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Minnesotans with foreign service experience analyze WikiLeaks’ revelations


Talk to Minnesotans with deep experience in the U.S. Foreign Service, and you hear that WikiLeaks’ daring revelations this week of classified diplomatic cables are a pointless disaster — or, not as bad as they could have been. Definitely a lesson for diplomats in the cyber age. Possibly deadly for overseas sources.

“Outrage and horror,” were the first words Robert Flaten of Northfield said in response to my request for reaction. He was the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda during the early 1990s.

“This is dangerous,” Flaten said. “How do you maintain confidential relationships with people when you are working through a difficult problem if you are going to see it in the newspaper the next day?”

Tom Hanson agreed that the leaks have the potential to set back U.S. diplomacy around the world, but they could have been worse, he said. They apparently do not reveal truly top-secret information or show serious wrongdoing on the part of American officials.

Hanson is a former foreign service officer whose postings included East Germany, France, Norway, the Soviet Union, Sweden and the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Now he lives in the Twin Cities.

Watershed event
There is no precedent that diplomats — or, anyone else for that matter — can draw upon to predict the global fallout from the disclosure of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables, by WikiLeaks — a somewhat secretive organization devoted to disclosing government secrets.

The cables reveal “back-room bargaining by embassies around the world, brutally candid views of foreign leaders and frank assessments of nuclear and terrorist threats,” said the New York Times, one of several news organizations in the United States and Europe that received the cables and published some of them.

The cables expose Arab leaders urging an attack on Iran if it refuses to drop its nuclear ambitions, Americans begging other nations to take Guantanamo detainees and South Koreans anticipating the collapse of the North Korean government.

Angela Merkel
REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz
Angela Merkel

They amplify chatter bordering on global gossip over the partying lifestyle of Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the corruption of Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the steadfast blandness of Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel.  

The one sure thing about the leaks is that they signal a new era for diplomats and journalists alike, Hanson said.

“This is politics and diplomacy and journalism in the age of the Internet,” he said. “It is a watershed event in that regard and a lot of people will be drawing conclusions from it.”

One perspective
Hanson is on the mark in saying that this bombshell of a leak sets off repercussions across journalism and politics as well as diplomatic circles. And it raises new arguments about the unrestrained use of the Internet.

This MinnPost report of reaction from Minnesota is unbalanced in that it focuses on the perspective of people with diplomatic experience. There are plenty of other interesting and important points of view on WikiLeaks’ tell-all philosophy and on journalists’ decisions to go along with the disclosures.

Those other perspectives will be explored in the voluminous analysis that is sure to come. I hope readers will speak to some of them in the comments to this article.

Long-term view
Within the opinion pool reported in this article, I wanted some long-term perspective. So I called Brynhild Rowberg of Northfield.

Rowberg has risked her life more than once for the sake of American diplomacy. The government sent her to Europe to work amid the last battles of World War II — among other reasons, to prepare for setting up an embassy in then-occupied Austria. She worked in Prague during the Cold War. And she rose to the official rank of foreign service officer in the late 1950s when she served in Saigon.

Her “unclassified” adventures, according to a profile [PDF] in St. Olaf Magazine, included “being attacked by a German U-boat while traveling overseas in a naval convoy in 1945 and, 10 years later, a terrorist bomb exploding beneath her apartment in Saigon.”

“It’s catastrophic,” said Rowberg, now 93, when I asked her about the WikiLeaks revelations.

“If this were a perfect world, everything could be all transparent at all times,” she said. “But there are a great many imperfect people, to put it mildly, and dealing with them is hard enough at best….This is going to make almost all diplomacy and also a good deal of business almost impossible to carry on.”

Heats Korean tensions
One set of revelations that could be dangerous at an already tense time are cables discussing back-channel speculation over the collapse of North Korea’s government.

“American and South Korean officials have discussed the prospects for a unified Korea, should the North’s economic troubles and political transition lead the state to implode,” the Times reported. “The South Koreans even considered commercial inducements to China.”

Kim Jong-il
REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic
Kim Jong-il

Rowberg was working on the State Department’s Korean desk in 1968 when the North Koreans attacked and captured the American spy ship, the USS Pueblo. Then and now the North Koreans have shown they are extremely sensitive to news reports.

