international analysis and commentary

The WikiLeaks phenomenon: a background from Aspenia online

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There is no doubt that the gigantic cache of secret cables published this week by online whistleblower WikiLeaks has created far more than a diplomatic shakeup for the United States. It has launched a debate on America’s true identity abroad and what the public should and should not know about it.

The collection of leaks, titled “Cablegate” by the website, is made up of more than 250,000 diplomatic documents and, according to the site, aims to “give people around the world an unprecedented insight into US government foreign activities”.

And that is just what it did. Journalists worldwide have spent the last few days sifting through the massive set of documents that reveal US secrets, as well as those of other key countries. According to Salon.com, the most important revelations include a leak, considered by critics to reveal the blurry line between diplomat and spy, in which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered diplomats to gather personal information on foreign officials in 2009.

Other leaks cited as important focus on Iran. One shows that Iran may have received 19 long-range missiles from North Korea (this leak was distributed to the press but was not published on WikiLeaks). Another reveals that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah pressured the US to launch an attack on Iran to stop its nuclear program, while yet another shows that US Secretary of Defense Bob Gates believes that an attack would only delay Iran’s nuclear plans. And another still shows that Israel was only bluffing when it threatened Iran with airstrikes in 2009.

The press has also reported on revelations that Fatah had warning of the 2008 Gaza invasion, that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a known drug trafficker, is a partner of the US government and that in 2010 the Obama administration secretly launched missile attacks on terrorists in Yemen, while the Yemeni government took the blame.

These, among many more (including petty name calling), have triggered a media storm. But after the initial shock caused by the leaks, leaders, journalists and everyday people began asking themselves, is WikiLeaks a danger to world diplomacy or is it the birth of a new global watchdog which demands transparency on a very large scale – and at all costs?

While this is not WikiLeaks’ first major release, it is the first time it has come under such heavy scrutiny. In October 2010, it posted more than 390,000 classified US military documents on the Iraq war. The site called it “The Iraq War Logs”. Revelations included details on detainee abuse and a total casualty count of almost 110,000 – 60% being civilian.

In July 2010 it released more than 75,000 leaks on the war in Afghanistan – including details on how Pakistan’s military intelligence agency secretly aided the Afghan Taliban.

While these revelations provoked leaders, “Cablegate”, estimated by WikiLeaks to be seven times the size of “The Iraq War Logs” and which is scheduled to be released in parts over the next few months, is a major blow, hitting governments where it hurts most – in the face.

According to WikiLeaks, the documents, dating from December 1966 to February 2010, originate from embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions. The largest number of leaks came from Iraq, Turkey and the US Secretary of State’s office.

Leaders around the globe immediately condemned the act labeling it damaging and untimely. Italy’s Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, called the incident the “September 11th of world diplomacy” and political figures in the US called for the death penalty for those responsible for the leaks. Meanwhile, journalists stood by the publication citing citizens rights and the importance of freedom of information.

However, what many are calling a diplomatic disaster may well prove more of a revelation to journalists and to the public than to leaders. In fact, leaders worldwide now seem to be downplaying the contents of the cables, pointing fingers at WikiLeaks – rather than at the governments cited in the leaks. The Kremlin reportedly compared the leaks to a Hollywood movie. And Hillary Clinton, after meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was the target of name calling in the leaks, among others, was reported by The Telegraph as saying no leader had yet said their relations with US diplomats would be impeded as a result of the leaks.

In an American society based on democratic transparency, under a government just revealed to be full of dark secrets, this diplomatic incident between the US and its allies is now likely to dissolve into a dispute between the US government and public opinion. After all, one might argue that top political and diplomatic figures are likely to already know about Saudi interests in the US attacking Iran, or about US secret airstrikes in Yemen or even that the US has worked with Karzai’s criminal brother.

Two days after the initial release, Time magazine interviewed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange via Skype asking if the release is an act of civil disobedience. Assange replied, “This organization practices civil obedience, that is, we are an organization that tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction.”

These are words that play on the hearts of common men and journalists who believe they are the watchdogs of governments. Add this to the fact that the internet is a breeding ground for global trends. In 1999 when Napster hit the web it quickly became a global hit. People around the world began sharing their MP3 files with other users, bypassing CD shops and hurling the music industry into a crisis. After much media hype and discussions on legality, Napster, as the world knew it then, was shut down by a court order. However its very presence on the internet scene soon opened the door for peer-to-peer file distribution programs – which are much more difficult to control.

While the consequences of the leaks are clearly wider, could something similar happen with WikiLeaks? Could it be shut down, launched further into public debate and come out inspiring similar sites? The idea is out there and WikiLeaks, online or off, is likely to lead the way for a new generation of websites and web users dedicated to government-watching on a global scale.