Foreign Policy Blogs

WikiLeaks Grave Attack on US Foreign Policy

It may not be immediately apparent to some, but the release of top secret US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks  – a website that relishes the leaking of state secrets, with a founder, Julian Assange, of questionable character (read more on that here) – poses serious and harmful threats to American diplomats and their contacts in foreign corridors; to existing operations in foreign lands; to our sometimes delicate relations with foreign nations and their leaders, and ultimately to our national security strategy with potentially dangerous regimes in places like North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. My colleague Shaun Donaldson on the Power Politics blog outlines a compelling case on these points. More specifically, the WikiLeaks release of diplomatic cables undermines the US position on sensitive nuclear weapons negotiations with unstable regimes in Pakistan and North Korea; it reveals our economic foreign policy end-game with China and Russia on issues like currency devaluation, the role of the Greenback as the global currency standard, and the accumulation of US Treasury debt by foreign nations; and most important, it undermines our status and trustworthiness in foreign capitols from this day forward. From my view, the release of these cables – even in the name of constitutionally protected free speech – is, in the least, professionally profligate and downright irresponsible.  At worst, it can only be seen as a broad based attack on US Foreign Policy operations.


The only public good this serves is to satiate a shallow and puerile fascination in the workings of necessarily confidential diplomatic channels.  This leak can hardly be justified in light of the real and perceived harm it creates.  Afterall, direct, candid, unvarnished communications is a necessary tool of diplomats and diplomatic analysis that is fed back to Washington in order to make clear-headed assessments and decisions in our foreign policies. Not to mention that ultimately this leak leads to legislative actions that can, and will, erode those freedoms which we hold so dear.  Even now as I write these words, the recriminations have begun and Congressmen, being led by US Rep Peter King (R-NY) – incoming Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee – have already begun to mount-up a legislative offensive against the harm that WikiLeaks poses to our national security.


us-diplomats-as-spiesThat said, the notion that we are using diplomats and US foreign service personnel to spy and to collect intelligence – sometimes even of a personal nature such as credit card information & frequent flier miles – on their foreign contacts poses a serious threat to the future of legitimate intelligence gathering, on foreign relations and on contact management by our field operatives or foreign service officers.  A serious trust has been breached on two levels. First, by WikiLeaks so that nary a foreign contact will wish ever to speak, or at least speak with candor, to even the lowliest Foreign Service personnel. But second, also by the notion, and the threat to life and limb, that we use our Foreign Service personnel as low-cost ‘Humint‘ spies. That’s why I believe you’ll find the article below of even more interest. 

(NYTs) WASHINGTON — The United States has expanded the role of American diplomats in collecting intelligence overseas and at the United Nations, ordering State Department personnel to gather the credit card and frequent-flier numbers, work schedules and other personal information of foreign dignitaries. Revealed in classified State Department cables, the directives, going back to 2008, appear to blur the traditional boundaries between statesmen and spies.


The cables give a laundry list of instructions for how State Department employees can fulfill the demands of a “National Humint Collection Directive.” (“Humint” is spy-world jargon for human intelligence collection.) One cable asks officers overseas to gather information about “office and organizational titlecia-seals; names, position titles and other information on business cards; numbers of telephones, cellphones, pagers and faxes,” as well as “internet and intranet ‘handles’, internet e-mail addresses, web site identification-URLs; credit card account numbers; frequent-flier account numbers; work schedules, and other relevant biographical information.” The cables, sent to embassies in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the United States mission to the United Nations, provide no evidence that American diplomats are actively trying to steal the secrets of foreign countries, work that is traditionally the preserve of spy agencies. While the State Department has long provided information about foreign officials’ duties to the Central Intelligence Agency to help build biographical profiles, the more intrusive personal information diplomats are now being asked to gather could be used by the National Security Agency for data mining and surveillance operations. A frequent-flier number, for example, could be used to track the travel plans of foreign officials. Several of the cables also asked diplomats for details about the telecommunications networks supporting foreign militaries and intelligence agencies. The United States regularly puts undercover intelligence officers in countries posing as diplomats, but a vast majority of diplomats are not spies. Several retired ambassadors, told about the information-gathering assignments disclosed in the cables, expressed concern that State Department employees abroad could routinely come under suspicion of spying and find it difficult to do their work or even risk expulsion.  Ronald E. Neumann, a former American ambassador to Afghanistan, Algeria and Bahrain, said that Washington was constantly sending requests for voluminous information about foreign countries. But he said he was puzzled about why Foreign Service officers — who are not trained in clandestine collection methods — would be asked to gather information like credit card numbers…


Read more here.


