The Internet became mainstream in the last few years of the twentieth century. At the time, nobody expected an explosion in the number of users and subsequent impact it would have on everyday life. The Internet has allowed for more people to receive more news and has effectively created new channels of communication, this is particularly true with the relatively recent developments in social media. While not everyone in the world has access to the Internet, its effects are global. The United States Diplomatic Cable Leaks serve as an excellent example of news released via the Internet affecting the media and domestic politics of different nations, along with U.S. geopolitics.
On February 18, 2010, a classified cable from the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavik, Iceland from January 13, 2010 was released by Wikileaks.org, a non-profit media organization dedicated to bringing important news and information to the public. This cable detailed the private discussion Sam Watson, the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission, had with Iceland’s leaders over a referendum on whether to repay losses from a bank failure, including an assessment of the likelihood of Iceland defaulting in 2011. This document was the first of 251,287 United States diplomatic cables from U.S embassies worldwide released between the time of the initial leak and September 1, 2011. Wikileaks used its popular social media outlets on Twitter and Facebook, which as of October 9, 2011, has 1,117,973 and 1,887,145 followers respectively, to advertise the leaks which it distributed through its website. Robert Gates, a former CIA chief and Deputy National Security Adviser, said of the leaks, “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.” However, U.S. foreign policy was not the only thing affected as a result of the leak.
Effects on Media
The release of the cables compromised the integrity of the increasingly popular satellite channel, Al-Jazeera. According to one cable, U.S. ambassador Chase Untermeyer met with Al Jazeera’s news director, Wadah Khanfar, to discuss critical reports by the United States Defense Intelligence Agency on three months of Al Jazeera’s “unfair” coverage of the Iraq war. Mr. Khanfar subsequently modified the network’s coverage of the Iraq war due to pressure from the United States. In at least one instance, Mr. Khanfar removed two images depicting wounded children in a hospital and a woman with a badly wounded face. Nineteen days after the cable was leaked, Wadah Khanfar, the news director of Al-Jazeera for eight years, resigned. This course of events opened Al-Jazeera to further scrutinization in the Middle East because of its inconsistent coverage of the “Arab Spring.”
Propaganda in Pakistan
The leaked diplomatic cables were manipulated and used as propaganda in Pakistan. Five Pakistani papers reported that one of the leaked cables mentioned U.S. diplomats describing top Indian generals as “self-obsessed, petulant, and idiosyncratic, vain, geeky” and engaged in “genocide against Muslims in Kashmir.” There were also accounts of covert Indian intelligence funding of Islamist militants in Pakistan’s tribal belt and Hindu extremists in India. Another false cable stated that Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani secretly supported drone strikes by the Central Intelligence Agency. Additionally, the false cable described an incident in which U.S. officials had praised Pakistan’s top generals and exonerated the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency of any involvement in the 2008 Mumbai Attacks. Two of the leading papers in Pakistan, The News and The International Herald Tribune, later admitted that the information was false and apologized to its readers. However, the Daily Jang, Pakistan’s oldest newspaper with a circulation of 800,000 in Karachi, declined to retract the story. Ex-Pakistani diplomat Asif Exdi commented on the news by stating that Pakistan is “the world’s biggest banana republic”; the publication of the false stories led many Pakistanis to believe that their government was controlled by the U.S.
Subpoena of Twitter
Twitter served as such a powerful tool for notification of the cables’ release that it was served a subpoena by the United States Department of Justice on December 14, 2010. The subpoena required Twitter to provide the personal information of those running the Wikileaks Twitter account as well as that of its 600,000 followers. Within hours of the announcement of the subpoena, the Wikileaks Twitter account lost 3,000 followers. Subsequently, two civil liberties groups, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged the Government’s attempt to obtain the information of users because it violated First Amendment speech rights and Fourth Amendment privacy rights. The release of the diplomatic cables implicated Twitter as a prime outlet for the notification of the leaks.
Effects on Domestic Politics
The leaked cables have also been attributed to the Tunisian Revolution, the catalyst to the “Arab Spring.” In a highly critical cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia, Ambassador Robert Godec wrote,
Tunisia has been ruled by the same president for 22 years. He has no successor and…his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people. They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power. Corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, first lady Leila Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her; even those close to the government express dismay at her reported behavior. Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia’s high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.
While many Tunisian’s were aware of the repressive regime, the written assessment of a third party arguably pushed many people “over the brink.” According to The New York Times, “the protesters, led at first by unemployed college graduates like Mr. Bouazizi and later joined by workers and young professionals, found grist for the complaints in leaked cables from the United States Embassy in Tunisia, released by wikileaks that detailed the self-dealing and excess of the president’s family.” Additionally, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali attempted to block access to websites that published the U.S. cables. The leaked cables created many issues for the Tunisian government and further linked them to corruption from the viewpoint of Tunisians.
The leaked cables led to a “witch-hunt” of suspected political dissidents in China due to the misreading of a single word. Several of China’s top academics, human rights activists, Tibetan and Uighur activists and Chinese Communist party officials were named sources of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Additionally, the cables gave the real names of Chinese bloggers and Twitter users who previously were known only by their screen names. However, the word “informant” was misinterpreted as “Xianren,” which usually refers to a “rat” or “spy” who makes a living by selling information. In response, postings from prominent neo-Maoist websites in China stated, “When the time comes, they should be arrested and killed.” and “Our country is in danger, we should not have mercy on the traitors. People should hunt them down. All these traitors deserve to die.” The leaked cables sparked a “witch-hunt” in China of those who were supposedly manipulating the Chinese public opinion and local politics.
