It’s hard to know at what stage to start judging the overall tenor of the WikiLeaks revelations. We’re not even at 1% yet. It’s also hard to find an objective vantage point from which to judge. Foreign policy insiders might blithely dismiss revelations of extensive US spying at the UN as unsurprising, for example, but the rest of us might be more than a little surprised at the sheer volume of information — passwords, credit card numbers? — that US diplomats were apparently expected to gather.
And few of the free personality assessments offered by the cables contain any surprises — Berlusconi parties hard, Kevin Rudd’s a control freak, Russia’s run by crooks. But it’s hard to read about, say, Shell boasting of knowing everything the Nigerian Government does courtesy of its operatives embedded in that government, or US military involvement in Yemen, and declare it to be “old news”.
You also have to filter for the media’s own coverage, and not just in the extreme case of The Australian, which, in its now-usual style, is engaged in a petulant attack on a journalist who had scooped it, while its journalists took to Twitter to downplay the material obtained by Fairfax. Fairfax itself, in failing to provide access to the cables on which its coverage is based, is both acting without the transparency that is supposed to be a core motivation of WikiLeaks and refusing to permit an objective assessment. That’s why any judgement about Mark Arbib must await the documentary evidence Fairfax has declined to provide, since we have no idea whether a US embassy official is big-noting conversations over rubber chicken dinners at functions or a more concrete relationship existed between Arbib and officials of a foreign power — albeit one for whom we’re a vassal state.
Fairfax needs to change its strategy on releasing the cables themselves, or continue to undermine its own journalists who have done well to obtain the material.
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In any event, the best description is “embarrassing”. Many of us have learnt the hard way the truth of the adage that it’s best not to put into a work email anything you couldn’t defend if it was printed off and stuck up in a public place. That rule must now surely apply to anyone talking to US officials (indeed, Shell’s Ann Pickard is doubtless now ruing failing to heed her own misgivings about talking to “leaky” US officials). WikiLeaks have revealed a credibility gap not merely between US words and actions, but between those of politicians and officials all over the world. The difference between the Australian government’s official optimism on Afghanistan and its private and apparently very deep pessimism is only the latest example.
This credibility gap — ya’ll know the origin of that phrase I’m sure — as much as loose security and over-classification within the US government and military, is what needs to be addressed as a result of WikiLeaks. Why didn’t US taxpayers know from their own government that their armed forces were deeply involved in action in Yemen? Why do Australians have to rely on leaked cables to find out just how pessimistic both politicians and bureaucrats are about a conflict that is costing the lives of our young men? Why do Nigerians need to rely on WikiLeaks to find out their government has been extensively infiltrated by agents of oil companies? No reasons of statecraft or national security could justify the gaps between publicly-stated positions and privately-held beliefs among decision-makers.
All politicians and senior officials face a clear decision in the wake of WikiLeaks — either they can gamble that never again will such material make it into the public domain — beyond, um, the other quarter-million cables yet to be released — or they can start closing the gap between what they tell the public and what they actually think.
Not all of the embarrassment has been inflicted by the cables themselves. Julia Gillard and Robert McClelland have embarrassed themselves in their rush to declare WikiLeaks guilty of some crime, somewhere. McClelland’s effort to describe quite what WikiLeaks might be guilty of yesterday — explaining that they might be guilty of something under Australian law and so because the Americans might have similar laws — he didn’t know for sure — therefore it might be guilty of something under US law — was humiliating. In contrast, the much-maligned Kevin Rudd’s reaction — in short, that the Americans should tighten their security up, you’ll always cops some knocks in diplomacy and Julian Assange will receive the protection to which he is entitled as an Australian citizen — was a model of common sense, however little we might believe his repeated protestations that he doesn’t give a damn.
None of this will fade away. It will continue, for however many months or years it will take for these cables to be released. This isn’t a news event, it’s an entirely new environment for political leaders. Their best bet is to start adjusting. And so, for that matter, should some in the media.