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The Dangers of Over-Classification

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The CIA announced yesterday that it has set up a task force with a rude acronym to assess the damage caused by WikiLeaks. So far, more trouble seems to have been caused by the bare fact of the leak, and the sheer scale of it, than by the content of any of the published cables.

For the most part we see able, professional diplomats doing their best to understand and report on the places where they’re stationed, as anyone familiar with the State Department would expect. Those I have looked at (mostly from or concerning the Middle East) are classified up to ‘secret’, which is supposed to mean the information in them would cause ‘grave damage’ to national security if made public. One lesson is that over-classification, which is a form of bad security, is even more prevalent in the State Department today than it was in the British diplomatic service when I served in it. The most recent cables are a few months old. Most of the information in them, though of interest to specialists, is not particularly new.

One report which does contain some new information was sent from the US embassy in Libya in December 2009, giving details of discussions with the Libyans about possible arms sales – though evidence that the US was considering such deals was already in the public domain, for example in the list of members on the website of the US-Libya Business Association. It’s amusing that these US-Libyan discussions took place at the same time as – and are much wider in scope than – British-Libyan discussions on the same subject, produced as evidence of a corrupt relationship in the recent report by four US senators on the Megrahi affair.

No cable has yet been published in which an American diplomat points out that the Israeli prime minister has humiliated President Obama on the issue of illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. Some pro-Arab analysts have suggested that the absence of criticism of Israel implies a conspiracy, perhaps even Israeli manipulation of WikiLeaks. This is nonsense. The truth, perhaps more serious than any conspiracy, is that American diplomats by and large do not criticise Israel. Or perhaps they do, but they would automatically classify such criticism ‘top secret’ – causing ‘exceptionally grave damage’.

Some telling reports were sent from Wellington after the New Zealand authorities caught two Israelis, thought to be Mossad agents, forging New Zealand passports, in one case using the identity of a quadriplegic man. The New Zealand prime minister successfully extracted a formal apology. The US ambassador, Charles Swindells, thought that the Kiwis were overreacting and reported that the New Zealand government ‘sees this flap as an opportunity to bolster its credibility with the Arab community, and by doing so, perhaps, help NZ lamb and other products gain greater access to a larger and more lucrative market.’ The New Zealand Labour leader has since suggested that Swindells got the job because he was a Republican Party funder and did not understand diplomacy.

A good number of reports from the Middle East emphasise the fear of Iran felt by Arab governments, and their reliance on America to face an Iranian threat. This is not news; a number of Arab leaders are well known to hold these views. Their subjects, on the other hand, are unconvinced that there is a real threat. Many of them indeed admire Iran precisely because it is perceived as standing up to Israel and America. To a certain extent these reports may reflect American attitudes; it would be interesting to know if British or French diplomatic reporting paints the same picture, but here WikiLeaks does not help us.

The most interesting and revealing report I have seen is of a meeting in March 2008 between King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and a high level American visitor. In an open-ended discussion lasting an hour and a half, which concludes with the king stating ‘one request’ – ‘that it was “critically important to restore America’s credibility” in the world’ – there is no mention at all of Palestine or the Arab-Israeli dispute. There are perhaps some partial explanations for this: the visitor was the White House counterterrorism adviser, so it wasn’t on his agenda; hopes were high at the time that Obama would take a balanced position on the dispute, as indeed he did in his speech in Cairo three months later; it is not the Arab style to dwell on areas of disagreement. But the failure to mention Palestine and the Saudi peace initiative still comes as a shock, even in the context of March 2008, and much more so today when Obama is widely perceived to have challenged the Israeli government, for example on the settlements, and knuckled under.

A final word of caution: WikiLeaks documents, like other documents, cannot necessarily be taken at face value. What an American diplomat, however honest and professional, reports as happening in another country is not gospel. One document, to all appearances a secret policy instruction from the State Department to US embassies headed ‘Reorientation of Policy Priorities: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’, was published in the Jerusalem Post without comment under the name of the editor-in-chief. Although a reference to ‘WikaLikes’ was a fairly obvious clue, it was at first accepted as genuine by an experienced ex-CIA veteran and widely circulated on the web with an extensive commentary. He had to withdraw in some embarrassment when detailed analysis showed it to be a fake. It is not clear whose interests were served.

Comments on “The Dangers of Over-Classification”

  1. Geoff Roberts says:

    There are so many wheels within wheels here that the usual criteria for assessing the validity of the statement simply do not hold up. A fewdocuments are selected by Wikileaks to be issued to one of the papers that have paid their dues. The newspaper selects its own choice, puts its owqn spin on the material and the rest of the media add salt and pepper. I don’t see what the fuss is about.

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