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PdFLeaks: Carne Ross on the Diplomacy Before and After Wikileaks

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, December 15 2010

I didn't have a lot of time to digest what was being said while I was running the first session of Saturday's PdF Symposium on Wikileaks and Internet Freedom, but as I look back, the points that stuck with me the most came from "independent diplomat" Carne Ross. The released cables aren't just gossip, he told the audience; they're quite disruptive. Because it has information, Wikileaks now has power, and with power comes responsibility he argued. And the core issue is the gap between what states say and what they do; a cable dump from, say, Sweden's foreign ministry, would be fairly boring because the country pretty much practices what it preaches. Internet-driven transparency of the kind being delivered by the new hyperleakers could have the benefit, he said, of eventually getting states to align their foreign policies more cleaningly with their expressed values. Thankfully, he has kindly given us a copy of his remarks (you can watch them on the first video, starting at about 42:45 minutes in).

Carne Ross:
I am a former British diplomat who resigned over the Iraq war after giving then secret evidence to an official inquiry, saying that the UK government had misled the public on the reasons for war, and had neglected available alternatives to war: a fundamental duty of government. I now head Independent Diplomat, a non-profit advisory group, which advises governments and political groups, including liberation movements, on diplomacy.

I have several comments on WikiLeaks:

1. Don’t believe those who say the leaks show nothing especially new. They are – very – wrong: the revelations are remarkable and in some cases game-changing (3 examples – US air reconnaissance of Lebanon at Lebanese government’s request; Yemeni President discussing bombing methods US should employ to attack targets in his own country; detailed evidence of Karzai’s pointblank refusal to deal with corruption); and there are more to come (cables released so far do not cover 1990-03 period, i.e. birth of GWOT [Global War on Terror] , planning for Afghanistan and Iraq wars);

2. It is not yet proven that harm has been done to US citizens or soldiers, as US government has claimed, but there has undoubtedly been harm to US interests; absurd for Wikileaks or New York Times to claim that redaction avoids harm: one example is a cable on sensitive advice from a foreign official on how to handle hostage situations in Iran. Political information released is so massive, so sensitive, that it will cause long term and wholly unpredictable effects, perhaps some good, perhaps some bad, but in truth no one can really tell.

3. Governments are responding by locking data tighter, but they confront a fundamental paradox: neither government nor diplomacy can operate by word of mouth; they need records; best diplomatic services work well because everything important including sensitive information is shared, UN works badly because nothing sensitive shared (because everything sensitive is leaked); therefore to maintain effectiveness, governments must continue to record and share data, and thus render themselves vulnerable to leaks;

4. Surprised at complacency of those who claim governments require secrecy, without even knowing what governments keep secret from them; I worked on very sensitive issues including Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism; very clear to me that far too much kept secret, and secrecy contributed to bad policy making; I worked for many years on sanctions on Iraq: this was a bad policy that caused immense harm to the Iraqi civilian population. No doubt that had this policy been conducted under greater public scrutiny, it would have been better.

5. Argument that Congressional/Parliamentary scrutiny sufficient does not stand up: I testified to both – but after my resignation and even then the questioning superficial and complacent; during my work on Iraq WMD, sanctions etc, neither I nor my colleagues were ever questioned in detail about our work, including by journalists; lazy to assume that these checks and balances are functioning as they should to hold government to account; they are not;

6. This (5) is perhaps one reason why WikiLeaks exists, another – and why we may feel ambivalent in condemning WikiLeaks - may be that people feel government has not told them the truth over last ten years especially: they are right; I was head of Middle East issues for UK at the UN Security Council, primarily Iraq; I resigned after giving detailed evidence that my government had not told the truth about what it knew about the threat from Iraq, and its failure to consider available alternatives to war;

7. Two pointers for future: WikiLeaks exploits gap between what governments say and what they do; if private picture were wholly consistent with public rhetoric, these leaks would not be embarrassing, instead they would be just boring; therefore, hopefully one consequence will be that governments realise this too;

8. Second, if WikiLeaks is to continue, and other WikiLeaks to emerge, as seems to be the case, we need to develop a new discourse of what responsibilities they must bear; it is clearly insufficient for them to simply claim governments lie, and that therefore everything WikiLeaks does is morally in the right; with information, comes power, with power comes responsibility: these responsibilities include to avoid harm, which WikiLeaks has not done, and to understand the very complex picture of international diplomacy that these cables reveal; International relations are not simple, it’s not Us vs Them, or as simple as truth vs lies; it is right and legitimate for people to demand more access to information about the foreign policy conducted in their name, but if people are to demand access to information, then also they must take responsibility to understand it, and respect it.