Monday, December 6, 2010

Joe Chamberlain's eloquent response to my defense of Wikileaks

For all those who would like to boycott Amazon – see here - Susan Harman sent me a note with Amazon's Customer Service: 866-216-1072 (she suspects it may be in Costa Rica).

In response to that post, Joe Chamberlain, a student of mine and a fine foreign service officer, wrote an eloquent rebuttal. He speaks, I think, for many people in the foreign service who are dedicated to democracy and work for it in difficult circumstances, often counting on reputation for trustworthiness for the confidence of foreigners who would be arrested or tortured if their relationship with an American embassy became public knowledge. In any case, his point that many of the documents do not indicate wrongdoing on the part of the American legations is true. I reproduce his letter at the outset – its full force deserves to be taken in; it mirrors my initial reaction to the publication of miscellaneous documents from the State Department rather than those concerning the Iraq or Afghanistan occupations – and I will respond to it in general this time and in the next post, with one startling counterexample.

“Dear Alan:

If you'll permit, I'd like to offer a slight counterpoint to some of your defense of Wikileaks and Julian Assange. I am speaking in my own capacity, but as one whose work will now be made much more difficult due to the release of the State Department cables.

First, while I certainly agree that governmental wrongdoing (including our own) needs to be uncovered, and that previous Wikileaks documents have done this (the war documents in particular), the most recent tranche has actually uncovered no wrongdoing and, in fact, is starting to cause reprisals against individuals who have come to U.S. Embassies seeking help or to uncover the repression of their own governments. It is akin to a reporter using confidential sources--individuals will speak to a good journalist and provide sensitive information (even revealing wrongdoings) only if the journalist will keep the source of the information confidential. I find it somewhat jarring that the same people who praise journalists for going to prison to protect their sources are now lauding Wikileaks for outing diplomats' sources in some of the most repressive countries in the world.

Second, part of my issue with the release of over a quarter million cables is that there's no rhyme or reason to them. This is decidedly not an effort to root out government corruption, wrongdoing or violations of freedom. Instead, it's a scattershot effort to embarrass diplomats who are, frankly, doing their job by talking to private individuals, government officials and others to find out what is going on in a given country to help shape a coherent, rational, and, dare I say it, democratic foreign policy. I posit that if the source of the cables (not speculating on if Pfc Manning was the source or not...personally, it does have the feel of scapegoating) was truly concerned about certain activities by foreign service officers, then the source would have separated the wheat from the chaff before providing it. Alternatively, if Wikileaks were fulfilling the role of a responsible journalistic organization, the volunteer editors would have carefully sifted the material, redacting anything that could identify sources and only released those cables that speak about wrongdoing. One example is the human intelligence collection directive that's been talked about as "Secretary of State orders diplomats to spy." Officially, I cannot confirm nor deny that this is an actual State Department directive; if it is or is not is irrelevant. I do, however, welcome the discussion in the public sphere about what a diplomat should do--that's how we arrive at a democratic understanding of the role of our government. But if there is only one, or even a handful or cables that indicate diplomats may be crossing a line, why do there need to be so many unclassified cables in the bunch (referencing the NYT breakdown of the classification of cables). No, I reject the idea that the State Department cable release was motivated by a desire to reveal the dirty deeds of nasty diplomats overseas and would argue that something more base was behind it--a desire for 15 minutes of fame.

Third, let me address your assertion that the Administration has ordered government employees not to look at the Wikileaks site. This is true. However, it is more out of a clarification that even though documents have been released, they are still considered classified and processing them on unclassified systems can lead to disciplinary action.

In closing, let me state that I agree with you in principle that wrongdoing needs to be uncovered and that the current journalistic establishment has abdicated its role as the fourth estate. I hope that we can agree that certain things, such as confidential sources, ought to be kept confidential. Probably, though, we disagree on where that line should be (although we'd probably draw it a lot closer that you might think).

Warmest regards,
Joe Chamberlain"

First, Joe and I agree in the main. He says rightly that wrongdoing must not be secret in a democracy (or anywhere else for that matter), and sees that the Afghanistan and Iraq leaks publicized aggression (and all the attendant crimes of war) and torture.

