Empire Unmasked

“Secret diplomacy is a necessary tool for a propertied minority, which is compelled to deceive the majority in order to subject it to its interests. Imperialism, with its dark plans of conquest and its robber alliances and deals, developed the system of secret diplomacy to the highest level.”

? Leon Trotsky, Foreign Affairs Commissariat, USSR, 1917.

On November 28, four newspapers and WikiLeaks’ website released the first tranche of almost 250,000 United States State Department and embassy cables. Orchestrated with a great deal of care, the website provided only the 291 cables that were being written about separately by El Pa?s, Der Spiegel, The Guardian and The New York Times. Each day a set of cables saw the light of day and the papers reported on them in tandem.

A few days after the trickle, The Guardian provided a downloadable index of all the cables, with information of their provenance and their dates, but with nothing about their content. It whets the appetite. What we have to look forward to are cables from 274 embassies and the State Department at Foggy Bottom, Washington, DC.

These cables cover the years 1966 to 2010, although the bulk of them belong to the period after 2006. The cables carry such varied material as Ambassadors’ assessments of the political situation in the countries they are deputed to, the State Department’s questions to Ambassadors, and Ambassadors’ or political officers’ reports on meetings they attended. Some Ambassadors and political officers are remarkably perceptive; others are, predictably, duds.

Thus far, just over a thousand cables are in the public domain. WikiLeaks’ public face, Julian Assange, is under arrest in the United Kingdom, and capitals across the world are either in nervous anticipation or in shocked disbelief. There is no question that this deluge by WikiLeaks is the most significant blow to the world of secret diplomacy since the Soviet Union opened the Tsarist correspondence with the grandees of Europe in 1917.

In early 2009, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey wrote to Hillary Clinton to prepare her for her visit with Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit. The cable is a model of diplomatic acumen, providing a character sketch of Gheit (“smart, urbane with a tendency to lecture”) and offering a series of options that Gheit might push Clinton on (such as an invitation to the Gaza Donors’ Conference in Cairo). Scobey, a career foreign services officer, knows her business. No wonder that the Indian Ministry of External Affairs asks its trainee diplomats to study the cables “and get a hang of the brevity with which thoughts and facts have been expressed”.

Early in the cable, however, Scobey reveals the problem with her profession. She correctly points out to Hillary Clinton that Gheit “may not raise human rights (specifically Ayman Nour), political reform, or democratisation; but you should”. Ayman Nour is the leader of the El Ghad liberal party who had been in Cairo’s prisons since 2005 (he was released shortly after Clinton’s meeting with Gheit).

The problem here is that while Scobey tried to push the agenda of human rights in one room, in other, more shadowy rooms, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and military intelligence officials of the U.S. carried a more powerful brief. Since 1995, the U.S. government has provided the Egyptian secret service (the Mukhabarat) with various prisoners through the extraordinary rendition programme. These prisoners, often suspected of being Al Qaeda members, are alleged to have been tortured in those very jails that Ambassador Scobey criticised.

Idealism vs new diplomacy

What the cables demonstrate, therefore, is the blind idealism of the State Department, which has been sidelined by the new diplomacy in the shadows conducted by the U.S. government’s arms of war.

In cable after cable, we read of the visits of U.S. military officials and their conversations with heads of state in various countries. The Ambassadors act as fixers or go-betweens for these military luminaries. For instance, Ambassador Stephen Seche, another career diplomat, filed a cable from Sana’a, Yemen, in January 2010 on General David Petraeus’ meeting with Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Seche sat by as stenographer as Petraeus and Saleh colluded against Yemeni sovereignty and the U.S. public ? the U.S. has an active military presence in Yemen, and is at war there, something that is not known in the U.S. and has not been admitted to the Yemeni Parliament.

“We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh told Petraeus. His Deputy, Rashad al-Alimi, said he had just lied to Parliament, telling it that the bombs are American, but fired by Yemenis.

Petraeus pointed out that Saleh must tell the Yemeni customs to stop “holding up embassy cargo at the airport, including shipments destined for the [Yemeni government] itself, such as equipment of [Yemen’s counter terrorism unit]”. In other words, the diplomatic pouch no longer carries only letters; it now carries military hardware.

In 2007, Deputy Chief of Mission in Berlin John Koenig wrote to the State Department after a briefing at the German Chancellery. The Bush administration was afraid that the German government would pursue a case against the 13 CIA agents who were responsible for the extraordinary rendition of a German national, Khalid el-Masri. The CIA kidnapped, tortured and then released El-Masri when they discovered that they had the wrong man. The Germans found out the names of the agents and traced their orders to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

As legal scholar Lisa Hajjar put it to me, “the cables indicate that the U.S. exerted political pressure on the German legal and political system to shut down the criminal case, a serious and unlawful intervention in the domestic law enforcement process of a sovereign state.” Once more the embassy is doing the legwork of the CIA and the NSA, both of whom have begun to run foreign policy but use the State Department to clean up behind them.

Even here, diplomacy is reduced to naked power. The Deputy Chief of Mission “pointed out that our intention was not to threaten Germany, but rather to urge that the German government weigh carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations with the U.S.” This is, of course, a threat. Much the same dance took place in Madrid.

Spying on U.N. staff

No surprise then that the State Department, in July 2009, asks its embassy staff to collect credit card information, frequent-flyer numbers and biometric data of members of the United Nations Security Council and of the U.N. Secretary-General. What is revealing is that we do not know who has asked the State Department to collect this information and what will be done with it.

It is unlikely that the State Department has use for such information; more likely that this goes off into the entrails of the Defence Intelligence Agency, the CIA and the NSA. These shadowy entities are the only ones with the wherewithal to use this kind of data. They have smothered the capacity of the more urbane State Department to conduct its kind of handshake diplomacy.