Effects on U.S. Geopolitics
A U.S. diplomatic cable criticizing Mexico’s efforts in the Anti-Drug fight on the border has strained U.S.-Mexican relations. In the cable, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual, described how the Mexican navy captured a drug trafficker after U.S. officials provided information that the Mexican army had not acted on. Additionally, Pascual questioned whether Mexico was capable of winning the war on drugs and claimed that Mexican security forces were slow and risk-averse. The President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, said that the release of this information caused “severe damage” to its relationship with the U.S. He told The Washington Post, “It’s difficult if suddenly you are seeing the courage of the army [questioned]. For instance, they have lost probably 300 soldiers … and suddenly somebody in the American embassy, they [say] the Mexican soldiers aren’t brave enough.” Additionally, the relationship became so strained that President Calderon stated that he was no longer able to work with Ambassador Pascual anymore. This tension led to the subsequent resignation of Ambassador Pascual. As of October 12, 2011, a replacement Ambassador has not been named.
A diplomatic cable criticizing the Ecuadorian police force has also strained U.S. relations with Ecuador. In a cable dated July 10, 2009 U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador Heather Hodges was quoted as saying, “corruption among Ecuadorian National Police officers is widespread and well-known. Broad sections of the public report paying bribes related to minor and more significant transactions” and “Ecuador has very weak institutional oversight of its law enforcement agencies.” In response to this cable, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino declared Ambassador Hodges “persona non grata” and expelled her from the country. In response, the U.S. expelled Ecuador’s Ambassador to the U.S., Luis Gallegos. As of September 7, 2011 the two nations have nominated new ambassadors in efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations.
A cable dated February 8, 2010 detailed a talk between U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and French Minister of Defense Herve Morin and included a harsh assessment of the Russian government. This cable provoked a harsh response from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. According to the cable written by Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow, Defense Secretary Gates had “observed that Russian democracy has disappeared and the government was an oligarchy run by the security services, President [Dmitry] Medvedev has a more pragmatic vision for Russia than [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin, but there has been little real change.” Additionally, Gates was pressing French Defense Minister Morin to rethink the French sale of the amphibious assault ship, the Mistral, to Russia, a sale that several NATO member countries and the country of Georgia loudly protested around the time of the meeting. In a separate cable sent in 2008, U.S. diplomats said that Vladimir Putin was still pulling the strings in Russia, while President Dmitry Medvedev was merely a more junior figure who played “Robin to Putin’s Batman.” Secret diplomatic cables seen by The Guardian reveal that the US emphatically believes Putin to be in charge. They also suggest that Putin will decide whether Medvedev serves a second term whether he will return to the presidency himself or if he will give the job to someone else. Additionally, U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beryle, was quoted as saying,
Medvedev sits in the driver’s seat of a new car, examines the inside, the instrument panel, and the pedals. He looks around, but the steering wheel is missing. He turns to Putin and asks: ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich, where is the steering wheel?’ Putin pulls a remote control out of his pocket and says: ‘I’ll be the one doing the driving.’
In an interview with CNN’s Larry King, President Putin was asked about Defense Secretary Gate’s assessment of Russian Democracy, to which he responded
I think he is a very nice man and not a bad specialist. But Mr. Gates, of course, was one of the leaders of the US Central Intelligence Agency and today he is defense secretary. If he also happens to be America’s leading expert on democracy, I congratulate you.
Additionally, he said that Gate’s “is profoundly wrong” and that the U.S. should “not to poke their noses into our affairs.” In response to the comparison of him and Medvedev as Batman and Robin, Putin said, “The US is responsible in first degree for the slanders its diplomats make with their incorrect interpretations. There are lies and incorrect information in those documents.” While the situation created tension between the U.S. and Russia, Ambassador Beryle is still serving in Moscow.
In another cable, U.S. diplomats described the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, as “weak, indecisive, paranoid and beholden to criminals to maintain power,” which has contributed to damaged U.S.-Afghan relations. In the cable, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, concluded that it was unlikely President Karzai would ever break his habit of blaming the U.S. and its allies for Afghanistan’s troubles and failing to address his own shortcomings. Additionally, Ambassador Eikenberry determined that President Karzai had two competing characteristics,
The first is a paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation-building and overly self-conscious that his time in the spotlight of glowing reviews from the international community has passed. The other is that of an ever-shrewd politician who sees himself as a nationalist hero who can save the country from being divided.
Additionally, according to the cable, Afghan Finance Minister, Omar Zakilwal told American diplomats that President Karzai was an “extremely weak man who did not listen to facts but was instead easily swayed by anyone who came to him to report even the most bizarre stories of plots against him. Whenever this happened, Karzai would immediately judge the person to be loyal and would reward him.” Minister Zakhilwal said the claims were “absolutely, categorically, wrong and false,” He also warned the leaked cables would damage relations with the U.S, nevertheless, Ambassador Eikenberry served his entire term.
The United States Diplomatic Cable Leaks exemplifies how the Internet can affect the media and domestic politics of a country and also impact a nation’s geopolitics. New media, primarily the Internet, led to the speedy and mass distribution of the cables. It is very likely that without the Internet, 251,287 confidential paper documents would not have leaked from the United States Government. An argument can be made that the Internet has hurt news media as much as it has helped it. While more news is distributed, there is also a higher likelihood of receiving false information because of a lack of verification. However, because the Internet has created more lines of communication and allows for more people to have access to news, on principle alone, the pros of the Internet outweigh the cons. Nevertheless, those who use the Internet, particularly to report news, must remember they have a responsibility to practice one of the most important standards of journalism, discretion. Lack of discretion in one news story can have global implications.