Second, there is no excuse for “outing” people, either in journalism or in diplomacy, whose lives or physical wellbeing might be at stake. Whistleblowers, those who might lose their jobs, be blacklisted, tortured or shot, need to be protected. I distinguish this decisive case from a second case for which there should be no protection: anonymous leaks to journalists from the powerful usually designed to further such policies i.e. Richard Cheney via Ahmed Chalabi to Judith Miller and Michael Gordon at the New York Times and the pro-aggression editors who put the lies on the front page. This is precisely a case in which the source and the corruption of the news organization need to be exposed. See here. One last point: Judith Miller is not remotely admirable for going to prison to protect Scooter Libby and Cheney. Wikileaks advanced freedom by exposing injustice. For these acts, its leaders are threatened overtly, including by powerful figures like William Kristol, with murder, their website, long since propagated widely so the attempted censorship will not work, hounded by the US government from country to country…

Third, as Glenn Greenwald points out here and here, Wikileaks has published on its website only (or perhaps mostly) those cables published in the newspapers with which it shared them. I assume that the Times, being an instrument of the government and not fully a newspaper, i.e no longer part of a fourth estate, has shared the whole set of cables with the government. I doubt if so far they have been shared much more widely by Der Spiegel and others. These journals would probably watch out for cases that harm individuals. On the other hand, through errors of judgment or mistakes, over time, many of the documents will be circulated widely, and there will be “collateral damage.” This is a sad and immoral thing. That this does not equal American murder of say 100,000 Iraqi civilians or American torture does not take away the harm. And Joe is right to underline it.

Fourth, however, Joe asserts that nothing criminal has been revealed by this group of documents. As I said, my first reaction was to agree, although I find the attack on Wikileasks viciously anti-democratic and corrupt (Lieberman, Amazon, Paypal, the US government, et al). For instance, yesterday morning on "Meet the Press," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell suggested ridiculously that Assange is a "high tech terrorist" and then recommended that since he has done nothing illegal, the "law be changed."* Here again is a police state in action. See here. But there are four arguments that undercut Joe's point.

a) In Spain, the US government, though the Texas ambassador and Bush crony Eduardo Aguirre has intervened to sabotage the rule of law. The Palestine Hotel is where journalists stayed during the US aggression in Iraq. It was known by soldiers to be offlimits to the general American assault. But the US army, almost certainly by higher order, targeted the hotel in 2003 and murdered two journalists, including the Spaniard Jose Couso. Couso was a cameraman for the Spanish television station: Telecinco. 3 American soldiers, Sgt. Thomas Gibbons, Capt. Philip Woolford and Col. Philip de Camp - Lynndie Englands to substitute for the miserable George Bush, Dick Cheney – “I had better things to do” than appear in court – and other high officials - were indicted. Aguirre worked to corrupt/suborn the Spanish Attorney General Candido Pumpido-Conde and High Court chief prosecutor Javier Zaragoza as well as the courts (determining where the case would be heard, a la Karl Rove in the frame-up of Don Siegelman in Alabama) and succeeded (El Pais, December 3 and 4, 2010).

These actions alone not only protect criminals and are criminal – Mr. Aguirre needs to be indicted on charges of suborning justice - but pervert the rule of law in Europe. They make torture, extraordinary rendition and murder of innocent third party nationals by American soldiers norms of a new international life (Aguirre also worked to obstruct Spanish investigations of Guantanamo and renditions). Some American political “scientists” boast foolishly of an interdemocratic peace. See here and here. Far from preserving such a peace which depends on equal rights for ordinary citizens, i.e. innocents, and the rule of law, the Embassy did the opposite. It waged a covert operation against the rule of law in Spain. And Kathleen Sibelius, an Obama official, helped keep the pressure on the Zapatero government to drop the cases. Obama may have stopped waterboarding at secret sites, but he has fostered internationally as well as in America, ilegal and immoral protection for (previous) U.S. murder, rendition and torture. The US government once stood for the Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture; it is now their enemy. The damage is bipartisan and like a corrosive drip, day by day...

