WASHINGTON -- In the 35 years that I have made this beautiful city my home, never have I overheard the kind of endless whispered conversations among the cocktails and corridors of power here since the latest diplomatic leaks by WikiLeaks.
Oh, the tidbits are juicy indeed. Much more so because the first round of leaked documents were mostly about the Afghan war -- and somehow we expect war experiences to be leaked. No, this "volume" of secrets is all about national secrets, about boudoir diplomacy, about how the Saudi king really wants us to attack that pain-in-the-neck Iran, and how the United States, in its war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, handed over the new Iraq to Iranian influence.
The some-250,000 cables show, for instance, Pakistan as a country that will never really cooperate with the U.S. in fighting extremist Islamic groups (if only because the Pakistani leadership thinks it will need those groups once the fickle Americans leave), and portray French President Nicolas Sarkozy, though "mercurial" and operating in "a zone of monarch-like impunity," as also an unusually solid friend of America's.
But the interesting phenomenon that is developing since the release last weekend of these once-secret messages from American embassies around the world is that not even the most snippy or salacious comments about our foreign "friends" is what bothers them the most. Nor is it what is upsetting American diplomats.
At the exquisite Thai National Day party here Tuesday, at the Capital Hilton ballroom filled with beautiful flowers, food and dancers, one American diplomat who had worked long in South Asia voiced the predominant opinion. "I can hardly hold my head up," she said soberly. "Everyone will know now what we all have said -- who in the world will trust us now?"
We've come a long way since President Herbert Hoover's secretary of state, Henry L. Stimson, declared primly: "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail." But there is also now a general agreement that we've traveled too far -- that with today's technology, EVERYONE can read everyone else's mail!
It is now being called "transparency" -- but transparency is really the ability for the citizens in and of a country to know what its leaders are doing, not what every leader in the world is doing and saying.
At the other end of the security spectrum, the leaks are being touted as another kind of "terrorism." You've heard the term before.
In fact, as of this writing, the U.S. government is debating whether or how to bring criminal charges against the participants in this second WikiLeaks barrage. The Associated Press is asking: "Is it journalism or espionage or something in between?"
Justice, State and Defense Department lawyers are discussing if the WikiLeaks founder, Australian Julian Assange, and his members could be prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act -- or whether the records could be considered theft of government property or receipt of stolen government property. Or is Assange protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press?
Meanwhile, the man widely believed to be the person involved with the actual theft of these documents, the innocent-looking, 23-year-old Pfc. Bradley Manning, is in a maximum-security military brig at Quantico, Va., charged with leaking a video of a 2007 U.S. Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed a Reuters news photographer and his driver.
Assange was put on Interpol's most-wanted list Tuesday, not for stealing documents but for a rape charge in Sweden, where he has been living. Since Interpol represents 188 countries, it is more likely that he will be picked up and extradited on this charge.
What Assange and his group have done is serious, indeed. The young American diplomat at the Thai National Day had it about right. No one is going to trust "us Americans" after this, particularly on the same day when an Afghan police officer trained by the Americans shot and killed six of them, and after a "Taliban" peace negotiator turned out to be phony and the U.S. didn't even know it!
The U.S. must also do some serious thinking about how this 23-year-old American could bring the entire system of cable communication its knees simply by manipulating the technology that -- oh, yes, remember? -- was supposed to keep us all safe. America must stop acting as though we alone know what is best for everyone and acknowledge that the damage to American credibility has been serious.
As the canny former CIA officer Robert Baer wrote this week in The Financial Times: "So this is what the eclipsing of American power looks like, with the disgorging of so much of its sensitive diplomatic correspondence in one fell swoop. Arguably not since Berlin fell to the Red Army in 1945 has there been a compromise of state secrets as breathtaking as that brought about by WikiLeaks."
Perhaps that is what we are seeing: the eclipsing of American power. We dream childish dreams that our technology will save us from all assault and keep us superior to our neighbors, but in truth, it is our incessant capacity for war and our misuse of technology that is the great threat to our future.
- Julian Assange
- the United States