WikiLeaks? No, thanks. I’ll read the book.
Having just enjoyed a couple
of reviews of Parting Shots: The Undiplomatic Final Words of Our Departing
Ambassadors, I’m looking forward to getting a copy as a Hanukka present and
savoring how criticism can be done with wit.
Parting Shots, edited by
Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson, is a collection of valedictory dispatches
written by British ambassadors to the foreign secretary, part of a quaint custom
that was maintained both by envoys leaving their posts and those leaving the
Foreign Service altogether until what Sir Ivor Roberts had to say in 2006 – or
more to the point the way that he said it – led to the Foreign Office ending the
Parris and Bryson used the Freedom of Information Act to access
the material. Some of the letters they wanted, however, are still being kept
under wraps by the powers that be in a way that might make WikiLeaks founder
Julian Assange lick his lips (or maybe froth at the mouth).
What I have
seen and heard so far is much better than the latest Wikidrama documents being
leaked to the media like Chinese water torture in carefully controlled drips and
Many of the farewell dispatches were written before the age of
political correctness, when diplomats did not need to be, well, quite as
And, while it was always known that “walls have ears,” some
of these summaries of national character seem to have been written almost as a
private joke between the ambassador and his bosses (“The average modern Austrian
only thinks about his schnitzel and his annual holiday and longs to be called
Herr Professor,” Sir Anthony Rumbold, April 1970, quoted in a Spectator
The book is based on his successful BBC radio series, and
Parris, who once worked for the Foreign Office, seems to take immense pleasure
at the potshots he has compiled.
Unlike Assange, who went into in hiding,
Parris has been promoting his gold mine of indiscretions on speaking
The programs can be read and heard via the BBC
Ambassadors of goodwill they were not, or certainly not
Incidentally, as our Foreign Ministry staffers threaten more
strikes and sanctions, they might use some of their suddenly free time to
discover what the British diplomats feel about the perks – and often
deprivations – of postings around the globe.
I hesitate, of course, to
form a conclusion from just reading reviews but I have this feeling that all
around the global village the proverbial man on the street is doing simply that
with the WikiLeaks material. What normal person, after all, is going to wade
through the hundreds of thousands of classified US diplomatic documents when
they can read the summaries in the media? And this, as in the case of the
previous WikiLeaks in August, is part of the problem. While Assange claims to
act in the name of freedom and transparency, his very methods prove that he is
far from practicing what he preaches.
TAKE, FOR example, the synchronized
release via various newspapers: The New York Times, Der Spiegel, El Pais, The
Guardian and Le Monde.
Why them? Could it be because they are more likely
to select the material that Assange wants revealed than, say, The Wall Street
Journal, The Times and The Jerusalem Post, for argument’s sake? Assange seems to
be waging his own private war.
Even the build-up to the publication – the
threats that had governments around the world on a full alert – can hardly be
seen as doing the decent thing. Who elected Assange to be the world’s arbiter of
ethics and diplomacy? “Secrecy is important for many things,” Assange told Time
magazine in an interview via Skype last week. “We keep secret the identity of
our sources, as an example, take great pains to do it.” But, he said, secrecy
“shouldn’t be used to cover up abuses.”
Assange is now a leading
candidate for Time’s “2010 Person of the Year” award, but as the drama
increased, I found myself imagining him as some kind of villain in an old James
Bond movie – undoubtedly powerful but also dangerous. Here is a character
holding the world hostage via cyberspace in an “I’ll publish and you’ll be
damned” manner. The feeling grew stronger when I heard him warning of what would
be unleashed should anything happen to him. Ultimately, I began to picture
Assange as an Osama bin Laden-like figure: toying with the world’s leaders,
playing them off one against the other.
If you read the WikiLeaks scoops,
by the way, you can see that the Saudis financed al-Qaida. What you can’t find
is who is financing WikiLeaks.
Or why. This obviously falls into
Assange’s special secrets category.
ASSANGE IS a colorful character who
combines the traits of hacker and hack. He is both a prizewinner and a police
suspect and last week made it to Interpol’s “red notice” list. US prosecutors
are reportedly preparing charges against him under the Espionage Act. And, of
course, there’s that matter of the alleged sex offenses in Sweden.
personality just begging for a biography – or better still, a film. If
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg can be turned into the hero/antihero of a hit movie,
Assange could become a superstar.
Zuckerberg’s very lack of social
skills, it seems, led him to create the world’s biggest social network,
encouraged a generation to opt for display over privacy and has created a
situation in which, instead of expressing their opinions, millions of people
make do with the word “like.”
Perhaps this is where we’re all heading.
Certainly, Assange’s latest assault will cause decision-makers and diplomats to
be extra careful with their words. The whole concept of “off the record” or “for
your eyes only” (remember the Bond movie?) is under attack. Maybe a cautious
policy maker in the future will be reduced to silently imitating the “like”
Israel at first shrugged off any real damage done to it
by the WikiLeaks exposure. As several other Post writers have already noted, it
didn’t hurt to discover that Arab leaders were in (what they thought) private
conversations urging the US to stop Iran’s nuclear program. I doubt it even came
as a surprise. I have heard residents of the Gulf states saying the same thing
for more than a decade.
Neither was I shocked by the revelation that
President Barack Obama’s tying the Israel-Palestinian peace process to solving
the Iranian issue is more than just a distortion. I don’t think even many people
on Israel’s far left believe that world peace will result should we finally,
miraculously, resolve the difficulties in this region (and if you don’t believe
me, Google “China,” “Korea” and “WikiLeaks”).
I’d be amazed if even Fatah
and Hamas manage to make peace any time in the near future.
material has caused some red faces rather than red alerts.
All in all,
I’d rather take what Assange wants to throw at us than what Iran’s Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad would like to drop on us. But I wish he wasn’t pretending that it’s
for our own good.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem