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Cablegate

Author: Joel D. Hirst, International Affairs Fellow in Residence, 2010-2011
December 5, 2010
Huffington Post

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Evo Morales has a nose tumor, Cristina Kirchner needs medication, and Hugo Chavez is advised by the Cubans. These have been, so far, the earth shattering revelations by Julian Assange, Wikileaks' cyber criminal. Notwithstanding the trivial--and mostly banal--nature of the revelations to date, the Obama administration's mismanagement of the response to the filtration of over 250,000 classified State Department documents represents a diplomatic Waterloo for the Obama administration.

Like a slow-moving train wreck, the White House's reaction to this extended episode of national humiliation has been cavalier bordering on incompetent. Almost five months after the leaks began, and more than seven months after the capture of Private Manning--allegedly responsible for the filtrations--Attorney General Eric Holder finally announced that the Department of Justice would be investigating Mr. Assange. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs stated offhandedly, "Our foreign policy is stronger than one man with one website..." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, perhaps more keenly aware of the impact of the fiasco was only able to joke about the largest case of espionage in generations. President Obama himself has said nothing about what has been described by some as a diplomatic catastrophe. Most recently, in an episode of Orwellian proportions, the State Department has ordered its diplomats not to view the cables -- assuring that the offending documents are now available to literally everybody in the world, except their rightful owners. How our embattled diplomats will now ascertain which cables have been released and what parts have been redacted, in order to better engage in damage control, is beyond me.

For the myriad of people who believe that the Wikileaks fiasco represents a necessary jolt of transparency into the world of international diplomacy, a crash course is desperately needed. The well-scripted job of world diplomats is to be the emissary of their home country to deliver messages, retrieve information and provide essential data to their respective capitals. Their tasks are to try and build consensus and stave off conflict by recommending solutions to the unending bilateral challenges that complicate our world. This activity is shrouded by a veil of secrecy, a sacred bond that has withstood through millennia. In the construction of bilateral relations that stand the test of time, other countries need candid assessments, frank opinions and practical information -- as do we. This frank exchange is governed by a code; akin to attorney-client privilege, or doctor-patient confidentiality.

For those who applaud Mr. Assange and his particular version of cyber-terrorism, I would ask them how they feel about the rupture of other codes established to govern our relations in society. How would they like to see reports of treatment for their male-pattern baldness in downloadable format; or the details of their divorce settlements in an online database -- displayed in vivid technicolor across the worldwide web. While this information may appear benign, and may be explained by cyber-thieves as an attempt to increase transparency, it will likely be viewed by the victims as damagingly intrusive. This is also true in the world of international diplomacy.

And the enemies of the United States have lost no time in taking advantage of the disaster. During last week's 20th Ibero-American summit taking place in Argentina, Ecuador's Rafael Correa - in representation of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) countries -- attempted to insert into the final declaration a repudiation of the United States' activities as presented by Wikileaks. Ecuador has invited Assange to visit the country, and vice-minister Kintto Lucas even offered him residency - an offer corrected by President Correa as even too extreme for that country's anti-Americanism. Venezuela's foreign minister said that the documents, "...demonstrate the permanent persecution against the Bolivarian Revolution," while Bolivia's vice president stated that the documents represent, "an imperial diplomacy."

Mr. Assange, the Kim Jung Il of the virtual world, has acted with patent disregard for the international order. Under pressure from the civilized world he, like Mr. Il, has resorted to blackmail. "We have over a long period of time distributed encrypted backups of material we have yet to release. All we have to do is release the password to that material, and it is instantly available," Mr. Assange has said. These "doomsday files" will be released should Mr. Assange's criminal activity be interrupted.

The White House's timorous paralysis in dealing with this criminal must end. In order to recuperate trust in America, the Obama administration must at long last act with resolution. They must treat Julian Assange and the Wikileaks team as cyber-criminals and move immediately to detain them and cease their illicit activities. Only in the determined defense of our sacred diplomatic trust -- trust hard earned by our thousands of committed diplomats -- will the United States recover from this fiasco. Otherwise Obama's diplomatic waterloo will haunt us long after he is gone.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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