By Richard Engel, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent
The Wikileaks release of internal, often secret, diplomatic cables is a major setback for the U.S. State Department. American officials are trying to downplay it and mend fences. Those fences need urgent mending.
What was leaked?
American diplomats at foreign embassies issue cables. These are internal notes meant to advise officials at the embassy, the State Department in Washington and, ultimately, the president of the United States.
Diplomats are encouraged to write cables. If they don’t write them, they get a reputation for being lazy. If a diplomat has a particularly interesting meeting with a foreign politician, political analyst or even a well-connected journalist, he or she might write a cable.
Diplomats will also write cables to brief officials before an upcoming visit. If the American secretary of state is visiting Lebanon to meet the foreign minister, diplomats in Beirut will prepare a cable in advance to describe what to expect and include private information and analysis about the parties involved in the meetings.
It was these cables that were stolen and posted by WikiLeaks. It is a serious blow to the State Department’s information gathering system.
In journalism, we’d call what is happening “burning a source.” If I interview someone, and that source gives me information “off to the record,” context that I am supposed to know, but asked not to report, and I publish it, I burn the source. If I publish the information and include the source’s name, I really burn the source, I flambé him.
Journalists will burn a source if they can’t contain themselves, usually because they think the story is so good, so juicy, that it will win them kudos and awards, or if they think what they have learned is of such national importance that it needs to be made public.
If you burn a source, the assumption is that the source will never work with you again, and will bad-mouth you to other sources. These are the unwritten rules of the game.
Wikileaks just flambéed many of the State Department best sources.
Far worse than past leaks
The last WikiLeaks document dump was of military correspondence from Iraq.
Those documents were short bursts of information, most of them in military acronyms. It was essentially a long list of tactical information and witness reports. It was like a giant police blotter of events, a shotgun blast of mostly bad news, field reports of bombings, explosions and shootings. The military was (and remains) furious because the data was stolen from a classified system.
The leak of the diplomatic cables is far worse. The cables discuss on-going policy and conversations with major, usually sensitive, powerful and occasionally vain, world leaders. They are also written in clear English, not military bullet points, and at times were sprinkled with sarcasm and irony.
One cable included a colorful description of the Kazakh defense minister.
“Kazakhstan’s political elites also have recreational tastes that are not so exotic. Some, in fact, prefer to relax the old-fashioned way. Defense Minister Akhmetov, a self-proclaimed workaholic, appears to enjoy loosening up in the tried and true ‘homo sovieticus’ style – i.e., drinking oneself into a stupor.”
Another took a swipe at Saudi Arabia’s Prince Khalid bin Faisal, Governor of Asir. Prince Khalid is “known for being extremely cheap.”
Another cable described Saudi King Abdullah as having little faith in the Iraqi and Pakistani presidents. The cable may also foreshadow the Saudi reaction to the WikiLeaks scandal.
“Once the king has lost trust in a counterpart, as has been the case with Nouri Al-Maliki or Asif Zardari, his personal antipathy can become a serious obstacle to bilateral relations.”
The cable described the Saudi king as particularly suspicious of Iran: “(King Abdullah) described Iran as ‘adventurous in the negative sense,’ and declared ‘may God prevent us from falling victim to their evil’…Summarizing his history with Iran, Abdullah concluded: ‘We have had correct relations over the years, but the bottom line is that they cannot be trusted.’”
It is a powerful exchange, and one the Saudi king undoubtedly expected would remain private. In the Middle East trust takes a long time to build and once it is lost, is difficult to regain.
Why it hurts
Foreign diplomats already have a hard enough time gathering information. In many cities there are two diplomatic communities: the Americans and everyone else.
I’ve seen this play out countless times from Baghdad to Kabul, Beirut to Cairo. If a French, Spanish or Polish diplomat for example wants to meet a politician or author, the two go to a restaurant or a private home, have a few drinks, and discuss whatever the subject may be.
America embassies, however, these days are generally like little (or sometimes really big) fortresses. Security restrictions on American diplomats often make it difficult for them to mingle, especially in cities where the threat of terrorism or kidnapping is considered high.
To travel, American diplomats often have to fill out travel requests, sometimes days in advance, to schedule a meeting and set up a security escort. To make it easier, American diplomats often ask sources to visit them at embassies, which can be inconvenient (going through checkpoints, metal detectors, leaving mobile phones outside) and demeaning, if officials feel they are being summoned.
Now, however, there may be a major change. Sources might ask themselves, why bother? Why go through all the effort to meet with the Americans if they can’t keep a secret?
In many counties, officials and analysts don’t want their peers, and certainly not the general public, to know they meet with American embassy officials. People who were on the fence already, not sure if they should go in and advise an American diplomat, could determine that it’s simply not worth the risk.
“None of us are at all happy about it,” a senior American diplomat said to me about the leaks.
“It will certainly setback efforts to build relations of confidence with foreign officials and influential actors.”