Monday, November 29, 2010

Open Covenants Openly Arrived At

Unlike with previous document dumps at Wikileaks, I clicked over yesterday. I read two sample cables, one from the London embassy, the other from the Munich consulate. I found both to be rather banal, typical diplomatic dispatches. The first was a report on a foiled attempt by Iranian intelligence to assassinate an Iranian emigre who broadcasts on Voice of America (it was foiled when the person who was at the heart of the attempt was arrested in California for attempting to solicit the murder of another Iranian emigre). I thought this was an instance where the secrecy did more harm than good; this was a victory of sorts, and should have been more widely circulated. The report from the Munich consulate concerned a rather dim Bavarian politician. My guess is the Bavarians knew he was dim, and there was little in the cable to suggest anything more than a kind of standard warning not to expect too much from a brain wizard like this guy.

I stopped there, tempted as I was to dig more deeply. For one thing, we had a house to decorate for the holidays. For another, with the number of cables reaching in to the tens of thousands, I had few guides for discernment, and figured it would be far better to leave well-enough alone. Should I wish to look later, they will, in all likelihood still be available. Nothing ever dies on the internet, it changes its URL.

The reflection on "what it all means" has begun, in the absence of any single person's ability to take in the massive amount of information dumped on the world. The best of these, precisely because it is contradictory and confounding, is Kevin Drum's. At this point, any clarity is lost in the twin impulses to enjoy being in on a secret and wariness concerning legitimate security concerns.

This latter is why Glenn Greenwald's tweet this morning - I'm keeping a running list of all the lives lost from the WikiLeaks disclosures - here are the names so far: - really bugs me. He has to know that drawing any links between the publication of these cables and any actions states take down the road would be difficult to "prove". On the other hand, one scenario that certainly should alarm anyone is the much-discussed private back-and-forth among Iran's neighbors that would seem to give tacit support for an American military strike against Iran.

Suppose a Republican is elected President in two years, and the Republicans gain control of the Senate, as well as keeping control of the House of Representatives. Iran has continued its work on its nuclear capability. It is at least plausible that under those circumstances, the United States might consider a military strike. It would argue, not without reason, that such would receive at least private approval among the Sunni states that border Iran, regardless of what they said in public.

How many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, would die in such a possible contingency?

We cannot know the final outcome of revealing classified information. As Drum reminds readers, states do have a legitimate interest in keeping some secrets, although it has certainly run rampant in the United States. Our periodic reviews of classification tend to favor declassifying older information even while strengthening classification rules down the road, which pushes any final resolution in to some distant future.

For the most part, this is an interesting exercise in which the United States gets egg on its face. The most likely outcome will be consternation on the part of diplomats that our cyphers have been breached so thoroughly (although, as I pointed out in an exchange on Facebook yesterday, the Soviets did this quite well during the Cold War; in all likelihood, their understanding of how to do this probably went to high bidders after the Soviet Union dissolved). Those who see "conspiracy" in this - granting too much to the ability of the US to stop a document dump like this, therefore it must be part of some larger game of chess - would be wise to remember that, for all that classified information increases, the number of eyes with access to it also increases, making the possibility of an event like this far more likely.

Beyond that, I'm not sure what this "means". I do know that other countries struggle with dim-witted politicians, too, which is refreshing.

Virtual Tin Cup

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