Wikileaks cables expose world leaders' sensitive diplomacy

James Lindsay
Senior VP and Director of Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Monday, November 29, 2010; 12:00 PM

A vast treasure trove of secret State Department cables obtained by the Web site WikiLeaks has exposed the inner workings of U.S. diplomacy, as well as bluntly candid assessments by American diplomats, according to news organizations granted advance access to the more than 250,000 confidential documents.

In an e-mail interview with The Washington Post, James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) said, "U.S. diplomacy will survive Wikileak's reckless release of filched State Department cables, but not until after U.S. diplomats spend a lot of time apologizing to their foreign counterparts."

Lindsay, senior vice president and director of studies at the CFR, was online Monday, Nov. 29, at Noon ET to discuss the release of the documents and the effect on foreign policy and diplomacy.


James Lindsay: Hello everyone. I am James Lindsay, Senior Vice President and Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of the blog, The Water's Edge, which you can access at CFR's website, I look forward to answering your questions over the next hour about the WikiLeaks story.


Boston, Mass.: These documents seem to be described more as an embarrassment than a threat to national security despite that they are being marketed as such. Why or why don't you feel that this represents a serious threat and do you feel that we will continue to see more leaks from more Americans frustrated with the two wars our president has failed to remove us from that he campaigned to do?

James Lindsay: The significance of the leaks for U.S. national security varies, which is hardly surprising when you are dealing with more than 250,000 cables. Some cables merely say what is already well known (e.g., Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi likes the good life). Others are embarrassing (e.g., cables where foreign government officials complaining about their colleagues). And some do threaten national security. One example would be the cables dealing with the U.S. government's efforts to get Pakistan to keep its nuclear materials under tighter control. The leak will likely make it harder for Islamabad to work with Washington. That hardly serves U.S. national interests.


Columbia, Md.: What are the ramifications of this leak for American foreign policy in the long run? Are they more severe in some parts of the world than others (mid-East vs. Europe, for example)? Thanks for the opportunity to get your thoughts

James Lindsay: U.S. diplomacy will survive the leaks, but it will be a bumpy few weeks for U.S. diplomats. Foreign officials and activists will be reluctant for some time to talk candidly to U.S. diplomats for fear of having their remarks show up on the front page of the New York Times or Der Spiegel. That effect could last a long time in some especially sensitive cases.

_______________________ The Water's Edge (Council on Foreign Relations)


Albany N.Y.: I guess I'm hard-pressed to see anything scandalous or even particularly out of the ordinary in the quotations the Post and other media have been cherry-picking out of this mass of electronic paper. Diplomacy frequently involves the practice of small deceits or the transmission of rumors or unverified speculation that the parties would rather keep confidential, but I haven't seen anything to date that suggests any serious impact on the national interest. Or am I missing something?

James Lindsay: Many of the cables do just state the obvious. Nobody in Russia will be surprised to discover that American diplomats think that Vladimir Putin is an "alpha dog." U.S. diplomats can also take some pleasure in the fact many of the cables demonstrate consistency rather than hypocrisy, as WikiLeaks alleges. We now have proof that in many instances U.S. diplomats said the same things in private that they have said in public. But there are some cables that will cause genuine heartburn.


Arlington, Va.: I have to say that I don't exactly understand WikiLeaks' motivation behind this. They claim to be "whistle-blowers" but how is this whistle blowing? Are these documents exposing wrongdoing of some sort? A lot of what we are hearing this morning is just this gossipy stuff about what is in diplomatic correspondence about world leaders for example. Hardly smoking guns or things that are costing lives. It just seems dumb to me to tout this stuff and expose it.

James Lindsay: I would say it's not just dumb, it is reckless. The gossipy cables are getting a lot of play this morning because--let's face it--people like gossip. But with a quarter million cables now up for public viewing, who knows what else will be released. And that is the point. WikiLeaks has no idea what the fallout will be from its actions. That in my book is the definition of "reckless."


Not the Pentagon Papers: What higher purpose does it serve to leak diplomatic chit-chat about Qaddafi's love life?

James Lindsay: You would have to ask Mr. Assange


Reston, Va.: The problem with secrecy is that it enables the assimilation and acceptance of false or misleading information.

Joe Wilson had to document his position through an article to the NYT.

Janis Karpinski in her book details how she was selected to be a scapegoat.

There must be a way to design a system where people cannot engage in kingdom building, or use government to gain private sector advantages, or even play employees in a political game of chess?

James Lindsay: Secrecy has its shortcomings. But so does openness. Take you concern that secrecy enables the assimilation and acceptance of false and misleading information. Openness can have the same effect. Many of these cables contain gossip, speculation, and rumors. These "facts" could enter the public mind and remain there regardless of how many follow-up pieces the Washington Post or the New York Times publish. Crafting a system that strikes the right balance between secrecy and openness is difficult to do. We all have our different opinions about the best balance. But in a democracy we do have rules about the release of classified information. I personally prefer to rely on that system, or to use established channels to change those rules, than to rely on WikiLeaks to do it for us.


Arlington, Va.: Any idea what Wikileaks' motivation is in releasing these cables?