The documents on Spain are a straight-up counterexample to Joe’s argument, and led me to change my initial response.

b) American militarism is so dangerous, so protected by secrecy and the war complex including the kept press and kept politicians (a lap dog has more fight than Joe Lieberman), that exposure of its crimes – the massive harms it does to democracy and the rule of law – is the primary point. Wikileaks bringing government criminality to light would not be necessary in the American empire if there were a diverse and free press. Now outside the blaring corporate press and media, Amy Goodman enacts such freedom; on blogs, Andrew Sullivan, Scott Horton and Glenn Greenwald among others, have stood up persistently on American torture and the rule of law. Still, the corporate media are dominant and self-policing (i.e the Times). To corporate media applause, the Obama administration, led by an anti-"dumb Iraq war" candidate, is currently waging 5 aggressions and occupations. It has escalated the now mad Afghanistan one – at least tripling the troops – despite Obama’s initial 5 week time out to try to reconsider – first to 2011, and now to 2014 or 2015 – see here. The war complex gets Obama to buckle; with Hillary or the Republicans, there is unlikely to be anyone home to buckle (though Hillary, once, knew better).

The U.S government’s drone murders of civilians, its "secret" (from the American people) special forces operations as well as its clunky diplomatic attempts to ally with India at Pakistan’s expense threaten to drive Pakistan over the edge. They make real the possibility of an Islamic fundamentalist movement coming to power in a place with nuclear weapons in the next few years. One might say that in the world, a likely setting for nuclear conflict is Pakistan with India (it is doubtful that the Pakistan government would give such a weapon to Al-Qaida, since if there is such an attack in the United States, Pakistan would likely be hit in response). See here. El Pais, the leading Spanish paper (a paper that generally supports the Socialists, the PSOE), this week did a long story on how Anne Patterson, the American ambassador to Pakistan, has fought for some balance or wisdom in the policies but to little avail (I include at the end an interesting if overenthusiastic about American policy British article on the palpable fact of American decline and the author’s thoughts – quite amusingly utopian at the end – about what a decent change might look like. The American papers do not cover this material. The International Herald Tribune (published by the Times, radically different and better for a European audience, did some). The issue would have been good politically to emerge for discussion in the United States and one admires Patterson for trying to fight the Obama administration’s madness – that Democratic “experts” rely on drones is a remarkably murderous and counterproductive policy, appearing to “do something” against terrorists, killing few (if the US even knows who they are) but murdering many innocents, and setting vast numbers of Arab civilians, ferociously against the US. As Neal Ascherson says, Patterson comes off well.

The professional and competent State Department certainly looks good compared to the Pentagon which under Rumsfeld and Petraeus, is working daily and hourly to replace democratic professionals with soulless mercenaries (the ever encroaching Blackwater/Xe corporation and the like). Even now, the US government spends $708 billion on the Pentagon (the surface budget, there is more, for instance on intelligence, on nuclear energy/weapons research in the Department of Energy, etc.), $60 billion on the Department of State. So the war complex a la Rumsfeld/Bush and Obama gets 12 times as many tax payer dollars. Given the bad results of these on-going occupations and an economic depression, no democratic election which raised this issue clearly would sustain these practices. Yet as the military expands - around and to some extent in spite of Obama who is no fear monger, has renamed the "global war on terror" (gwot) the more mild "overseas contingency operations," the enthusiasm of ordinary Americans for war is reaching a nadir. Consider 2006 – an anti-Iraq War surge for the Democrats, who then promptly voted for the Iraq War budget – and the mass campaign bringing Obama who opposed Iraq, to the fore...

