Australia has been receiving countless mentions in headline news the world over in the last couple of months, mostly thanks to an intrepid compatriot with a penchant for trouble-making named Julian Assange. Assange is the founder, face and apparent overseer of WikiLeaks.org – the website dedicated to making public the confidential information of governments, other large institutions and businesses.
Most recently, Assange has made himself public enemy number one in the United States after WikiLeaks released in excess of 250,000 classified cables and communications from inside the State Department and between its embassies around the world. Unsurprisingly, the contents of some of these cables have been more than a little embarrassing for the American Government and most readers have probably heard about at least a few of them.
In the reporting of Wikileak’s ‘Cablegate’ documents we’ve been given a rare look inside the secretive world of international diplomacy and intelligence gathering. Whether troubling, comforting, fascinating or funny, the cables have provided some interesting reading. However, sensationalised headlines aside, in the whole much of the ‘revelations’ are really not that surprising.
The news that certain world leaders may have spoken candidly – and at times disparagingly – about some world leaders in the private company of other world leaders is no great shock. Similarly, it’s always been well known that foreign embassies contain and largely manage the intelligence operations for their home country in the nation they’re located.
So what we’re witnessing is a big airing of an inconvenient truth of sorts. Everyone plays the game, but the biggest and best team in the league has been caught in the middle of the field with their pants down. What is concerning is the effect that this unprecedented release of confidential information is likely to have on the conduct of foreign policy.
It’s vitally important that leaders and diplomats are able to have confidential communications, both internally and externally. It allows participants to frankly give their views and consider alternative scenarios, generally leading to better decision-making. Post-Cablegate, the diplomats in question are probably going to be very wary about what they say. Unfortunately the information is out; the US has to grin, bear it and try to recover.
But the question of what to do about Assange and WikiLeaks still looms large. The US is in a tough spot, because it is by no means clear that Assange has actually broken any laws – he was given the information by a US intelligence analyst. So far they’ve been able to pressure certain companies (PayPal and Amazon) to end their commercial relationship with WikiLeaks and may well have gone further by the time you’re reading this.
But the American Government is walking a fine line. If they do really want to go after Assange, the last thing they want is to be seen to be going about it in a disingenuous or bullying manner, having just been very publically outed for flouting the rules and playing loose with the truth.
I should note that at the time of writing Julian Assange has an arrest warrant issued in his name for sexual assault. The details of these charges are hazy at best, and will likely have been resolved one way or another by the time you read this.