James Lindsay: Julian Assange, the founder/leader of WikiLeaks, argues that he is exposing American hypocrisy by posting these cables. Google "WikiLeaks Manifesto" and you can see his justification for the WikiLeaks enterprise. I don't buy his argument or his conclusion.

_______________________ The Wikileaks Manifesto, by Julian Assange (The Comment Factory)


Baltimore, Md.: Given the naive argument that this type of information should be available to all, what is the likelihood of something like this happening again in your opinion?

James Lindsay: Yes, leaks like this will happen again in the future. If you can get access to the system, digital information can be easy to steal and even easier to disseminate. Back in the pre-internet days you would have needed a semi-trailer to walk off with a quarter million documents. Today you can fit that information on a thumb drive.


Laurel, Md.: For someone who's been around a while, I can't help analogizing this to Daniel Ellsberg. Doesn't releasing info like this, or even having the tool to potentially release it, play an important role for the voters of a democracy?

Might yellow-cake-gate have been different with a Wikileak?

James Lindsay: We are both dating ourselves by recalling Daniel Ellsberg! You are right that on one level Ellsberg and WikiLeaks are analogous. After all, they both leaked secret government documents. But on another, and I would argue, more significant level they are fundamentally different. Ellsberg knew what was in the Pentagon Papers; indeed, he worked on them. And he wasn't leaking ongoing operational information. Neither applies in the current WikiLeaks case.


Leesburg, Va.: What consequences will the person who is found to have stolen this data face? I feel like it undermines the credibility of Wikileaks. I like to see information leaked when it serves the public good, but I fail to see what wrong this leak attempts to redress.

James Lindsay: It is suspected that Pfc. Bradley Manning, an army intelligence analyst, stole the documents. He is currently in jail in Virginia, charged with improperly accessing other State Department cables. If he is convicted, he will spend a lot more time in jail. Mr. Assange and others at WikiLeaks could be indicted for their actions. But unless they come to the United States or are arrested in a country that has strong extradition treaty with the United States, they will not go on trial.


Richmond, Va.: Out of the documents you've seen so far, which foreign government do you think would be the most angered/embarrassed by these leaks?

James Lindsay: There are too many to count. And we will be learning about more in the days and weeks to come. Based on what we have learned so far, I would put at the top the leaks involving U.S. efforts to push Pakistan's weak government to do more to control Pakistani nuclear materials and the leaks about how Gulf Arab leaders view Iran.


Fairfax, Va.: Is the press justified in printing the WikiLeaks? Why do it? Are they as guilty as Assange?

James Lindsay: Reasonable people can disagree about whether the news media that had advance access to the leaked documents (the New York Times, Der Spiegel, El Pais, etc.) acted responsibly. Some news outlets (e.g., the Wall Street Journal) turned down the opportunity to have access to the documents because the information came with conditions they found unacceptable. But as a practical matter, once WikiLeaks posted the documents on the web they are there for everyone to see. Journalists in a democracy aren't going to ignore information that is public knowledge because of its origins.


Who's the leaker?: I have doubts that one PFC (currently behind bars) was the source for all of the military and now State Dept. e-mails that have been released by Wikileaks. What do we know about the source of this info and what needs to change to prevent one insider from copying so many documents and then carrying them outside of the classified storage areas?

James Lindsay: You may be right. Perhaps we will learn the answer with the passage of time. But it is hardly inconceivable that one person, even a low ranking one, can get access to a lot of documents. It is also worth pointing out that it appears that about 50% of the leaked cables weren't classified at all and most of the rest were only classified "confidential," the lowest level of secrecy. This is not the case of the "crown jewels" being given away.


Charleston, W.Va.: Mr. Lindsay, I've noticed most of the criticism is at Wikileaks for giving the documents wide dissemination. But wasn't it an inside job? A State Department employee must have sent the material to Wikileaks, at least I'm assuming Wikileaks did not break into the State Department's files.

James Lindsay: You are right. As I understand it, WikiLeak's "business model," if I can use that term, is to post materials given to it by others. It is not in the business of obtaining the materials itself. Whether the person handing the documents over to WikiLeaks is a "whistleblower" or a "traitor" depends on how you judge the merits of the case.


Mr. Assange and others at WikiLeaks could be indicted for their actions.: In what court of law? Mr. Assange is not a U.S. citizen, thus no treason. And he wasn't operating an agent in the U.S., thus no espionage.

So by what rule of law would he be prosecuted? In civil court? For what monetary damages? Remember: in civil court, one must show actual monetary damage has been incurred.


James Lindsay: Criminal court. You do not need to be a U.S. citizen or in the United States to be accused of violating U.S. law, including laws related to espionage. Can the argument be made that U.S. espionage laws aren't crafted for this type of crime? Perhaps. Lawyers can argue things square and things round. Until Mr. Assange comes into U.S. jurisdiction it is a moot point.


Seattle, Wash.: What were the conditions the newspapers agreed to in order to have the material first?

