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Deadly Gossip

The culture of leaking grows to ominous proportions.

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By LEE SMITH
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Many here in the United States have been quick to dismiss the significance of the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks as little more than foreign policy gossip. Unfortunately, this is not how it’s playing in the rest of the world, particularly in the Middle East. In that conspiracy theory-rich region, nothing the Americans do is by accident.

Deadly Gossip

For instance, the Iraq war and the subsequent sectarian fighting was seen in some precincts of the Levant as the consummation of a project to divide and conquer the Arabs at the behest of Israel—a plan allegedly laid out in a letter written by Henry Kissinger in 1976. Never mind that no such correspondence ever existed—just two weeks ago Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah cited the three-decade-old fictional memo to dishearten his Lebanese rivals in the pro-American camp. 

With WikiLeaks, then, it’s hardly surprising that these same U.S. adversaries have turned an intelligence dump into an opportunity for disinformation. According to one rumor consistent with Hezbollah’s propaganda campaign, a soon-to-be-leaked diplomatic cable will show that senior American envoys have tried to scuttle the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The message coming from Hezbollah and its allies is loud and clear: The Americans’ deep plan is to betray their Arab allies, not protect them. 

Hence, WikiLeaks mastermind Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, the soldier who downloaded the cables and shared them with Assange, have handed America’s enemies in the Middle East another weapon in their war against U.S. citizens, interests, and allies.

If every American action in the region is seen as part of a carefully choreographed campaign, friendly Arab regimes must be wondering why Washington is looking to embarrass them by “leaking” these cables right now. Yemeni president Ali Saleh probably no longer thinks it’s funny that he offered to take credit for U.S. air attacks on al Qaeda militants in his country. Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman must wish that he had chosen his words about Hamas a bit more carefully. Saudi King Abdullah likely would have found less provocative imagery than his description of the Iranians as snakes.

Presidents, kings, and intelligence chiefs of hard security regimes can protect themselves, but other U.S. allies are in a much more precarious position. For instance, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri might have avoided telling the Americans to bomb Iran had he known his counsel would be revealed during his trip to Tehran. Current and former U.S. allies among the Lebanese are particularly vulnerable since the Bush administration played an active role there, encouraging local actors to stand up for democracy. From the perspective of the Iranian-led resistance bloc, this amounted to taking sides against Hezbollah, Damascus, and Tehran, and siding with the United States and Israel. Some of these cables will substantiate that charge, and Washington has shown little inclination, or ability, to protect its own.

One cable reports that Lebanese defense minister Elias Murr explained how his country’s armed forces would stay out of the way if Israel wanted to take a shot at Hezbollah. In another, acting commander of the Lebanese army Major General Shawki al-Masri asked for attack helicopters to confront Hezbollah.

The Murr and Masri cables were leaked to a pro-Hezbollah Beirut daily, one of the local papers that WikiLeaks has been feeding on the sidelines of its primary campaign in the Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel. While the leaks coming from these major European papers are getting most of the attention, it is in these smaller, local markets around the world where U.S. interests are likely to be hit hardest, and where American allies, like Murr and Masri, are most vulnerable. Some of our allies will surely lose their lives thanks to the adolescent self-righteousness of Assange and Manning.

What may be worse for Washington than our regional allies’ thinking the leaks were part of a clever, vicious intelligence operation, is the prospect that they will conclude it is not intentional, that rather, this massive dump is just the result of American incompetence. Our European friends will forgive us after they have had a laugh at our expense. But in the Middle East, our lack of seriousness and resolve, and our inability to stop a cyber-Chomsky from undermining our foreign policy, will entail a loss of prestige and honor. These abstractions may mean little to the newspaper editors who discount the importance of the leaks while plastering them across their front pages, but they are concepts for which others are prepared to kill and die. 

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