“They are the world’s most difficult people to deal with,” Rowberg said. “Every time there was a newspaper article based on speculation — not anything that we leaked to the papers — we had more trouble dealing with the North Koreans in every way.”

Piecemeal puzzle
Another danger, Flaten said, is that false impressions and conclusions will arise because the information about complex situations is being released in piecemeal fashion without all-important context.

“Spreading all of those things, especially in a leaky way — which means that not everything is there but only certain things — may be giving a totally erroneous impression of what was going on,” Flaten said. “Nobody could read all of that stuff. And in order to read it with any sense you would have to have a certain background.”

Context is important not only for international dealings but also for the way the information is reported to Congress amid treacherous diplomatic waters, Rowberg said.

“Many members of Congress are unsophisticated people to put it mildly,” she said. “They don’t understand that you may have to deal with people you don’t like, don’t trust, but you can’t say that publicly. You can’t do it and expect to deal with them again.”

Legitimate releases
Flaten said there are legitimate and compelling reasons for the release of confidential diplomatic information in specific circumstances.

A case in point is his confidential communications from Rwanda during the early 1990s, just before the eruption of deadly violence consumed that nation. The communications have been revealed in connection with cases before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the panel established for the prosecution of people responsible for genocide and other violations of international humanitarian law.

Individuals who had worked closely with Flaten were accused later of conspiracy to commit genocide.

Some of the accused, though, had worked “desperately to avoid the genocide by setting up a power-sharing plan,” he said.

In those cases, the U.S. State Department was asked to open up Flaten’s confidential records to show in detail what had happened.

“Just about everything I wrote over three years — a huge pile of stuff — was declassified,” Flaten said. “There was a process whereby the defense and the prosecution were able to come up with just about everything….The whole picture is there if anybody wants to look at it and see what was said at that time.

“So historians are not suffering from the fact that we classify things,” he said. “But we do classify things in order to protect sources, in order to have a conversation that is real.”

Pentagon Papers and more
Even leaks of specific information could be justified in some rare cases where there is reason to believe there’s been a cover-up of vital information, Flaten said.

“This was something done at time of the Pentagon Papers,” he said, referring to leaked documents showing that top policymakers had deceived the American public about the buildup to the Vietnam War.

“People still argue about this, but there was a pretty serious discussion then that government wasn’t telling us what we needed to know,” Flaten said. “In that case one has a choice as to how you deal with it. And if you deal with it illegally that’s a choice you make.”

On the other hand, this “leaky business” is a disaster, he said, because it serves no apparent specific purpose and comes out of context in scatter-shot and incomplete fashion.

Stove-piping revisited?
Before 9/11, such a vast trove of information wouldn’t likely have been with the reach of any one person or organization — even a government organization, said Hanson, the retired foreign service officer.

“I see this partly as a result of the increased sharing of information among agencies and departments in the wake of 9/11,” he said. “Information existed within the system but it wasn’t shared among agencies before that attack.”

Back then, critics said various agencies were “stove-piping” information — securing it within their individual compartments. The upshot was that intelligence about an impending terrorist plot was held in bits here and pieces there. No one could assemble the full puzzle. 

“I put this under the rubric of the war on terror, and the involvements in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan,” Hanson said. “There has been this desire to focus on the threat…and to get agencies to share information.”

But this much sharing obviously was not what the government had in mind. And now it’s a safe bet that the priorities and procedures for securing information will be re-evaluated.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

Meanwhile, federal authorities are investigating whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange violated criminal laws in the release of government documents, including possible charges under the Espionage Act, the Washington Post reported.

Diplomat or spy?
The leaks also raise questions of whether the United States is blurring the line between diplomacy and spying. The Times reported that State Department workers have been ordered to snoop on foreign dignitaries, gathering personal information like their credit card and frequent flier numbers, presumably for purposes of tracking their travel.

