WikiLeaks Cables Reveal Candid Communications
TONY COX, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
The Yemeni government is taking responsibility for American missile strikes in that Middle Eastern country. Saudi rulers fear a nuclear Iran and have no faith in Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The U.S. government has been horse trading with other nations to take detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
These are just a few of a growing list of recently exposed diplomatic cables the online self-described whistleblower group WikiLeaks released to several newspapers, a quarter of a million pieces of correspondence from inside the Department of State.
Tomorrow, we'll talk about the ethics and the legal issues surrounding such disclosures, but today we discuss what's actually in them and the fallout for U.S. diplomacy. As of now, there are less than 300 of the documents on WikiLeaks, but the entire cache has been released to the New York Times, among other papers.
Reporter Scott Shane has been hashing through them for the Times, and he joins us from his very busy desk today at the New York Times. Scott, thank you for being with us.
Mr. SCOTT SHANE (Reporter, New York Times): Thanks for having me.
COX: Also with us is Ambassador Ronald Neumann. He was a career diplomat and was the ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. Now, he is the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, and he joins us here in Studio 3A. Ambassador, nice to have you, as well.
Mr. RONALD NEUMANN (Former Ambassador to Afghanistan; President, American Academy of Diplomacy): Thanks for having me.
COX: Before we begin, if you have questions about what's in these documents or what they mean for diplomats, give us a call. Just a reminder, though: Tomorrow we're going to focus on the legal issues of the leak, and you can weigh in with your opinion at that time.
But today, our focus is on what's inside the leaked documents. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And to join the conversation, go to the website npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
So Scott Shane, let me begin with you. It might be helpful to describe for the listening audience just what these cables actually are. Are they emails? What do they look like?
Mr. SHANE: Well, they are it's obviously an old-fashioned term, but they're essentially the formal message traffic from 270 American embassies and consulates around the world - back to Washington.
And they contain private they often report on private conversations diplomats have with foreign officials and foreign countries. They generally are classified at a relatively low level.
Some of it's unclassified. Some of it's confidential. Of the 250,000 cables that WikiLeaks obtained, about 11,000 are at the highest level in the collection, which is secret. So it's not the kind of top secret intelligence stuff that occasionally leaks, but it is quite sensitive, certainly from the point of view of working diplomats.
COX: When did you get the information, and how did you get it, and from whom?
Mr. SHANE: Well, people may remember that the New York Times collaborated with The Guardian, the British newspaper, and Der Spiegel, a German magazine, on earlier documents that came from WikiLeaks about the Afghan War and the Iraq War.
In this case, the New York Times did not get these diplomatic cables the quarter million the diplomatic cables in this batch - from WikiLeaks itself. We got it from The Guardian. But The Guardian had gotten these cables from WikiLeaks.
We got them, I'd say, almost two months ago, and a team of reporters here and at several publications in Europe have been going through the documents and trying to identify stories.
We've at the Times specifically, we've identified about 100 cables that we intend to post over the next week or so, and we're writing about 15 news stories about them.
COX: Our guests are Scott Shane, New York Times reporter who has been covering the WikiLeaks story, and here in Studio 3A with me, Ambassador Ronald Neumann, former ambassador to Afghanistan.
Before we get to some calls, ambassador, I'd like to ask you: When you first heard about this, because you did spend time in the region, from 2005 to 2007, what was your initial reaction? And were you concerned, sir, that something you said might be in those documents?
Mr. NEUMANN: I'm retired now. I don't have any particular concerns about my own reporting. Actually, I've spent my entire career in this region, having served throughout the Persian Gulf, Iran, Iraq. So a lot of these cables focus on areas that I've either been in or worked on.
And my concern was the enormous damage they do to the ability of American diplomats to conduct the nation's business and the damage they will do in the future to giving good advice to the president and the national security team.
COX: Is that something that you fear because you know it is likely to happen, or you just suspect that it could happen?
Mr. NEUMANN: Well, what do you call a prediction made on the basis of nearly a lifetime of professional experience?
COX: Well, you would call that a pretty good hunch, and something educated, as well. But my question, I suppose, to make it clearer, is whether or not there is something either in these documents or in the process of the release of these documents that let you know for sure that something a lot more ominous is likely to happen as a result of their release.
Mr. NEUMANN: I think you have a whole series of consequences. Some of them are in individual countries. Pakistan, for instance, turned down a request, according to these cables, to remove uranium ore - something we're very concerned about - and they turned it down, they said, because they didn't trust us to keep secrets.
