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WikiLeaks – the Iran section is the most worrying

Posted on 29 November 2010 | 10:11am

There is something seriously creepy about the WikiLeaks guy whose name I always mix up with Nigel Farage (I’ve always had trouble with my Nigels and my Julians); and something unsufferably sanctimonious about journalists defending publication of any leak as being in the public interest, and setting themselves up as arbiters or what does or does not compromise national security, or pose a risk to individuals.

That being said, there are three main conclusions I draw from what I have seen and read so far.

The first is that any system which means a country’s entire diplomatic traffic can be put onto a single memory stick is a disaster waiting to happen. Allied to that, far too many people had access to far too many documents anyway. The principle of greater openness for better cross-departmental co-ordination is a good one. The system was not.

Second, though there will be a huge media furore in many parts of the world, the diplomatic fallout is likely to be less significant or long lasting than the headlines are saying. The various world leaders unflatteringly described, for example, are unlikely to be too surprised by the analyses, even if they are momentarily offended or visiting Ambassadors embarrassed. Likewise worries about Pakistan’s stability or the security of its nuclear weapons programme do not exactly shock. Nor do suggestions of countries spying on each other whenever and wherever they can.

My third point, in policy terms perhaps the most significant part of the leak, relates to the venom and anger with which most countries in the Middle East view Iran. Though on one level that is not a surprise, the scale, tone and near uniformity of it did surprise me.

Reading that part of the first chapter of this particular industrial dump, I was left with the impression that anyone in the US system pushing for a hardening of the policy position vis a vis Iran would be able to build a lot of support for such a move.

Fascinating too the view of Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak last year that if Iran’s nuclear ambitions were not checked soon, they would be developed to such an extent that a military response would be impossible because of collateral damage. Part of me thought that was just the Israelis doing their usual thing of trying to push the US harder than they want to go. Another part of me thought ‘holy shit!’

Meanwhile my former colleague PJ Crowley – we worked together at Nato during the conflict in Kosovo – is in for a busy time. As the State Department spokesman, he will be all over the world’s media trying to calm things down, and put things in a broader context as the US awaits the next chapter from the dump.

He is a very good man in a crisis. My sense is that for all the embarrassment factor and the general buggeration, this is not a crisis yet.

Now if America were to follow the more extreme approach being suggested by Arab countries, there might be a different story. And likewise if they don’t, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and Israel’s fears about them,  may provoke a crisis in the region anyway. But we sort of knew that.

  • Douglas Dixon

    Can you take any of this at face value? I cannot. It looks like a grooming job to get us all ready for an inevitable ‘surprise’ attack on Iran. The boxes are all neatly ticked; we learn they have medium range missiles, they have unknown nuclear capabilities (and some within civilian sites), the US have deployed bunker busters to Israel, and even the Arabs are calling for an attack. The rest of the leaks are just fluff, of course.

  • Keith Hillman

    What I find most disturbing is the tone of reporting that takes at face value anything which is difficult for the US, and which takes with the usual media cynicism anything which might benefit the US. The Guardian editor certainly fits your sanctimonious label

  • Colin Hind

    Considering the budgets the USA have for spying, I too would be a little surprised if they did not do a lot of it. Am in Italy at the moment — be interesting to see if the Berlusconi-Putin relationship gets much play here

  • Hilary Cross

    I have just wasted an hour of my life reading the Guardian. I found little to shock me, let alone which would produce these shock waves apparently reverberating around the world. I too find Mr Assange really creepy. He manages to play victim whilst being agressor

  • Richard

    Let us all hope that the leaks include those exchanges in the year or more before the Iraq war. Many questions could be answered: “You have the right to remain silent.”
    After passing the Freedom of Information Act, you and your mates have regretted it ever since!

  • Olli Issakainen

    A DA-Notice is an official request to news editors not to publish items on specific subjects for reasons of national security. It is merely a request and it is not legally enforceable.
    But they are usually accepted by the media. A DA-Notice reminds newspapers that they should be concerned about national security.
    On 25 November 2010 the government issued a DA-Notice (types 1 and 5) in relation to WikiLeaks documents.

  • Anonymous

    The fact that Arab countries… especially ones that aren’t even democracys.. want to attack Iran.. DOES NOT MEAN IT’S RIGHT TO DO SO.. Mr Cambell..

    Anway, I though you Mr Cambell was feeling unloved and wanted to blow your own brains out… what happened? Changed your mind?

  • Gilliebc

    I agree with your comments.
    I believe that if the USA did not want these details “leaked” then there is no way they would have been.

  • Gilliebc

    I don’t think there will be too many people who would disagree in principle with Iran’s nuclear capability being taken out. I would be in favour of “cutting the head off the snake” The rest of the world can’t be threatened by these crack-pot regimes. And whilst they the USA are about it they might as well sort out North Korea at the same time. One way or another.

  • 50/50 that either the US or Israel will attack Iran before the end of 2011. Iran has seen that North Korea can not be attacked, thus they might rush for the bomb, they have bought new missiles from North Korea, who is to say that dont have the bomb already!

  • Nice to hear someone talking about the very fact this was leaked at all–you’re right, it was far too easy!

  • Artemis D’Arcy

    Hi Alastair,
    When you say ‘any system which means a country’s entire diplomatic traffic can be put onto a single memory stick is a disaster waiting to happen.’
    Can you suggest another system where transparency could be achieved in a more peaceful way? A lot of reports have been focusing on the consequences of wikileaks but not on the very difficult and broadly contested principle of FOI. You raised an interesting point about journalist acting like arbiters, do you think that it is to early to say what the effects of wikileaks realy are?