Without speaking directly to such specifics, Tom Maertens said it’s no surprise that foreign service officials around the world were gathering intelligence and sending it back to Washington. Maertens, who now lives in Mankato, worked in American embassies in several countries, and he also was the National Security Council’s director for nuclear issues during the administrations of former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

“I’ve written hundreds of these cables,” Maertens said.

“Of the political intelligence that goes into national intelligence estimates, about 90 percent comes from foreign service reporting,” he said. “Everybody knows that diplomats are in the information-collection business along with the usual duties of issuing passports, negotiating treaties and protecting citizens and so forth.”

Diplomats from other countries do the same and worse, Maertens said.

The real victims of the leaks could be the sources of confidential information whose names might be revealed in the secret dispatches.

“When I was in Ethiopia during the revolution, some things were told to me could have gotten people arrested and who knows — probably summarily executed,” Maertens said.

“That’s the biggest problem, endangering sources,” he said.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/30/2010 - 10:27 am.

    I’ll respect government’s privacy just as soon as they start respecting their citizen’s privacy.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/30/2010 - 12:37 pm.

    Keep that happy thought when 2.2 million North Korean soldiers pour over the 38th parallel, Richard.

    I’m all for exposing government corruption, of which there is plenty, but from what I’ve read this is nothing more than a release of the details of sensitive diplomacy for nothing more than the exercise of doing it.

    It is the act of petulant, immature morons that only their ilk could appreciate.

  3. Submitted by Lynda Friedman on 11/30/2010 - 12:51 pm.

    Great idea to ask experienced diplomats from MN for their opinions on this subject. Too often we forget how professionals in the State Department serve our country’s interests for decades and deal every day with people they “don’t like or trust”. I think Mr. Flaten’s comment about the importance of information in context vs random “leaks” is something that most analysis of the WikiLeaks will miss. Articles like this one are the reason I read and support MinnPost.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/30/2010 - 01:03 pm.

    Our current government situation as well as that of much of big business and big finance stinks to high heaven of

    “setec astronomy.”

    Perhaps the wikileaks revelations are overkill, but there is much evil being done by our government, our largest corporations and our big banks that would NOT be done if it were known that it would see the light of day.

    I’d especially love to see the inside communications between politicians and weasel news regarding propagandistic talking points, between politicians and big business leaders regarding how long to wait before hiring more workers and how to most effectively maximize profits by shipping jobs (and corporate headquarters) off shore, not to mention the insider trading information currently being (illegally) shared behind the scenes on Wall Street and the promises being made in both directions between big money individuals and their political servants and sycophantic punditry.

    If wikileaks were to share such political, banking and corporate inside information they would become massive folk heroes!

    and where did that setec astronomy chip go anyway?

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/30/2010 - 03:15 pm.

    So far, the consternation that has greeted each new document release by Wikileaks suggests to me that, if they are not already, the folks at Wikileaks should ALREADY be considered “folk heroes.”

    While there’s some legitimacy to the concern that confidential sources might be revealed, and I understand the dismay of people who’ve spent their lives in public service in the foreign service, I’d argue that a greater concern is that there’s so much “stuff” going on that gets labeled “secret” out of habit rather than necessity, simply because the people involved CAN keep it from the public. One of the primary reasons we have a First Amendment is to make sure there’s room for the thought that makes us uncomfortable, since thoughts that reassure virtually never need constitutional protection. Moreover, a public that’s fed (I use that word purposely) only part of the information about what’s going on – whether overseas or domestically – cannot make informed decisions about policy alternatives. Democracy doesn’t just encourage informed decisions, it requires them. Without all the relevant information, voters are easily swayed by demagogues spouting half-truths and outright lies.

    Oh, wait. That’s already happening.

    I’ve not read all the documents released by Wikileaks, nor do I intend to – life is short enough as it is, with plenty of things to do more important, pleasant and productive. Nonetheless, what I HAVE read, both from Wikileaks and in commentary so far, suggests that most – not all, certainly, but the vast majority – of what’s being released is embarrassing to the people named or involved, but not life-threatening to either the diplomat or the source. Much of what gets the “classified” and “secret” label acquires a kind of mystique that’s completely undeserved – the classification comes from someone’s desire to cover their posterior, not because the documents contain anything genuinely dangerous.