Well, you can be pretty darn sure that they will now pat themselves on the back that that prediction was correct, and you can be pretty sure that they're not going to be turning over any nuclear material to us in any way that they find sensitive in the future.
You can find a number of examples, countries that sent troops to help our troops but wanted it kept quiet. So you think you can be pretty certain that any other country that was prepared to send military assistance to Afghanistan on the same terms now won't do it, at least they won't do it very readily, because they won't trust us. I think you can draw a very long list of these kind of consequences.
The second is, when I talked about advice given to presidents, people are now going to look for how to restrict their views, how to keep you guys from gushing this stuff in the future. And the consequence of that in my experience is that people will restrict distribution. They'll go back to targeted emails, various other things.
The result of that is twofold. One is that the broad intelligence analytical community will not get a full analytical picture to look at because some of the most important conversations with foreign leaders will - they'll be cut out of.
COX: Let me ask Scott Shane to weigh in on this in two ways. First, Scott, in terms of what you saw in the documents that you have seen, is there any what struck you as being the most significant, that could be the most dangerous, potentially the most ominous, as we are discussing with Ambassador Neumann. And secondly, what is your take on the ambassador's view that the release alone forebodes some very bad things in the diplomatic world?
Mr. SHANE: Well, I sympathize with the ambassador's view because diplomats and journalists both have sources that they like to protect and need to protect, and if they can't protect them, they tend to have fewer sources. So I think journalists can certainly understand that as a parallel concern.
In terms of what is in these documents that struck me, I think for the most part, it's not just shattering, shocking revelations of things we never knew before. It tends to be the backstory of things we did know.
And, you know, to give you an example, for example there are some cables that talk about conversations between the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and American officials on American counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, there were some U.S. missile strikes in Yemen. We had written about those. We had written that they were American strikes, even though at that point, the government of Yemen was saying that actually they had carried them out.
These cables, you know, recount, among other things, the conversations between General David Petraeus, then in charge of forces in the Middle East, and President Saleh, where they kind of work that out. And President Saleh says, well, we'll keep taking responsibility for your strikes.
So it's not brand new, but to sort of see it laid out and see how these conversations take place is really kind of fascinating. And then there are categories of revelations. There's a now former Afghan vice president who is reported to have been stopped carrying $52 million in cash into Dubai, and...
COX: That's not new.
Mr. NEUMANN: He's not even the vice president.
COX: That certainly isn't new. I want to ask you another question, though, Scott. And also, we have some listeners that are lining up who have questions for the both of you. So I'm going to ask you to hold on, particularly you, David(ph) in Tulsa, because I'm going to get to you in a few moments.
One of the questions is whether this material, Shane, Scott Shane, is in any way new or separate and apart from the previous WikiLeaks release. Or is this part of that same batch from before just now being made public?
Mr. SHANE: Well, I mean, in a literal sense, we don't really know, we don't have any firsthand knowledge where this material or the previous material got to WikiLeaks. But the U.S. military has charged a young private who's a low-level military analyst with downloading all this material.
The first set of publications were based on documents related to the war in Afghanistan. The second set was documents related to the war in Iraq. And now this is the third set.
COX: Bradley Manning, right?
Mr. SHANE: Bradley Manning is the young man's name. So it appears that this material got to WikiLeaks back in May or June, and they have been sitting on these diplomatic cables apparently since then.
COX: Ambassador, you wanted to make a brief point. We have to take a break, and we'll come back...
Mr. NEUMANN: Very brief, just to note the first two batches can be identified, whatever I think of them, as being part of opposition to two specific wars. These documents are not specifically identifiable with any individual cause or opposition. They are purely focused on the whole breadth of American diplomacy and making it difficult.
COX: I want you to think about whether or not you are concerned about what may yet come after we take this quick break. We are talking about the massive leak of diplomatic cables.
If you have questions about what is in them or the possible fallout for the U.S. and for other governments. Give us a call. Our number, 800-989-8255. You can reach us by email at email@example.com. More with Scott Shane of the New York Times and former Ambassador Ronald Neumann in a moment. Stay with us. I'm Tony Cox. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Tony Cox.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today said: The U.S. deeply regrets the disclosure of any confidential information about relationships with other countries. She refused to comment directly on the cables released by WikiLeaks. Clinton said any leak undermines U.S. relationships but added the United States would withstand this challenge.
