The latest document dump by wikileaks, more than a quarter of a million documents detailing “cables” (diplomatic messages) between the US State Department and 274 embassies and consulates from late 1966 until earlier this year, is a treasure trove for diplomatic historians and others interested in the minutia of diplomatic correspondence. As a recipient of such cables in a former life I have found it highly entertaining and informative to read the musings of US diplomats about foreign leaders, sensitive subjects, US perspectives on those subjects at given points in time, with a fair bit of gossip thrown in. Many of these communications came from junior diplomats as well as ambassadors and other senior department officials. Most of them (half) were unclassified, 42 percent were classified “confidential” (the lowest security classification), 6 percent were classified “secret,” and 2 percent were classified “Top Secret-NOFORN” (NOFORN means no foreign eyes may read the document).
The latter is where things begin to get serious and sensitive, and it will be those cables that the US government is most concerned about even if they have been redacted by the news organisations that received the dumps (to their credit several of the news organisations, including Der Speigel, The Guardian and the New York Times, sent the documents to the US government in order to have them vetted for security purposes and accepted most of the suggested redactions that came in response). These cables will be the ones that mention negotiating strategies, intelligence gathering capabilities and methods, people in foreign governments who work with or for the US, military relations within and between states, and to a lesser extent the personal foibles of foreign leaders.
The rest is just normal daily correspondence between embassies and Foggy Bottom (where the State Department is located in DC). They may prove embarrassing to some, but is anyone really surprised that the Saudis and other Sunni Arab Gulf states are deeply fearful of Iran, or that much of the money for jihadists comes from them? Or that the Chinese engage in cyber espionage and sabotage? Or that North Korea and Iran are military partners? Is anyone surprised that Ghaddafi is a weirdo or that Kenya and Nigeria are vast slicks of corruption floating on a sea of poverty and unrest? Or that Silvio Berlusconi can party better than most people a third of his age? Or that some foreign leaders are not the sharpest tools in their sheds?
Mind you, a lot of the correspondence is just hearsay or cocktail party tidbits, and the analytic abilities of the correspondents vary considerably. But that is what routine diplomatic correspondence largely consists of–everyday reporting of things that may or may not be true, may or may not be interesting for reasons other than salacious purposes, and which may or may not elicit a policy response on the part of the US government. In downscaled terms, this will be the same for NZ diplomatic correspondence, so the publication of these documents can offer potential insights into how NZ operates diplomatically (there are almost 1500 cables that mention NZ in the dump, many of which cluster around the issues of Afghanistan, non-proliferation, terrorism and Fiji. That alone demonstrates the areas of mutual interest and cooperation between the two states).
As mentioned, there is much to be mined in this latest dump, and some of the more sensitive information is bound to cause concern in diplomatic circles in Washington DC and beyond. One item that caught my interest and which has been flagged by the New York Times is that US diplomats were instructed to go beyond their credentialed responsibilities in order to obtain personal information about foreign dignitaries and substantive information about different country’s negotiating postures on selected issues. This differs from normal diplomatic reporting because it asks foreign service officers to serve as what are known as “official cover” intelligence collectors. An “unofficial cover” intelligence agent is someone who uses a false identity that has no official connection to the government for which s/he is working. If they get caught they are at the mercy of the government that captured them (think of the Russian spy ring recently broken up in the US). Official cover assets use their diplomatic status to cover the fact that they are engaged in activities for which they are not credentialed and for which they will be arrested if caught. Since they have diplomatic immunity they are merely deported if discovered.
The practice of using diplomats as official cover assets is not new, but the revelations in this document dump demonstrate how systematic is has been while Hillary Clinton has been Secretary of State, and how the UN has been a major target of such activities. That is bound to cause a stir. What is personally interesting to me is that earlier in this decade I suggested, with reference to the Zaoui case and the SIS misinformation campaign directed at him, that I would not be surprised if some NZ diplomats might be serving as official cover assets in areas of diplomatic and security priority (this at a time when the SIS director was a former career diplomat rather than a former judge or military officer like those who preceded him, and claimed to have no idea who Zaoui was before he arrived in NZ even though the director had been NZ ambassador to France and Algeria at exactly the time when Zaoui purportedly committed the “crimes” for which the SIS branded him a risk to NZ national security).
The curious issue of having a former diplomat front an intelligence agency notwithstanding, I said at the time that it would be expeditious if NZ used diplomats as official cover assets, admitting the risks involved in doing so. After all, NZ is a small country with limited diplomatic and intelligence-collecting resources and a good international reputation, so allowing MFAT or other diplomatic personnel abroad to double as intelligence collectors outside of their credentialed positions seems like good value to me (again, understanding the need for acute discretion when doing so).
My comments at the time were condemned by Helen Clark, SIS Director Richard Woods, various Labour Party MPs (I remember former Immigration Minister Leanne Dalzeil disparaging my character), and I even got an accusatory letter from the then-State Services Commissioner (someone by the surname Wintringham I believe) and a strange phone call at home from someone claiming to be from the EAB. The gist of what they all said–besides Ms. Clark prophetically saying that I was unworthy of employment at Auckland University–was that I was endangering the security of NZ diplomats by making such “unfounded” accusations. Well, perhaps I got the idea for making such speculative claims from having worked inside the US foreign policy apparatus, so I just assumed that it would be par for the course in other countries as well, particularly US allies or partners with similar interests in specific areas. Then again, perhaps not and NZ is a much “cleaner” actor on the diplomatic stage. UPDATE: As it turns out, John Key agrees with my speculation: http://www.stuff.co.nz/world/americas/4400719/WikiLeaks-reveals-NZ-pipe-band-cables.
It may be a pyrrhic victory but I guess I stand vindicated on that one.
In any event, I urge anyone with an interest in international affairs to read the coverage of the latest document dump if not the documents themselves. It is amazing to see how the press in different countries cover the story (I read Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese papers as well as the Singapore Straits Times, various British, US, Australian and NZ outlets and other internet sources, and the variety in focus is enlightening and itself a source of information). It will be fun to watch the diplomatic reactions to the revelations in the leaked documents. But what I am really looking forward to is the US embassy in Wellington commentary about the appointment of Winston Peters as foreign minister as well as in anticipation of his visits with US leaders in DC and NZ. Something tells me that they could be unintentionally very funny, if not “glowing.”