    That there are purported adults who are shocked – shocked, I say – to discover that diplomats are in the intelligence-gathering business says much, sadly, about the infantile state of public information and the public’s interest – more accurately, the lack thereof – in foreign affairs. Much of that “intelligence” is – as the documents seem to make plain – not much more than slightly sophisticated gossip – a kind of “People” magazine for the international set.

    I’m already looking forward to what I’ve read will be the next release: a major bank. If what Wikileaks can dig up from a major financial player has an embarrassment quotient similar to what we’re seeing from the latest pile of diplomatic cables, maybe even a Republican or two will begin to have second thoughts about always voting in the interests of big-time corporate capitalism.

    The only downside I see, aside from the embarrassment of some officials, is that the Obama administration, because this comes out on their watch, will get blamed – again – for a lot of things that went on during the administrations of both Bushes and Mr. Clinton in between. That is, much of what there is to be embarrassed about has nothing to do with Obama, but the hue and cry over “security leaks” will be tied, unfairly and inaccurately, to the current administration.

  6. Submitted by Mark Stromseth on 11/30/2010 - 03:16 pm.

    This article is riddled with faux outrage and exaggeration. You wrote: “Possibly deadly for overseas sources.” Pure nonsense.

    Nancy Youssef clearly documents how prior claims by the US government that WikiLeaks disclosures would endanger lives turned out to be patently false:

    Even the Pentagon has admitted this inconvenient fact.

    Any claim to the contrary should be accompanied by specific disclosures and evidence of harm before being considered credible.

    “If this were a perfect world, everything could be all transparent at all times,”

    No, it wouldn’t. There are some legitimate secrets, but these cables are not secret by any definition. Because more than 3 million people had access to them, that illustrates definitively that they were not secrets; only things the government didn’t want the public to know.

    But our government has reflexively been classifying everything as Secret, even when it doesn’t fit the category of information. The only reason that’s done is to prevent the information from becoming public and thus embarrassing the government, or exposing corruption and deceit.

    This is exactly what the adversarial free press is supposed to be doing, but they have abdicated their responsibility, so WikiLeaks is doing it. And because of that, the press is jealous of them for stealing their thunder, which explains why they focus not on the content of the cables, but on baseless rumors to smear Julian Assange, and the chattering class to call for his assassination.

    Like it or not, WikiLeaks has done everyone a huge favor by leaking these cables, and this is just the first batch; there are many more to come.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/30/2010 - 04:10 pm.

    n. the act of obtaining, delivering, transmitting, communicating, or receiving information about the national defense with an intent, or reason to believe, that the information may be used to the injury of the nation or to the advantage of any foreign nation.

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/30/2010 - 05:36 pm.

    I’ll bite on the troll..

    The overall impression given by these leaked documents is that of a China torn between past loyalties and present realities. If these intercepted cables are accurate, they provide a certain amount of vindication to the continued South Korean and American policy of keeping up pressure on Pyongyang. If North Korea had been calculating the force and timing of their recent military aggressions with an assumption that Beijing regards them as being eternally useful, they may now have to rethink that position .

    These documents comfort me in the knowledge that the current American administration are the relative good guys in a globe filled with dictators, oligarchs and megalomaniacs.

  9. Submitted by Joe Williams on 11/30/2010 - 08:40 pm.


    I had read that the WikiLeaks people had negotiated with the gov’t regarding the release. They claimed that the government’s reasons for not releasing the documents were “fanciful” and an attempt to cover up human rights abuses.

    If that is the case, I would expect to see something other than: “Silvio Berlusconi is an old pervert.”

    Am I being deprived of outrage here?

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/30/2010 - 08:59 pm.

    The Iranians don’t need wikileaks to tell them who wants to shut down their nuclear program. The American public on the other hand may be interested to find out that Israel is apparently not surrounded by Arab enemies seeking their destruction. Knowing that the Saudi’s are perfectly happy with Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region.

    I’m surprised the MN diplomats didn’t explain that they’re all adults, they all know the game, and no one would be surprised by anything contained in these documents. This is simply embarrassing for the State Department because it reveals the sometimes huge disparity between what they tell the press and the American people, and what they actually do and believe.