The White House, Pentagon and State Department all promised to beef up security measures to make sure this kind of leak doesn't happen again.
If you have questions about what is in these documents, hundreds of thousands of cables, or the possible fallout, give us a call. Our number, 800-989-8255, the email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And just a reminder, today we are talking about what is in those documents. Tomorrow, in part two of this discussion about WikiLeaks, we will get into the ethical issues surrounding it, and we will invite your opinions on that day.
Right now, we are joined by Scott Shane, one of the New York Times reporters covering WikiLeaks' story; and Ronald Neumann, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Afghanistan, now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
Before we went to the break, ambassador, I mentioned to asked you to think about any concerns you would have about documents that have not yet been released. And Scott, I have a question for you, as well.
But before we get to both of those, I'd like to take this caller from Grand Rapids. This is Brian(ph). Brian, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
BRIAN (Caller): Thanks, Tony. Besides giving aid and comfort to our enemies and having a chilling effect on governments around the world, aren't these documents sent encrypted?
COX: Thank you for that. I'm not sure who would be the best person to answer that. Scott, do you know the answer?
Mr. SHANE: I think when they're sent, when they're actually transmitted, they are encrypted. But evidently, you know, these may have been taken from a computer database where they were not encrypted because, you know, people had to read them.
I think often communications like these are encrypted during transmission, but when they're sitting on your computer, you can read them.
COX: Ambassador, do you have anything to add to that?
Mr. NEUMANN: That's exactly correct. They're encrypted to prevent them being intercepted in transmission. But when they're received, you can read them. Otherwise, they wouldn't do you much good.
COX: David in Tulsa, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Welcome.
DAVID (Caller): Thank you so much for taking my call. I just was curious as to whether or not there was a specific cable that was more devastating in terms of the security leak here or just the total volume of information and the fact that they were able to collect that amount of information from these cables.
And the second thing I'll say is I just want your listening audience to know that I'm in love with my best friend, Chelsea(ph). I'll take my answer, my question off the air.
COX: David, thank you for that call. What about that, Scott?
Mr. SHANE: Well, I guess I should say that, you know, it's probably not for me to judge what is more or less devastating and from what point of view. But I should, just to put things in perspective, say that we obtained, we were given all 250,000 cables. We spent some time going through them. We've identified 100 cables that we intend to post.
We then delivered those cables to the State Department and invited their input in terms of what they would be particularly unhappy seeing in print. And...
COX: What did they say?
Mr. SHANE: Well, they said there were three categories of issues that they could identify, and this is pretty much the same thing that Secretary Clinton and others have said publicly.
One is confidential sources for diplomats overseas, particularly in oppressive countries, where someone who might be a government official, might be a human rights activist, comes to the U.S. Embassy and sort of has a candid conversation about politics or conditions in that country and can get in big trouble, perhaps go to prison, perhaps even be executed as a result of if in fact those confidences are disclosed.
So every place that we've been able to identify, with the help of the State Department, those kinds of confidential sources, we've redacted them. We've edited them out of the documents.
COX: Now, we have a caller from Oklahoma City by the name of Ben(ph) who has what I think is a pretty interesting question that I'll put to you, Scott, and then ambassador, we'll have another question for you. Ben, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
BEN (Caller): Yeah, this is Ben.
COX: Yes, Ben, you're on TALK OF THE NATION with Tony Cox. Go ahead, sir.
BEN: Okay, great. Thanks for taking my call. Now the question I've got is, is that the United States so routinely classifies so much information, so much that probably wouldn't even need to be classified, like weather reports and things like that. Doesn't that just create a big vulnerability sitting out there, that we've got so much that's classified, it's going to be lumped in with bombshells like, I don't know, conversations with the president of Yemen, you know?
COX: Let me ask the ambassador first to respond to that. What about that? Thank you for the call, by the way.
Mr. NEUMANN: I think there's some truth, although that's a little overstated. No, actually we don't classify weather reports. A lot of things are classified because getting out in public who says something is sensitive to the person rather than what's said.
For instance, you, I am sure, have a happy family relationship, but someone might say to his wife something derogatory about his mother-in-law, which if his wife went off and told his mother-in-law would have a truly poisonous effect on the entire three-way relationship. And that isn't necessarily going to be a terrible surprise, but - what the person thinks, but having it reported directly becomes a bombshell.
So a lot of stuff is classified in order to allow personal relationships to go forward. And I think that is a legitimate reason for classification for exactly that purpose, so that we can do the business of talking to people.