James Lindsay: I don't know whether all newspapers faced the same set of conditions. The Wall Street Journal reported in today's edition (p. A2) that its was offered "access to a portion of the documents if the Journal signed a confidentiality agreement." As I mentioned earlier, the Journal declined. My understanding is that the New York Times didn't get the documents directly from WikiLeaks, so presumably it did not face any conditions.


Alphonse and Gaston at Foggy Bottom: "As I understand it, WikiLeak's "business model," if I can use that term, is to post materials given to it by others."

Well, that concludes that it's not espionage.

Case closed.

James Lindsay: Things in the law are seldom that cut and dried.


By your take..: Once information becomes widely disseminated, it stops being CLASSIFIED. Perhaps not officially, but in effect.

Isn't the question, what does the U.S. intend to DO about the information now in the hands of ... everyone? Not do in the sense of hand-wringing and punishing low-level staffer types. But do in the sense of stop posting classified material on public portals, et al?

It would be funny if it all wasn't so ridiculous.

James Lindsay: Yes, the U.S. government is now in damage limitation mode. The information is now public, and U.S. diplomats have to deal with the consequences. While some of the leaked information does border on the "ridiculous"--think Mr. Qadaffi's private nurse--but many of the leaks raise deadly serious issues.


Virginia: Mr. Assange mentioned at a press conference he will release damaging files about Russia and China and other countries. How bad will this be?

James Lindsay: We won't know until we see them.


Charleston, S.C.: Mr. Lindsay,

Are we likely to see significant personnel reassignment within the State Department due to these leaked documents? Many of these cables were written in the last three years and I would assume the authors are still posted in the countries discussed and still doing business with the leaders discussed? If these reassignments were to occur, what effect would it have on the diplomatic corps and it's ability to effectively enforce U.S. foreign policy?

James Lindsay: We'll see some personnel transfers but nowhere near a wholesale shifting of people. Many of the diplomats who have their names on cables probably have rotated out. Many others will not be persona non grata to their host governments because their cable will be seen as standard business. (Governments know that diplomats spend a good chunk of their time reporting news, gossip, and speculation back to their home governments.) So no dramatic impact on the U.S. Foreign Service.


Washington, D.C.: If these documents are "Confidential" then why is the person who originally leaked them and Wikileaks not held for treason? It seems like it would be an open and shut case.

James Lindsay: If the Justice Department can determine who took the cables and gave them to WikiLeaks, you can expect said person to be charged with a crime. "Treason" would not be the charge, because under U.S. law the grounds for such a charge are exceedingly narrow.


Re: The Value of these Documents: Isn't the value to show what people truly think and where it stands to what they say? In the case of the Sunni Arab leaders, this is particularly harsh, but mostly I see dispatches asking the U.S. to attack Iran for them, on the U.S.'s dime.

James Lindsay: The leaked cables certainly support the argument we have heard over and over again that the leaders of Gulf Arab countries want the United States to take a tougher line in dealing with Iran. The politically relevant point is that these leaders are not saying the same thing to their publics. One interesting thing to follow is how the news media in these countries report the WikiLeaks story.

_______________________ Photo Gallery: WikiLeaks cables reveal personal details on world leaders (Post, Nov. 29)


Available information vs. highlighting information: "But as a practical matter, once WikiLeaks posted the documents on the Web they are there for everyone to see. Journalists in a democracy aren't going to ignore information that is public knowledge because of its origins."

I understand what you are saying -- and I can't imagine the press letting this lie, as unfortunately I do feel our "news" has become more sensationalized, BUT...

...we are ALWAYS choosing which information to share and which to ignore. Social media, marketing and journalism have plenty of research explaining how to make things visible. To choose to highlight these findings insures that all of them (or those that the media highlights) are MUCH more visible than they would be otherwise. This HAS to change the ramifications of the leak. If nothing else, it makes the embarrassing information more prominent, perhaps having larger ramifications on those who feel they need to save face.

James Lindsay: It's hard to argue with your point. Which bits of information get highlighted determines what people know. And what pieces of information matter will depend on which country or which official you are talking about. People in the Middle East will be paying attention to the cables about the region. Europeans will be interested in what the leaks say about U.S.-European relations and so forth.


Richmond, Va.: Seems to me that if it weren't Wikileaks it would be someone else posting something like this, sooner or later.

For one thing, if you're going to be embarrassed because of something you've done maybe consideration should be given to not doing it. Whether as a question of policy or propriety in communications.

For another, if you're going to have secrets maybe not so much with the letting hundreds of thousands folks root around freely among them?

The security-intelligence, both governmental and privatized, network out there is getting humongous and nobody knows who everyone is with clearance. How could they? It's been a slapdash rush to a money trough.

James Lindsay: Yes, leaks such as this are an inevitable consequence of the proliferation of digital information. It will happen again. And sometimes we might even be pleased to see it happen.

But I have to dissent from your point that the leaks tells us that the U.S. government shouldn't be doing some things. You want diplomats to file reports from the field. And you don't want those reports to be public. We all know there are things that people will say in confidence that they won't say publicly. We can't change human nature.


James Lindsay: Thanks everyone for all the great questions. It has been fun. Please enjoy the rest of your Monday.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company