    The other thing no seems to be pointing out is that all this outrage over a one time release of a big batch of documents doesn’t represent the big game change everyone seems to be so alarmed about. This leak was made possible by some really stupid security behavior. Changes will be made, this won’t happen again.

    In the meantime we should take advantage of this opportunity to correct the record, note the duplicity’s, and demand a few explanation. Governments must keep some secrets, but democracy requires a lot more transparency than we’ve been getting.

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/30/2010 - 09:18 pm.

    Because what Wikileaks seems to have uncovered is neither life-threatening nor an “attack” on the United States (Mrs. Clinton’s words, but then, she has much to be embarrassed about in this latest deluge of documents), I’m surprised that both Mr. Tester and Mr. Swift are not joyously celebrating Wikileaks’ accomplishment. Given the proclivities both commentators have expressed on MinnPost in the past, a basic distrust of the federal government on their part seems a safe assumption, yet Mr. Tester attempts to expand our vocabulary by including a definition of espionage, presumably intended as criticism of Wikileaks.

    To steal shamelessly from Jack Shafer on Slate, what this latest batch of documents does more than anything else is restore our DIStrust in our most important institutions. Diplomats can be catty. Dignitaries are not always smart – “scary” or otherwise. Politicians in other countries can be just as venal as politicians in our own. In short, most of what’s been uncovered, as Mark Stromseth has pointed out, didn’t need to be labeled “secret,” and consisted mostly of things our government didn’t want us – or others – to know because they were embarrassing, or revealed some esteemed figure to be merely human like the rest of us, or exposed corruption or deceit.

    Never having been a journalist, I don’t know the professional politics of a “scoop,” and have no idea if “genuine” journalists are jealous of Wikileaks or not, but like Mr. Stromseth, I’d say Wikeleaks has done the public a huge favor by releasing these documents.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/01/2010 - 08:56 am.

    Here’s the thing that’s going on: the corporate media (it remains to be seen how Minnpost compares) is making the leak the story rather than the contents of the leak. This is a distraction.

    Meanwhile here’s just one event contained in this trove of docuements. While George Tenet was declaring frequently and loudly that the CIA does not torture, they kidnapped (arrested without warrant or recognition) a German grocer who had been mistakenly identified as a terrorist. They took him to Iraq, and then Afghanistan beating him along the way and held him for several months. Despite discovering that they’d made a mistake, and that the guy really was just a grocer, they held him for months. The released documents contain correspondence wherein CIA officials discuss the fear that he can’t be released because he now knows too much. In fact, Condolesa Rice eventually became aware that an innocent man was being held and ordered his release. The CIA held him anyways. Rice checked up on the guy a week later and found he was still being held and apparently blew a gasket ordering his release which then finally happened.

    So the question is: who doesn’t know the US is and has captured innocent people, tortured them, held them without charge, without legal recourse, and without acknowledgment? Who doesn’t know that some CIA officials were seriously considering keeping a innocent victim of mistaken identity locked up in an Afghan hell hole indefinitely? Our enemies have known all of this all along. So who is the government keeping this secret from and why? The German government knew about it, the Spanish Government knew about it, The Iraqi and Afghan governments knew about it… who didn’t know?

    Thems that didn’t know now know. People who were willing to let a grocer rot in a cell rather than apologize for an embarrassing mistake may now be held to account. The governments of Germany and Spain will have to answer for subjugating their justice systems to US demands. None of this threatens US security or provides aid and comfort to terrorists.

  13. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/01/2010 - 09:40 am.

    The problem with group-think is that it trends conservative with releasing information, and if you add one lawyer into the bunch they’ll start adopting C.Y.A. news practices.

    The whole point of WikiLeaks is that they’re a little unstable and crazy – if Government/Company X is afraid that they might release *anything*, then that government/company is more likely to behave (or burn after reading). Taking away the crazy takes away the thing that makes WikiLeaks different from the NYT or the WSJ – we’ll turn to WikiLeaks for raw stuff, and then The MSM can provide the editorial filter for those who are interested. So far, at least, this seems to be a successful policy.

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