LONDON (Reuters) - The diplomatic cables so far released by WikiLeaks might embarrass U.S. diplomats but probably won’t shatter any international relationships.
The key lesson so far seems to be just how much easier the information age has made it to steal vast quantities of data — and how much harder it is to keep secrets.
The U.S. and other governments have been keen to talk up the potential diplomatic damage from the release of some 250,000 cables, details of which began to be published Sunday by Western newspapers.
The cables, some of which were released in full and some only in part, revealed confidential — and often unflattering — views and information from senior U.S. diplomats based overseas that would normally have been kept confidential for decades.
Experts and former officials are divided over the impact. Speaking before the release, Italy’s foreign minister Franco Frattini said he feared it would prove the “9/11 of diplomacy” and would “blow up the trust between states.”
Others are much more sanguine, and believe diplomats will continue their long tradition of politeness in public and brutal honesty in the reports back home.
“This won’t restrain dips’ (diplomats) candour,” Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British Ambassador to Washington DC, told Reuters. “But people will be looking at the security of electronic communications and archives. Paper would have been impossible to steal in these quantities.”
That’s a lesson governments have been learning fast. British officials have been embarrassed several times by the loss of discs containing personal data for thousands of members of the general public, while experts say hackers have stolen truckloads of sensitive information from Western corporates.
In the case of the latest release — as with years’ worth of U.S. military logs on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict earlier this year — the cables appear to have been stolen by just one person. U.S. Army private Bradley Manning has been charged with leaking classified information and is in military custody.
“Whoever was behind this leak should be shot and I would volunteer to pull the trigger,” said former U.S. cyber Security and counterterrorism official Roger Cressey, describing it as “pretty devastating.”
“The essence of our foreign policy is our ability to talk straight and honest with our foreign counterparts and to keep those conversations out of the public domain. This massive leak puts that most basic of diplomatic requirements at risk in the future.”
Cressey points to sensitive relations with Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, both key to U.S. strategy against Islamic militancy. The cables include criticism of both countries and details of conversations with their senior officials.
Some western leaders reportedly come in for criticism, including Prime Minister David Cameron. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is described as risk-averse and “rarely creative.”
“It is a sign that in the information age, it is very difficult to keep anything secret,” said Professor Michael Cox, associate fellow at London think tank Chatham House.
“But as to whether it is going to cause the kind of seismic collapse of international relations that governments have been talking about, I somehow doubt. Diplomats have always said rude things about each other in private, and everyone has always known that.”
Some of those who should be most aware of security had been tripped up by the new information age. Last year, security experts were left aghast after the new head of Britain’s secret intelligence service MI6’s wife posted family photos and details on Facebook. Other officials have been forced to apologise after tongue-in-cheek e-mails have ended up in the public domain.
The real beneficiaries from the vast leak, Cox said, were historians, academics and students of international relations who now had a “great treasure trove” of primary evidence to go through. The volume of data is so vast that details may continue to be extracted from it for years to come.
But much remains secret. There are cables, for example, asking U.S. diplomats to forward sensitive information on a variety of national leaders and senior politicians. But that information was sent through more secure channels reserved for sensitive intelligence, and remains largely unpublished.
“Governments have a tendency to keep as much information as possible secret or classified, whether it really needs to be or not,” said Chatham House fellow Cox.
“The really secret information, I would suggest, is still pretty safe and probably won’t end up on WikiLeaks.”
What was more worrying, he said, was the apparent ferocity of government campaigns against the whistleblowing website. WikiLeaks complained it was the victim of a cyber attack shortly before the data was released Sunday, and says sexual assault accusations in Sweden against its founder Julian Assange are also orchestrated by its enemies.
For now, experts say the diplomats in Washington and elsewhere will hurry to reassure allies and soothe ruffled egos. Some may find they are less trusted — particularly now other nations have seen the cables encouraging diplomats to effectively also function as spies.
Former U.S. counterterrorism official Fred Burton, now vice president for risk consultancy Stratfor, said some long-term intelligence-sharing agreements might be jeopardised and the State Department would now be focussed on “serious damage control.”
“But this is what nations do,” he said. “Rule number one in this business. There are no friendly intelligence services.”
Additional reporting by William Maclean; editing by Andrew Roche