The State Department, it should be underlined, is not simply, comparatively, a jewel. Some 6,000 people are employed by embassies around the world to hawk big American weapons to local elites instead of providing money for health care or education to ordinary people (Chalmers Johnson, Blowback). Only the latter policies increase the security of ordinary Americans. But Obama just concluded a $60 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia and another $4 billion or so (those 20,000 American jobs he talked about) with India. “Arms r us” or “killing is us” is sadly also a State Department slogan. But there remains the very important decent side which Joe speaks commendably for. Probably, Patterson’s thoughts did not need to be outed, the trustworthiness of the embassy thrown into doubt, and this case can be multiplied many times across the release. It is a real cost to this Wikileaks’ publication. But the overall need to stop American militarism overshadows it.

Now militarism means both aggression and the practice or toleration of torture – as well as the destruction, even under Obama, of international and domestic law (the next post will focus on this). It means the impoverishment of the poor and the middle class at home. It means feeding the apparatus of the war complex. The first elements need to be stopped; for the latter, frankly, who cares (I would be in favor of a military budget of say $200 billion for a military which would be stationed mainly on the moon and could do as many war simulations as would make General Petraeus or his successors feel good, if we could remove the earthly consequences except what is needed for self-defense).

c) in an interview on Democracy Now, Noam Chomsky pointed out this week that the documents from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia calling for the US to “cut off the head of the [Iranian] snake” were anti-democratic. The Saudi Arabian regime and other U.S.- client Arab monarchy/tyrannies jail and kill democrats. In this context, one must underline: the large number of very good people in the State Deparment do not make policy. They exert some influence to make existing policies more decent and democratic. But the US government has worked determinedly with repressive regimes for economic purposes (oil in the Middle East, for example) or to extend its empire of bases, and will not – even more sharply than in domestic politics, where there is at least occasional attention to voters (or in the Republican case especially, to misleading voters). Such alliances may be used to further the mad-neo con and neo-neo con – Democratic think-tank “experts” – scheme, having lost in Iraq and Afghanistan and being unable to recruit troops even despite the joblessness of a depression – to bomb Iran.

If the United States (or Israel) bombs Iran, the way back to some kind of peace in the Middle East becomes very murky. Iran will initiate an unanswered counterattack (to use a tennis metaphor, the US can serve, but it has no forces to return serve); the shia will rise up in Southern Iraq cutting the US supply line, the US will suffer many casualties and have to exit (lose even more ignominiously than it is now). Many military officers have warned against this dangerous move, but an ideological campaign for it is growing. The dynamic of attempting to settle things by blundering force – the American way of permanent war, the war complex’s response to 9/11 – losing, and upping the stakes, has a real possibility, in the Middle East and with global consequences – of, in the midrange - unleashing nuclear war (Israel and Pakistan are two potential central players in this). American militarism needs to be stopped now, in its tracks.

The Wikileaks’ releases are a step in this direction. Wikileas revealed much information about the wars and crimes for actual or potential public discussion. They have increased the already vast anti-war sentiment or at least unease with wars in the United States. Support for American militarism among citizens is ebbing, and Obama’s caving to it does not save or sustain his Presidency. Only a renewed, anti-war movement from below can provide some alternative force, pushing the elite in a different direction. Within the elite itself, the war complex dominates. In this context, Wikileaks looks pretty good…

d) Even for lesser but still odious activities like spying on the head of the UN or collecting information on others’ romantic lives or credit card numbers, the release of these documents is likely to make Hillary more clearheaded. This is Bush-era corruption and needs to be swept away. Fear of the wind – Wikileaks – which has in this respect left the State Department naked, is likely to be healthy and even bracing (presumably the government can pay ordinary intelligence ops, in its 13 badly coordinated agencies, to do whatever of this is necessary; though of course just getting rid of covert activities, nearly all of which have been anti-democratic and harmful and most having nothing to do with gathering intelligence, would be a great and decent improvement for the current deficit “hawks” to consider…

I also agree with Joe about Bradley Manning: he may well be a scapegoat. If anyone can remember when the Pentagon was honest about any public issue like the Pat Tillman case – that counterexample is already sufficient and they are legion - perhaps they would be good enough to remind me.

Sunday, December 5, 2010 by the Sunday Observer/UK
WikiLeaks Cables are Dispatches from a Beleaguered America in Imperial Retreat
Envoys provide devastating truths, but world can admire Washington's patient mission to avert nuclear apocalypse
by Neal Ascherson

There's more to the WikiLeaks dispatches than leaks. Look behind them, at the writers, and you see the loyal rearguard of America: an imperial power in retreat.

