This week, five newspapers have published the first instalment of a total 251,287 leaked documents from the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks.
The documents, known as cables, are messages between the US government and its 274 embassies throughout the world, mostly from the last decade though dating back to 1966.
But with more to come in the world’s largest classified information release, it could spark a new age of accountability and transparency regarding government behaviour.
The revelations released so far in America’s The New York Times, Britain’s The Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel, France’s Le Monde and Spain’s El Pais include:
• Arab leaders including officials from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia pressured America into attacking Iran over its nuclear programme (King Abdullah said America must “cut the head off the snake”)
• US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton asked US officials to collect personal and biometric information (including finger prints and email passwords) on top UN officials, which is illegal under the UN Charter
• The Yemeni President promised the US that they would keep falsely telling people that the bombs being dropped on locals are by their forces and not America’s
• Slovenia, Belgium and Kiribati had all been offered favours (a meeting with Obama for Slovenia) if they take ex-prisoners from Guantanamo Bay prison
• The Chinese government has employed computer experts since 2002 to hack into the computers of the US and other governments, the Dalai Lama and Google in China, among others
• Several character assessments were made against various country leaders and other high-profile figures
Most of these revelations so far are merely high-level gossip, and few are particularly surprising or unknown to most governments around the world.
But there could be worse to come. And it is the first time such realities have been confirmed to the public, which in itself has potential consequences.
Consequences of the release
The short-term consequences of these revelations will be nothing more than token embarrassment or awkwardness for those involved. But the long-term consequences could be more significant.
The downside is that diplomats and foreign officials may be more cautious about what they tell each other or put in writing, resulting in less information being shared.
To avoid this, the US government has already announced a review of its classified correspondence guidelines to see who should have access to what (over 2 million people could access the leaked documents).
But the real change is the doubt and suspicion that it raises in the minds of the public.
The next time someone proposes a war, people will wonder who has been in their ear about it, and will be more likely to question what the government is telling them.
In the lead up to the Iraq War, the US government claimed that they had intelligence proving Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (which Iraq didn’t).
The unaccountable culture of classified information effectively means governments can make stuff up without having to verify their evidence.
Similarly, the practice of governments or big business unduly influencing the decisions of other governments could be brought into the spotlight, leading to a dramatic decrease in that behaviour.
Nevertheless, experts say there is always an obligation on media organisations to withhold publishing information that might put people in immediate danger.
But aside from that, they believe it’s in the public interest for information to be released about what our governments are up to (especially if they’re breaking the law), and media organisations have a duty to publish it.
In this particular case, they don’t see any information so far that should be withheld because of imminent danger, and Wikileaks said they removed the names of anyone who might be at risk.
Nevertheless, the US government has called it “reckless” and “an attack on the international community.”
The incoming chairman of the US Homeland Security Committee has demanded that Wikileaks be designated a terrorist organisation and that founder Julian Assange be arrested.
US Attorney General Eric Holder has said there was now an ongoing criminal investigation into the release and anyone found responsible would be prosecuted.
It’s still unknown who gave the documents to Wikileaks, except that they all came from the US Defence Department network known as Siprnet.
The Wikileaks website experienced a cyber attack on Sunday shortly after the documents were released, causing it to be down for a day.
However, they still intend to release the remaining embassy cables over the next few months, which they say will include backroom deals, corruption and lobbying for US corporations.
So now with Wikileaks proving itself capable of providing a viable outlet for sensitive information, could this be the start of a new era of whistle-blowers holding their governments to account?
By The Casual Truth
Photo – Wikileaks founder Julian Assange