What Has WikiLeaks Taught Us?
With Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning sentenced to 35 years in prison this week for her role in disseminating 250,000 State Department cables via Wikileaks, the debate has begun (again) about what good Wikileaks did. As the pro-WikiLeaks writer Greg Mitchell argued, "Too often (that is, most of the time), the value and import of the Manning/WikiLeaks disclosures are ignored or dismissed, just as Snowden's NSA scoops often derided as nothing new.'" Mitchell made a long list of things the public has learned as a result of Wikileaks disclosures. And it seemed worthwhile to undertake a similar exercise for those of us who focus on this part of the world.
There were of course the fun, gossipy items -- the comparisons to Azerbaijan's ruling Aliyev family to the Corleones, the jab that Azerbaijan's first lady "appears unable to show a full range of facial expression" due to the amount of plastic surgery she's had, the revelation that Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Masimov had a fondness for the good life, and the description of first daughter Gulnara Karimova as "the single most hated person in Uzbekistan." There were the very many cases when U.S. diplomats were exposed as having much more nuanced and critical perspectives than their bland public statements indicated. And there were of course hundreds of cases where the cables provided useful context or details to goings on in the region.
But there were also a number of cases where the cables exposed some genuinely new information. A short, Bug Pit-centric list of some of the most significant:
-- Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov responded angrily after the U.S. gave an award to a human rights activist from Uzbekistan and U.S. officials felt that Tashkent's cooperation on military transportation to Afghanistan could be under threat as a result.
-- Military tension on the Caspian Sea has been much greater than had been previously reported, including skirmishes between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan and Iranian threats against Azerbaijan in which the U.S. played a key advisory role.
-- Officials at the U.S. embassy in Bishkek reported that aid to the country connected to the Manas air base could help "buy" the re-election of then-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. "There might be political blow-back from giving this (admittedly corrupt and authoritarian) government a heavy infusion of cash," the embassy reported -- but then did it anyway.
-- The U.S. has trained special forces units in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that those countries' presidents used -- in the words of one cable -- as "praetorian guards" protecting their own power.
On the other side of the ledger, what harm did the cables' release cause? Even for defenders of WikiLeaks, the decision to dump them all en masse, without redacting the names of informants who spoke to U.S. embassy officials in good faith in what they thought were private conversations, was irresponsible, and could have exposed them to retribution from angry governments. If that's happened, though, we don't know of any cases.
Now: where are the Russian, Chinese, and other Chelsea Mannings?