A Eurasianet partner post from Stratfor
The latest batch of classified U.S. government documents released by WikiLeaks appears to be very different from the others. Like the last two large groups of documents , this one also was allegedly downloaded by a U.S. Army soldier, Pfc. Bradley Manning, from the U.S. government’s Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet). SIPRNet is a network used to distribute not particularly sensitive information that is classified at the secret level and below. However, while the last two batches of documents were largely battlefield reports from U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, this latest group allegedly consists of some 250,000 messages authored by the U.S. Department of State, many of which appear to have been sent by U.S. embassies and consulates abroad.
U.S. State Department messages are called “cables” in State Department parlance, a reference that hearkens back to the days when embassies really did send messages via telegraph rather than satellite transmissions or e-mail messages via SIPRNet. These State Department messages were intentionally placed on SIPRNet under an information-sharing initiative known as “net-centric diplomacy” that was enacted following criticism levied against the U.S. government for not sharing intelligence information that perhaps could have prevented the 9/11 attacks. Net-centric diplomacy ensured that even though Manning was a low-level soldier, he had access to hundreds of thousands of State Department cables by virtue of his access to SIPRNet.
It is important to understand that SIPRNet contains only information classified at the secret level and below. Because of this, it will not contain highly classified information pertaining to U.S. government intelligence operations, methods or sources. This information also will not contain the most sensitive diplomatic information passed between State Department headquarters in Washington and its constellation of diplomatic posts overseas. The fact that much of the diplomatic-message traffic being released was unclassified and the most heavily classified was at the secret level does not mean that the release will not cause real pain or embarrassment for the U.S. government. In fact, it is quite possible that these documents will do far more to damage U.S. foreign relations than the last two batches of documents released by WikiLeaks.
Some of the documents reportedly contain the minutes from meetings held with foreign leaders. Such reports may contain gossip, opinion and even evaluations of the intellect and mental state of foreign leaders by U.S. diplomats. While such details are useful to keep State Department headquarters informed of the progress of such meetings and negotiations, revealing them to the public could prove quite embarrassing, as could reports of the U.S. government meeting with foreign opposition or militant groups. One such example is alleged American support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Kurdish militant group that stages attacks in Turkey, and Turkey’s backing of al Qaeda in Iraq. Soon after bilateral discussions of the issue, both sides were quick to deny such allegations, showing how the Turkish and American governments have an interest in downplaying the leaks in advance to prevent possible public uproar.
The releases may also go deeper than that, revealing that some negotiations were not carried out by the United States in good faith, or lend support to the idea that the United States was supporting anti-government factions in some countries. The view in Europe is that the leaks could create a public uproar that will force short-term policy changes. Apart from the personal impact of potentially disparaging comments about foreign leaders, there is also the domestic political impact in these countries. Each country’s media will look through these documents to see how the leaders and the country are characterized, and at that point, the reaction by their political elites to the leaks becomes shaped and constrained by that country’s domestic politics. Depending on the nature of the information disclosed, domestic politics may demand the type of reaction that political leaders would otherwise be reluctant to make.
One of the oddities of the American information-classification system is its focus on sources. Opinions are not considered nearly as sensitive as hard intelligence. But in this case, the personal opinions of American diplomats, however significant Washington officials may view those opinions, will be seen in a very different way by local media, publics and politicians.
We have received reports that U.S. ambassadors and their diplomatic staff have been meeting with representatives of foreign governments over the past several days to prepare them for the release of these documents. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also reportedly been busy by phone. The U.S. government could be conducting this pre-emptive move out of an abundance of caution, and this release of documents could prove to be as inconsequential as the last two. However, it is possible that this batch of documents will prove to be more incendiary than the others and will provoke a much more dramatic international reaction. Like the rest of the world, we are awaiting the release of the documents so that we can begin to make that assessment.
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A Eurasianet partner post from Stratfor