Yes, there is a huge volume. Military is much larger volume than state reporting, obviously, but the problem is people who want to break a rule, not having a volume that is attackable.
COX: Did you find, Scott, in the materials that you read through that that was the case largely? That a good portion of these documents was about what the ambassador might call family business, perhaps, as opposed to something more politically sensitive?
Mr. SHANE: Well, I mean, it really kind of covers the waterfront. And, I mean, for example, there was a cable directing diplomats to assist the intelligence agencies by collecting biographical information and even things like credit cards and frequent flyer numbers from foreign counterparts to help - apparently to help NSA and other intelligence agencies track travel plans and that sort of thing.
And we know from conversations we've had that some people in the State Department were felt that was improper for diplomats to be, you know, instructed to engage in that kind of activity. It should be kept for the spies. So we found that one newsworthy.
There's certainly many. There are a couple fascinating ones where Ahmad Wali Karzai, the brother, half-brother of Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, had talks with American officials in which both sides were extremely cagey and sort of sizing each other up and the Americans trying to figure out how this Wali Karzai, who is a very powerful figure in Kandahar and therefore very important for the war effort, you know, what they should how they should relate to him and vice versa.
He was telling stories about how he used to run a restaurant near Wrigley Field in Chicago and trying to win the Americans over with sort of nostalgic stories.
So some of it is really sort of inside kind of fly-on-the-wall version of these relations that usually seem quite kind of distant from most people.
COX: I know that you have to leave us very soon Scott Shane from the New York Times. We appreciate the time that you have given us. But I can't let you leave without asking you this question: Did the New York Times in any way have any reservations about printing this material? Was there an editorial discussion about it? And share with us what you are able to about why you decided, the paper, to go ahead and print this material.
Mr. SHANE: Yes, there were extensive conversations about this. I mean, the, you know, the government alleges that these were stolen documents, so to speak, and they were classified. And we, you know, consulted various people and heard some of the arguments that have been made publicly in recent times about the consequences.
So there was extensive concern about this and discussion about this. And I guess the compromise solution that we came up with was we're not going to dump 250,000 unredacted cables on the Web, but that these 100 cables that we selected we thought were newsworthy and could be redacted in such a way as to educate the public, tell, you know, Americans what their government is up to in their name, you know, teach them a little bit about how diplomacy works, and one hopes, we hope, not do any grave damage along the way.
COX: Did the State Department concur? You said that there was discussions between your paper and...
Mr. SHANE: Well, there are ongoing discussions, but, you know, because we have several more stories and a bunch more cables to post. But they - you know, they made a series of requests to us. Some we complied with, some we didn't. So, you know, they certainly did not - I cannot say that we agreed 100 percent on everything that should be redacted, but we did - they did point out some things that were extremely - we were extremely grateful to have shown to us and that we did redact.
COX: Have we seen the worst of it?
Mr. SHANE: I guess - well, there's a lot of interesting information to come. What's interesting is that WikiLeaks itself has not put the quarter million documents online. They've had them for six months, and they still have not put them online. And so far, they're only putting online the same documents that we and the European papers are posting and with the same redactions.
COX: All right, thank you very much. Scott Shane is a reporter for The New York Times. You can read his follow-up stories throughout the week in the Times. He joined us from his office. Again, thank you very much, Scott. We appreciate it.
Mr. SHANE: Thank you. Appreciate it.
COX: Well, we're going to continue the conversation now with Ronald Neumann, the former ambassador to Afghanistan, but we have one quick question that we'd like to get to. This is from - let's see. This is from Ralph in - is it Amana, Iowa? Amana, Iowa?
RALPH (Caller): Yes, it is.
COX: Ralph, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. What's your question?
RALPH: I'm concerned about the privacy rights of American citizens who might be mentioned in these cables. For example, a young Marine guard who is replaced for committing indiscretion with a Polish telephone operator, for example, or an American citizen, a young woman who's involved in something, say, that she regrets later on a beach in South India, reports to the embassy her concerns. And how is that reflected in the release of these cables? And how would the rather self-righteous expression of Scott Shane and the protection of the privacy rights of American citizens taken into account in all of these?
COX: Thank you very much for that call. I'm going to ask you, ambassador, to weigh in on it in part because what he says sounds very similar to me to what you said before.