There was a tradition in our Foreign Office that a retiring ambassador could blow off steam. In a final, exuberant telegram to Whitehall, he could say exactly what he thought of the country he was leaving, and of the folly of the Foreign Office in ignoring his advice.The best telegrams were treasured by young diplomats. But they began to leak into the press. And a few years ago this privilege was suppressed.

Now the WikiLeaks eruption has smothered the world with the secret thoughts of the state department's ambassadors. Today's Observer, focusing on China, reveals fascinating data about Chinese "muscle-flexing, triumphalism and assertiveness" (as the US ambassador put it). But with the cables comes a snapshot of the state department itself. It's a unique window on America's search - with diminishing confidence - for a coherent, inspiring account of what the US is trying to achieve in the world.

These diplomats who didn't want us to know their thoughts are not mere cogs in an imperial machine. Many emerge as wise, courageous, patient, likable men and women- especially the women, who lead so many US embassies. Their view of their host countries is not rosy. You begin to absorb their vision, in which America is the only adult in a world of grasping, corrupt, unreliable teenagers who cannot be abandoned to their own weakness.

The test of an ambassador is telling truth to those who wield the power - having the guts to tell the department that its plan is a delusion. Here is Anne Patterson in Islamabad, discussing Pakistan's support for "terrorist and extremist groups" and telling Washington "there is no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance levels in any field as sufficient compensation for abandoning support to these groups". She states bleakly: "The relationship is one of co-dependency, we grudgingly admit - Pakistan knows the US cannot afford to walk away; the US knows Pakistan cannot survive without our support."

Not all the dispatch-writers are that sound. In Georgia, ambassador John F Tefft was assuring his employers only hours before the bombardment of Tskhinvali that nothing of the sort could happen: that was what they wanted to hear. But then we find Margaret Scobey in Cairo, warning Clinton ("Madame Secretary") ahead of her meeting with Egypt's foreign minister that "he may not raise human rights... political reform or democratization, but you should". Or Tatiana Gfoeller, ambassador in Kyrgyzstan, who reported with amused disgust the ravings of Prince Andrew as he attacked "these (expletive) journalists, especially from the Guardian, who poke their noses everywhere". There's irony there. Those same journalists would print her own secret words and touch off a palace uproar in London.

Britain doesn't cut a pretty figure in the cables. On the rare occasions when US policies - on cluster bomb storage, on rendition flights through UK territory - meet challenges from the UK, British politicians are assumed to be thinking about voters rather than principles. Monotonously, Ambassador Louis Susman in London writes off Gordon Brown's criticisms of Washington policies as posturing "driven by domestic politics".

And the devastating pages about the "special relationship", published in yesterday's Guardian, reveal a trembling British obsequiousness which the Americans find absurd, even embarrassing. Only last year Richard LeBaron, deputy chief of mission in London, said that the British attitude "would often be humorous, if it were not so corrosive". The Tory cringe, as party leaders prepared to take power, is shown to be as low as the Labour cringe when Tony Blair rushed to offer Britain as a so-called "equal partner" in invading Iraq. William Hague, as shadow foreign secretary, assured the embassy in confidence he considered the US his "other country" and promised "a pro-American regime".

This degree of toadying clearly poses problems for the Americans. The dispatches repeat genuine appreciation of Britain's unique loyalty as an ally. But LeBaron was typically shrewd to call this behavior "corrosive".

The American diplomats are smart enough to know that buttering up the Americans is a routine which incoming British leaders think they have to perform, and that most of them privately resent it. They do it largely for reasons the state department understands only too well. Britain's "independent" nuclear deterrent flies the threadbare rags which are all that remain of the United Kingdom's lost "Great Power" status. But its manufacture and use are in reality dependent on the supply of American technology and American strategic decisions.