The embassy now appears as the emissary of the military and the CIA. This is precisely what Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke meant when he called for the diplomatic arm to be a “support for the military”.

Cloak and Download

The WikiLeaks cable dump brought embarrassment to capitals across the world. In Beijing there were shudders when the U.S. cables quote officials calling the North Koreans “spoilt children” and when the cables pointed fingers at Chinese officials for the cyber-attack on Google.

A tremor crossed Buckingham Palace when the well-written cable from Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller showed up Prince Andrew’s nasty side. Ex-government officials in London blushed when the cables suggested that they had released the Libyan prisoner Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi because of pressure from Tripoli, where Gaddafi must be unhappy that the world knows that he cannot climb more than 35 steps at a time.

Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi must enjoy the notations about his notorious party-life, as much as Germany’s Angela Merkel must despise the characterisation that she “avoids risk and is seldom creative”.


The cables from the Gulf had the royals, in a position of utter subservience, telling the Ambassadors what they think the U.S. wants to hear: during the Bush administration begging them to attack Iran, and then during the Obama administration calling for tougher sanctions.

The Gulf royals are a mirror of Washington’s whims. American and Israeli newspapers saw the selective calls for a military attack on Iran as confirmation of the views of their own governments.

If Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan called for Iran’s nuclear programme to be stopped “by all means available”, on another day his government was “clearly nervous about any U.S. actions that could upset their much larger and militarily superior neighbour”. By 2009, the Crown Prince worried that a military strike “would have little impact on Iran’s capabilities”, even as he fulminated, “Ahmedinejad is Hitler” (the last quote was highlighted in The New York Times).

Evidence of U.S. operations in Yemen was not as devastating as evidence of its Special Force operations in South Waziristan. Ambassador Anne Patterson’s agony is evident. In February 2009, she wrote to Washington that the relationship with Pakistan is “transactional in nature,” as well as “based on mutual mistrust”. “Pakistan hedges its bets on cooperation because it fears the U.S. will again desert Islamabad after we get Osama bin Laden,” she wrote perceptively. “Washington sees this hesitancy as duplicity that requires we take unilateral action to protect U.S. interests. After 9/11, then President [Pervez] Musharraf made a strategic shift to abandon the Taliban and support the U.S. in the war on terror, but neither side believes the other has lived up to expectations flowing from that decision. The relationship is one of co-dependency we grudgingly admit ? Pakistan knows the U.S. cannot afford to walk away; the U.S. knows Pakistan cannot survive without our support.” It is hardly the kind of thing that the State Department would like to have in the public domain, even as it demonstrates that Washington does not operate without the benefit of reality.

Everybody denounced the leaks and rejected the claims made by U.S. Ambassadors. Washington, DC, reacted in an obvious way. It went after the messenger. A charge that Julian Assange did not use a condom when he had consensual sexual relations in Sweden (which has some of the best rape laws in the world) was resurrected miraculously by the prosecution office in Gothenburg; the Swedish Chief Prosecutor, Eva Finne, had declined to prosecute the case in August of this year.

The American right wing went off the deep end, with several prominent people calling for the assassination of Assange. Even Democrats lost their commitment to free speech ? Senator Diane Feinstein called for Assange to be jailed for 2.5 million years (a 10-year sentence for each offence, and with 250,000 documents the sentence is biblical). Senator Joe Lieberman put pressure on Amazon to remove WikiLeaks from their web server. It complied, and so did MasterCard, Visa, Tableau, PayPal and EveryDNS. The Hindu’s editorial on December 5 called this a procedure of “Digital McCarthyism”.

Why is there this massive outrage at these cables when there was virtual silence at the release of the Iraq and Afghan war logs? These cables show the elite at their venal worst, conniving with each other, making light of each other’s failings. Imagine what must be in the Russian diplomatic dispatches or those of the Saudi intelligence services. The war logs, on the other hand, showed the misadventures of teenaged working-class soldiers, suborned to a war that they did not understand. Their violence was dismissed as the work of a few “bad apples”, men and women who had not been sufficiently civilised. In these cables, on the other hand, the civilised talk about their “dark plans of conquest”. It is an abomination.

Before his arrest Assange took on the liberal concept of free speech. In a chat on The Guardian website, he noted, “The West has fiscalised its basic power relationships through a web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings, and so on. In such an environment, it is easy for speech to be ‘ free’ because a change in political will rarely leads to any change in these basic instruments. Western speech, as something that rarely has any effect on power, is like birds and badgers.”

Assange’s dry, elliptical wit emerged once more in his last published dispatch ( The Australian, “Don’t Shoot the Messenger for Revealing Uncomfortable Truths,” December 8). Here he compared his endeavour to the campaign of Rupert Murdoch’s father Keith. Keith Murdoch fought to bring to light the sacrifices of Australian troops at Gallipoli because of muddled British commanders. “In the race between secrecy and truth,” the elder Murdoch wrote, “it seems inevitable that truth will always win.” Assange then went on to say, “Democratic societies need a strong media and WikiLeaks is part of that media. The media helps keep government honest. WikiLeaks has revealed some hard truths about the Iraq and Afghan wars, and broken stories about corporate corruption.”

The point about “corporate corruption” is withering. WikiLeaks has already announced that it is set to release documents from a major U.S. bank. In haste, Bank of America pre-emptively said it may be the bank. It wants to take the sting out of the surprise.

When the talk of assassination heated up, Assange and his team released an insurance file to their allies. This heavily encrypted file contains damaging material on British Petroleum, Guantanamo Bay and other matters. It sits on computers, awaiting the 256-digit key. The WikiLeaks team has appropriately called this the Doomsday File.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

A version of this piece originally ran in Frontline.


Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).