But let me say this first: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
Mr. NEUMANN: Well, obviously, the man who should be replying is Scott Shane. I'm deeply sympathetic to the question there, and I'm - I guess I'm inclined to snidely say that when The New York Times and other papers have no respect for the rights of the government or the need to get on with privacy in any effective government dealing, why do you expect them to be concerned about the privacy rights of individuals? But, obviously, I'm not the man to answer the question.
COX: Here's a tweet that we've got from Carol. It raises this question. I'd like to get your response to it. Isn't this a form of treason?
Mr. NEUMANN: You know, ultimately, it is a legal definition, and I'm not the lawyer to answer it. I would deeply, deeply like to see every conceivable legal remedy brought to bear against those who have released the documents. I recognize that in talking about legal action against those who print them, that that's not our system. There are constitutional objections to that. I think that I would hope that as much legal action would be taken as possible, and that those who've leaked the documents would be dealt with as severely as possible. Whether, in a technical sense, treason applies is a question I'd like to say yes to, but I think it's a legal question that has to be answered that way.
COX: And I should point out, we are going to have this very discussion on the program tomorrow as we get into the legal...
Mr. NEUMANN: With, hopefully, somebody who could answer it better.
COX: ...and ethical issues. Here's another caller. This is Kevin from St. Joseph, Missouri. Kevin, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
KEVIN (Caller): Yes. Hi, gentlemen. I have a quick question, and actually, it's in two parts. The first part is who, if anyone, other than the United States, stands to lose the most face in the Middle East with the release of these documents? And is this going to affect our ability to work with Iran in trying to curtail nuclear issues?
COX: Thank you, Kevin, for that.
Mr. NEUMANN: That sounds like my aunt's question. The list of who's going to be affected is longer than we'd probably have time for. There are a number of comments about Iran by smaller states of the Persian Gulf. Any of those or all of them could result in threats from Iran. It wouldn't surprise me if we had a terrorist action or two in the Gulf in the next few months, probably without anybody taking responsibility...
COX: As a result of this?
Mr. NEUMANN: ...as a result of this, which the Gulf states will all understand to be a warning - equivalent of a warning shot across the bow from their big neighbor across the Gulf. I don't say it will happen, but it's quite possible. Any number of countries will react badly in having, essentially, their privacy and their expectation of confidentiality quashed in this way. Some of the damage will be very hard to tell, because it will be what people don't tell you in the future what they won't cooperate with that they might have that's very hard to assess that.
In terms of Iran, pretty hard to know whether it gives you any immediate consequence one way or the other. It leaks an awful lot of stuff, but it's mostly people's attitudes about Iran, rather than things we might directly do ourselves. And it certainly limits our ability to put pressure on in some ways, because insofar as it lays out ways that we've gotten countries like China and Russia - they're very important - to come on board with elements of sanctions and embarrasses them, they'll be less likely to cooperate.
COX: We have a little more than a moment - a minute left. There are two things that I'd like to squeeze in, if I can. Number one, can the government shut this website down?
Mr. NEUMANN: I do not know. That's tomorrow's question.
COX: Oh, we'll get that tomorrow. And my other one is this: We've talked about all of the potential problems, some of them ominous sounding, in your view. Is there any benefit at all to the release of these kinds of documents for the American people and beyond our shores?
Mr. NEUMANN: You know, somebody is always going to posture and find a great moral platform to justify any damn thing they've done. I don't think there is any justification commensurate with this, although I supposed as a professional diplomat, I might say that at least we found out that diplomats can write fairly well.
COX: Just a follow-up, really briefly. There is nothing - no kernel of something positive that can be used in the diplomatic community now that you sort of - now that the clothes - the emperor's clothes are off, so to speak?
Mr. NEUMANN: I cannot think of a single useful or positive thing to come out of this for American diplomacy.
COX: Really? What would you do if you were still in the service right now?
Mr. NEUMANN: Well, you bang your head on the wall a few times, and then you sort of dry your eyes and get on with business, because it's the best you can do. You go out and apologize to foreign leaders, and you wait for them to get over their anger and hope it doesn't hurt too bad. But you just have to keep on going.
COX: Ronald Neumann is the former ambassador to Afghanistan and the author of "The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan." He joined us here in Studio 3A. Ambassador, thank you very much for your time.
Mr. NEUMANN: My pleasure. My pleasure.
COX: Up next: how to get more than hot air out of this week's climate summit in Cancun. Bjorn Lomborg joins us on the Opinion Page.
I'm Tony Cox. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.