Over the past few weeks, one of the most dramatic and interesting news stories is the release of thousands of leaked diplomatic cables by the site wikileaks, detailing behind the scenes views of the United States State Department on the workings of foreign governments, and on their suspected actions and motivations. After the initial release of cables, the story quickly drifted more to the United States response, and then to the counter response. Currently, the debate is more about the head of wikileaks, Julian Assange's arrest on possibly trumped-up charges of sexual assault, the United States' pressuring of paypal into ceasing to allow people to transfer funds to wikileaks; and then on to the subsequent DDoS attacks by internet group anonymous against companies bowing to pressure. It has been some high drama, as the meta issues about secrecy and government and the usage of guerilla cyberwarfare have taken the spotlight away from the cables themselves.
I haven't read any of the cables directly, but what seems to have filtered out is a series of missives in which state department agents, all highly educated foreign policy experts, have secretly made statements that anybody with a passing knowledge of the countries in question would have a hard time not guessing automatically. For example:
- Vladmir Putin, the ruler of Russia, might have had some knowledge of the assassination of dissident Alexander Litvinenko. The former head of the KGB who is the autocratic ruler of a country with almost no tradition of democracy or rule of law might have known something about the assassination of a dissident against his regime?
- China may be getting tired of its nominal ally North Korea: For the past few thousand years, China has treated all of Korea like half-civilized barbarians who were meant to follow China's lead. For the past fifty years, there has been tension between Korea and China, mostly stemming from the feud between the Soviet Union and China. (It has been suggested, for example, that Russia provoked North Korea into invading South Korea knowing that the burden of the war would fall on China). And for the past few dozen years, while China has modernized socially and economically (if not politically), Korea has become more backwards and isolated. So the idea that China may view North Korea as somewhat of an annoyance is certainly something that could be derived from historical facts.
- Saudi Arabia and various forms of evil: Saudi Arabia secretly urges the bombing of Iran. Saudi Arabia looks the other way as money goes to terrorist groups. Saudi Arabia, behind its religious veneer, secretly has drug and alcohol fueled orgies for its royalty. In order: the hostility between the Sunni extremists in Saudi Arabia and the Shiite rulers of Iran is a historical struggle going back over a thousand years. The ethnic antipathy between Arabs and Persians is also not a secret. As for money going towards terrorism, the terrorists are obviously getting the money from somewhere, and the richest, most fundamentalist nation is, prima facie, a really great guess at where that money is coming from. As for the drugs and orgies: if you take young men from a repressive culture, and then give them easy access to gigantic amounts of money and a sense of entitlement, you get some rich, crazy, self-indulgent assholes.
So nothing in the cables is at all a secret or a surprise. What is so unfortunate is that "secrets" have to be uncovered when all of this material is something that could be easily deduced from the past histories and current actions of the nations in question. And in fact, despite complaints about the failures of corporate journalism and the nerfing of journalistic standards, many of these issues have been brought up, if in a cursory fashion. The American public really can't claim that these are secrets that have been kept from them. The problem is that foreign policy usually has very little natural constituency. While there are many Americans who are well informed and active on issues that they see as having an immediate impact on their life, it is hard to keep a dedicated interest and concern with foreign policy issues amongst the United States electorate. Until, of course, those issues come to the forefront in a dramatic fashion. So the most ludicrous part of the entire affair is that these issues are being brought up as great and dramatic secrets when they are really something that could have been learned about---and acted on--- with the type of research that wouldn't involve more than a trip to the library.
As a final note, I have seriously considered the possibility that the leaking of these cables was a type of Kansas City Shuffle, and that at least some of them were sent through non-secure channels with the planned result of them coming out into public view. After all, what better way for the United States to send a message to North Korea that it is wearing out the patient of its only ally than to "accidentally" release a secret communication? I don't know if the State Department is quite that tricky, but I would not be totally surprised if that was indeed the case.