to restore its lost political clout in Afghanistan once the U.S. withdraws. Anne Patterson wrote that there was no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance levels in any field as sufficient compensation for abandoning support for these groups, which it sees as an important part of its national security apparatus against India.

Anne Patterson, who left Islamabad in October, also cautioned Washington about the risks involved in cosying up to New Delhi. She wrote that such a move feeds Pakistani establishment paranoia and pushes them closer to both Afghan and Kashmiri focussed terror groups, in an obvious reference to the Haqqani faction of the Taliban and the Kashmir-centric Lashkar-i-Taiba (LeT).

The cables spell out in detail U.S. misgivings about many world leaders and countries. Besides Karzai, they include Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is described as alpha dog; British Prime Minister David Cameron; French President Nicholas Sarkozy; and the irascible Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.

Few of the diplomatic missives of U.S. officials have been complimentary, despite many of the countries being close allies of Washington. The British government's official inquiry into the Iraq war was deeply flawed, according to the revelations, as that government pledged to protect the Bush administration's role in the run-up to the war.

Julian Assange said in early December that the world had only seen a small part of the trove of diplomatic secrets his website planned to unload. He said the documents were meant to nail lying, corrupt and murderous leaderships in many parts of the world. In the first week of December, the focus of the leaks was on the U.S.' diplomatic perceptions about its close allies around the world. WikiLeaks also let it be known that it had a lot of material on Russia ready for circulation. It has already released tapes of conversations between American diplomats and European criminal prosecutors in which Russia is described as a virtual mafia state. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reacted angrily saying that his government will not tolerate American meddling in the internal affairs of the country. Putin said he was shocked by the haughtiness and the coarseness of the comments.

Slander, says Erdogan

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan went a step further. Hurt by the accusations that he was a religious zealot and had indulged in criminal acts, Erdogan said he was planning to file a lawsuit against the U.S. government. Those who throw slanders at others for things we didn't do will be crushed by their own slanders, he said. Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member, is one of Washington's closest allies.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who owes his position to a great extent to Washington's benevolence, is also an angry man. Disparaging remarks about him by Sunni leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi monarch King Abdullah could further distance the Shia-dominated government from Washington's allies in the region. King Abdullah had said that allowing Iraq to be controlled by Shias was akin to handing over the country to Iran. Hosni Mubarak had made known his preference for a strong dictator to preside over Iraq, saying that Iraqis were not prepared for democracy.

Hillary Clinton has spent most of her time since late November either apologising to world leaders or threatening Assange.

We're only one-thousandth of the way in and look at what has so far been revealed. There will be many more, Assange promised in late November. WikiLeaks has in its possession some 250,000 diplomatic cables covering decades of conversations and communications of U.S. envoys from around the world. It described the ongoing leak as the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain (giving) unprecedented insight into U.S. government foreign activities.

Governments, including India's, are keeping their fingers crossed. New Delhi is already upset at the disparaging remarks by Hillary Clinton about India's self-proclaimed status as a front runner for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat and by senior U.S. diplomats about India's defence preparedness and aspirations to be a big power.

The leaked U.S. embassy cables show that American diplomats believed that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa carried much of the responsibility for the thousands of civilian deaths that occurred in the final days of the civil war.

The U.N. has said that at least 7,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final days of the fighting. The U.S. Ambassador to Colombo, Patricia Butenis, said the President's brothers as well as the then Army chief, General Sarath Fonseka, were also responsible for the killings.

The leaks surfaced when the Sri Lankan President was on a state visit to the U.K. There are calls by human rights groups for an international investigation into the deaths of civilians and combatants. Assange dismissed claims by Hillary Clinton that his actions had endangered lives. The WikiLeaks cables, on the other hand, reveal that the U.S. was responsible for claiming many innocent lives. The killing of journalists in Iraq and the targeting of Yemeni civilians are two incidents that the new data have highlighted. Many lawmakers in the U.S. have demanded that Assange be deemed a terrorist and hunted down.

The American right wing demanded that the U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, who allegedly passed on the data to WikiLeaks, be given the death sentence. It was because of Manning's courageous act that the world could see the video of the collateral murder of Iraqi civilians by a U.S. helicopter gunship in 2007.

Reputations dented

WikiLeaks' expose definitely dented the reputations of some people in high office. The highlight so far has been Hillary Clinton ordering U.S. diplomats to spy on the U.N. It has now been revealed that her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, ordered American diplomats to eavesdrop on the activities of the former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. It was well known that Annan had steadfastly opposed the illegal invasion of a sovereign country. The WikiLeaks data show that American spies broke international treaties by seeking DNA biometrics of senior U.N. officials at its headquarters in New York.

On West Asia

The Western media gave a lot of coverage to the alleged anti-Iranian statements made by a few pro-American rulers in West Asia. Officials and media commentators in Washington and Tel Aviv tried to interpret this data as a vindication of their policy for regime change in Teheran. It is well known that Arab rulers have been hostile to Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. But as Noam Chomsky pointed out in an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Arab public opinion overwhelmingly is of the view that the major threat to the West Asia region is posed by Israel, followed by the U.S. Only 10 per cent of the Arab public, as reflected in a recent opinion poll, feel that Iran poses a threat to their nations.