But, between the lines, the leaks are telling a bigger, more ominous story. These are exclusively state department documents - not the thoughts of other American power centers with an interest in foreign policy. And these diplomats' reports reveal how far their department has lost prestige and influence. It's a far cry from the days when foreign service giants like Averell Harriman or George Kennan, in the Moscow embassy or in Washington, could issue judgments which would sway a president. Now, though, other agencies - hairier and more shadowy - take it as read that they can require state department officers to carry out their leg work. It's enough to look at the instructions, pretty clearly from the CIA, for US diplomats to spy on their colleagues at the United Nations and even on the secretary-general's office.

Weren't these foreign service men and women humiliated, when they were asked to record the credit card numbers and frequent flyer details of those they worked with? Who asked the embassy in Buenos Aires last year to find out how President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was "managing her nerves and anxiety", what pills she was taking, and "how does she calm down when distressed"? And "what is the status" of her husband's gastro-intestinal ailment and "what are the most common triggers to [his] anger?" There are spies based in most British embassies, usually with "attaché" cover, but at least MI6 does not order diplomats to collect the intimate personal details of its targets. The professions are kept reasonably separate. So they should be.

It's true that the US system of selecting ambassadors has sometimes been baffling to foreigners. Rich businessmen who donate millions to parties have traditionally been rewarded with embassies (the British, less riskily, reward them with peerages). But these dispatches show that the intellectual quality of the "career diplomat" ambassadors remains pretty high. It would be a disaster for the US if the state department became a "penetrated system" allowing other agencies which, since the Reagan presidency, have progressively pushed state aside to gain the ear of the White House.

Enormous damage was done in the run-up to the Iraq war. As Niall Ferguson puts it in the latest edition of his book Colossus, "responsibility for the postwar occupation of Iraq was seized by the defence department, intoxicated as its principals became in the heat of their blitzkrieg". The state department had labored hard on long-term plans for the occupation. as the fighting ended. But state had to stand by and see its work junked by Donald Rumsfeld and his neocon team around the Pentagon, who convinced President George W Bush that the Iraqis would simply welcome the Americans as liberators.and romp forward to liberal democracy. The tone of the leaked dispatches suggests that this shattering blow to the standing and self-confidence of state has still not been repaired.

Behind all these diligent reports glows an evening landscape, in which a declining empire has lost its way. When communism collapsed, the US expected to become the unchallenged global superpower. But instead the US instantly lost control of countless nations and movements stampeding away from cold war discipline. Paradoxically, it was in those cold war years that America had been in charge of most of the world, mostly by consent, and knew why it was in charge. Now that world has burst into a thousand pieces: all sharp, many of them unstable, some of them fearfully dangerous. And the certainty of mission has gone.

So what is America for in the 21st century? The report-writers are confident about its superior wealth, though it is "banked" by China. They are sure about America's superior military strength, though only a fraction of that strength can be brought to bear in "insurgency" wars. But they are strikingly less sure about America's aims.

In the 1990s the "New American Century" neocons proposed: let's use that wealth and power to act as the world empire we really are! Few traces of that remain. Several ambassadors deny they are playing any great game against Russia or China, because great games are played by empires and the US isn't one. Yet several others indignantly reject the idea of "zones of influence" - no firewall must keep out the benevolent "soft power" influence of America. US policy is stuck aground in muddy places: Israel and Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, Cuba and the Caucasus. If it could extract itself from these, would it simply drift "rudderless" (as the ambassador said about Gordon Brown)?

Perhaps not. Two aims do recur obsessively through these reports. One, rooted in American history, is that the independence of new nations must be honored and protected. The other is the struggle against nuclear proliferation. Preventing apocalypse has become more important than striving for world leadership. This is a diplomacy clearer about what it doesn't want than what it does.

That's a "mission" we can salute. A British ambassador said: "Our duty at the Foreign Office has been to cover Britain's retreat from greatness and to prevent that retreat turning into a rout." One day the state department may say the same about its service to America.

* Here is McConnell's exact citation: "I think the man is a high-tech terrorist. He’s done an enormous damage to our country, and I think he needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And if that becomes a problem, we need to change the law."

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