WikiLeaks Drip, Drip, Drip...For How Long?

Julian AssangeJulian Assange Image by Poster Boy NYC via Flickr
WikiLeaks is like a dripping faucet on the international political scene, creating puddles and craters everwhere, much to the dismay of most politicians and the glee of a few, like Putin. He'd like to see Mr. Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, get the Nobel Prize! And the French newspaper Le Monde has named him Man of the Year.

That's pushing it a bit, and it doesn't recognize the damage done - and the numerous people who are losing their job or seeing their career collapse. There is no question that WikiLeaks should have redacted names more carefully. Most unprofessional. There is a rising tide against Assange and he knows it. The US government is trying to build up a case against him and they may get him yet.


There's also been an over-reaction in the financial world - from PayPal to Switzerland - closing down the avenues to support Assange in his self-appointed "crusade". On the other hand, the publishing industry, eager to publish his memoirs, thinks differently. Actually, there'll always be somebody who thinks differently and who'll support Assange. There are even people in America supporting Bradley Manning, the US Army soldier who copied the diplomatic cables, passed them on to Assange and got arrested (so far with $ 100,000 for his legal expenses).

Assange's first counter move has been to sell his memoirs (quite a coup considering he's only 39) for the remarkable sum of $1.3 million or 1.5 million (it's not clear how much, but quite a lot anyway) to, inter aliaAlfred A. Knopf, the American publisher. The memoirs are set to come out in March 2011. Before they do, one of his former colleagues, Daniel Domscheit-Berg is coming out with his own version of what it's like to work at WikiLeaks. Since he's left WikiLeaks and is disenchanted with Assange, we're in for some interesting "memoirs" next year...

Incidentally, what Assange got is the kind of advance any debut writer would dream of! To think that the publishing industry, pretexting the onslought of e-readers and digital books, speaks of reducing advances to all writers, especially start-ups. Of course, Assange is no start-up and he's built for himself quite a "platform" - that's the publishing industry jargon for a person's following, guaranteeing that his book will be sold. And he's going to need the money to defend himself once the Justice Department gets ready to attack.

That they will attack is understandable: the biggest victims are the Americans. Nobody in his right mind will ever want to talk again to an American diplomat, and that diffidence around the world is likely to last a very long time...

How long? Probably a generation. Take note Mrs. Clinton!

What is truly astounding is how silly the State Department - Foggy Bottom as American diplomats affectionately call it - has been over the matter of protecting the privacy of its diplomatic communications. To entrust all their cables to Pentagon protection is surprising - since when do diplomats trust the military? Worse, to send confidential stuff over the Internet when everybody knows that it's next to impossible to keep things secret out there, in the ether, is an astonishing display of ingenuity. Leaks just had to happen sooner or later, WikiLeaks notwithstanding.

In the past, diplomats used to entrust their confidential reports to the good old diplomatic pouch that travelled back to the capital with one or two bodyguards to ensure safety. Over the centuries, that's what diplomats have always done. In this day and age of media, technology and instant news around the world, there is NO single diplomatic communication that needs to be sent over in "real time".There's no rush, and why should there be?

Think of the nature of diplomatic work. Diplomatic reports are the careful distillation of what diplomats learn of a situation over time, from local journalists, politicians and businessmen, in short all kinds of people they meet in the course of their diplomatic activities (read: round of national day receptions, official celebrations, dinner parties with the locals etc). A diplomatic report is rarely if ever "front-line news": that's the job of reporters working for Reuters, AP and the like. What a good diplomatic report adds to the news that you and I read is the man's experience of the local situation and his knowledge of international relations. That's the diplomat's comparative advantage with respect to reporters and journalists. An ambassador is a man, with the help of his team (from young attachés to counsellors and ministers), who can ponder the situation, distinguish between the good, the bad and the irrelevant and give his government a balanced, well thought-out view that helps in shaping foreign policy.

So there's absolutely no need to cable. Most reports could be sent via the diplomatic pouch and reach the State Department in 12 hours from just about anywhere in the world. For the few urgent communications, there's always the telephone with a good encrypted programme to discourage unwanted listeners...

But even if American diplomacy returns to using well-tried tools like the diplomatic pouch, it's obviously too late and the damage is done. From now on, a new dimension is added to World News: the WikiLeaked article. How does it differ from an Op Ed piece? Go to the WikiLeaks site, you'll see how it differs. There is a telling line right up front which reveals how the WikiLeaks people view their mission:
"We are of assistance to peoples of all countries who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and institutions. We aim for maximum political impact."
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