On the other hand, 80 per cent think Israel is the main threat, followed closely by the U.S. at 77 per cent.

This fact did not prevent Hillary Clinton from boasting at a press conference in Washington, after the release of the latest WikiLeaks data, that the cables relating to Iran show that the concern about Iran is well-founded, widely shared, and will continue to be at the source of the policy that we pursue with like-minded nations to try to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, in one of his cryptic comments, says in released tapes that the Saudis want to fight the Iranians till the last American.

According to the leaked U.S. State Department assessment, Saudi Arabia is a key source of funds for armed militant groups, including Al Qaeda and the LeT. Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the LeT and other terror groups such as Hamas, which probably raise millions of dollars annually from Saudi sources during the Hajj and the Ramadan, Hillary Clinton said in a December 2009 cable.

The memo stated that Riyadh took only limited action to halt the flow of money to groups like the Taliban and the LeT. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, had said in July 2009, that the Taliban got most of its funding from rich Gulf donors than from the drug trade. Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have also come in for criticism from the State Department for not doing enough in the global war against terrorism.

The WikiLeaks data also reveal that the U.S. authorities did not take seriously Israel's predictions about the imminence of an Iranian nuclear bomb. In 2005, Israeli authorities issued a warning to their U.S. counterparts that Iran was less than a year away from the bomb. The diplomatic cable also notes that a few GOI [government of Israel] officials admitted informally that these estimates should be treated with caution. One Israeli official reminded U.S. diplomats that GOI assessments from 1991 predicted that Iran would possess an atomic bomb in 1998 by the latest.

A leaked cable warned that the elegant and seductive Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, never keeps promises. The document also seems to suggest that Israel had Palestinian Authority (P.A.) and Egypt in the loop about its plan to invade Gaza in 2008. The idea was to overthrow the Hamas government and re-install the pliant P.A.

Diplomatic cables on Iraq showed that Washington's gamble of shedding blood for oil did not materialise fully. The cables showed that in most cases, the competitors to the Americans had walked away with the big contracts awarded so far. The only U.S. company that profited handsomely from the Iraq war was Halliburton.

Experts also expressed scepticism about WikiLeaks documents that draw a missile link between Iran and North Korea. American diplomats had told their Russian counterparts that the BM-25 missile allegedly in the possession of Iran had North Korean components and had the ability of targeting Europe. The Russians said the American fears were exaggerated and such a missile might not even exist.

Idea of a united Korea

North Korea is also a hot issue. Released tapes reveal a highly optimistic scenario of the North imploding and the eventual reunification of Korea. There is talk of China being sympathetic to this scenario. The top U.S. diplomat in Seoul wrote to her superiors in Washington that the right business deals would help salve Beijing's concerns about living with a unified Korea that is in a benign alliance with the U.S. The cables say that sections of the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party are not averse to the idea of a united Korea.

Targeting Chavez

It is no surprise that the current U.S. bugbear in Latin America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, figures in the leaks. Washington's obsession with Chavez comes out stridently with U.S. diplomats trying to use Venezuela's growing links with Iran to generate adverse propaganda in the region. U.S. diplomats tried unsuccessfully to cultivate the Brazilian government led by Luis Inacio Lula da Silva in an effort to stem the left-wing pink tide that was sweeping Latin America. The U.S. Ambassador, John Danilovich, according to the transcripts, spent his time trying to convince Brazilian opinion-makers that Chavez was bent on disrupting Brazil's efforts to play a leading role politically and economically in South America.

The U.S. Undersecretary of State for hemispheric affairs is shown in the leaks hectoring the Centre-Left government in Argentina on how to run its economy and be more investment-friendly in regard to U.S. companies. Argentine Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo publicly remarked that the U.S. was reverting to the old practices in Latin America.

After the military coup in Honduras in June 2009, the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa sent a cable acknowledging the illegality of the action. The cable asserted that there is no doubt that the events of June 28 constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup. It is another matter that the Barack Obama administration went ahead and gave the coup-makers the necessary recognition. Today, the U.S. is lobbying for the readmission of Honduras into the Organisation of American States (OAS), from which it was expelled in 2008.

Messages from Bolivia warn Washington about President Eva Morales' plan to nationalise the country's mining sector. Cables from the U.S. embassy in Caracas refute suggestions from anti-Chavez activists that Russia and Venezuela are helping Iran in its quest for a nuclear weapon. Former Bush administration officials had alleged that Venezuela and Iran had started small-scale joint nuclear projects. Robert Noriega, Assistant Secretary of State in the Bush administration, had claimed that Venezuela's relationship with Iran provides the Iranian regime with a clandestine source of uranium.

More damaging leaks involving the U.S.' dealings with allies and rivals are bound to surface before the year ends. Assange's arrest has only emboldened his supporters and sympathisers worldwide. Public opinion, especially in Europe, seems to be turning against the ham-handed way the Obama administration has cracked down on WikiLeaks.

Intellectuals and political activists have rallied behind Assange and WikiLeaks, which today has come to epitomise freedom of speech and the media. They have urged the public to boycott companies such as Amazon, PayPal, Visa and MasterCard, which have abandoned WikiLeaks at the behest of the U.S. government.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Dec 31, 2010.)

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