Sources:  ARS, Reuters, Guardian (UK), WSJ, NYT                Video: CNN

  • First, from the link to news article on the notion of Assange’s “questionable character”:

    “The exact nature of the allegations facing Assange aren’t completely clear. Stephens has in the past described them as a part of “a post-facto dispute over consensual, but unprotected sex.” Even Swedish prosecutors have disagreed about whether to label the most serious charge as rape.”

    Nothing like a good old-fashioned witch-hunt to detract from the really important issues!

    Second, what exactly does a “broad based attack on US Foreign Policy operations” mean? More importanty, what would be its consequences? Or more trenchantly – would they make any significant difference in the way that international relations are conducted?

    Further, your own featuring of the NYT article indicates that foreign service officers have been asked – by Washington, no less – to collect info such as credit card and frequent flyer numbers of non-Americans. Even if such occurences may not actually happen on a large scale, a revelation like this is certainly a wake-up call to the rest of the world that the US government depends somewhat on this kind of ‘Humint’, low-cost or not.

    My position, finally, echoes Steven Walt’s:

    • Roderick,

      Thank you for reading the Global Markets blog. I appreciate your thoughtful comment, and will reply only to two points where we don’t necessarily disagree, as much as we diverge of the essential point. Namely, I happen to agree that this should serve as a wake-up call on the nefarious tactics and extent to which governments are willing to encroach upon individual liberties and the collection of personal information. True, everyone should rightly be concerned about that. But let’s not lose the forest for the trees: the malicious leaking of necessarily private diplomatic communications goes way beyond the pale of free speech protection when it harms, as this leak does, national security — not justof the United States, but other governments as well. Secondly, requiring FSO to serve as low-cost HumInt agents unnecessarily places American citizens in jeopardy by exposing them to the sometimes nefarious activites of the ‘black arts’ (espionage) that often happens outside the reach of the law. It also places FSO contacts of being exposed, jeopardized, or undermined in their own countries; and seriously harms the trust and the ability to collect information in the future. This was a direct and malicious attack and compromise of US Foreign Policy, national security, and the ability of our foreign service personnel to form relationships or collect information going forward. Simply states the WikiLeaks leak was egregious and malicious and Mr. Assange should be held as accountable as the Army intelligence private that allegedly supplied the information.

      My criticism of of Assange & WikiLeaks reason d’etra is closely aligned with ZunguZungu’s Blog, which says “to summarize, he (Assange) begins by describing a state like the US as essentially an authoritarian conspiracy, and then reasons that the practical strategy for combating that conspiracy is to degrade its ability to conspire, to hinder its ability to “think” as a conspiratorial mind. The metaphor of a computing network is mostly implicit, but utterly crucial: he seeks to oppose the power of the state by treating it like a computer and tossing sand in its diodes.” In otherwords, Assange is a conspiracy theorist and patently absurd in the manner he goes about fighting his fight.

      As for your defense of Mr. Assange’s character, it’s interesting that you seek to defend his rights, while overlooking, or worse, minimizing the allegations of the victim — as if there should be no accountability for Assange to answer the charges in the court of law.

      Again, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

      E. Elliott


Elison Elliott
Elison Elliott

Elison Elliott , a native of Belize, is a professional investment advisor for the Global Wealth and Invesment Management division of a major worldwide financial services firm. His experience in the global financial markets span over 18 years in both the public and private sectors. Elison is a graduate, cum laude, of the City College of New York (CUNY), and completed his Masters-level course requirements in the International Finance & Banking (IFB) program at Columbia University (SIPA). Elison lives in the northern suburbs of New York City. He is an avid student of sovereign risk, global economics and market trends, and enjoys writing, aviation, outdoor adventure, International travel, cultural exploration and world affairs.

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