The leakage by WikiLeaks of over 200,000 diplomatic cables exchanged between the US State Department and its diplomatic missions abroad could have serious implications for US diplomacy and for the US-led war on terror.
To be successful and effective, diplomacy has to be confidential. It cannot be conducted in the open. By breaching the confidentiality of diplomatic interactions and communications, WikiLeaks has made it difficult for US diplomats to function as they should. In future, their foreign interlocutors will hesitate to talk to them freely and frankly if they conclude that US diplomats cannot maintain the secrecy of the discussions on sensitive issues. This could also have an effect on the war on terror. The war is being fought not only through operational means, but also through diplomatic means. Diplomacy plays an important role in facilitating international co-operation against terrorism. This role could be made difficult in future.
One could note from the documents leaked that many of the important discussions on terrorism were between visiting US officials, including the US Co-ordinator of Counter-Terrorism, and rulers and officials of the countries visited. For example, the Co-ordinator had visited Saudi Arabia and discussed counter-terrorism with the rulers and officials of the Saudi Government. Similarly, he had visited Israel and held discussions with the chief of the Mossad, Israel's external intelligence agency.
Senior US officials had discussed counter-terrorism with leaders and officials of other Islamic countries too. The Muslim leaders and officials had discussed matters relating to terrorism freely and frankly with US officials. They had said many things in private about Al Qaeda which they would not have said in public. These cables would be read not only by analysts and media personnel, but also by the leaders of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. When they find that Muslim rulers and officials were very frank with US officials, their anger against them will increase. As it is, Islamic countries are hesitant to co-operate with the US in the war against Al Qaeda. They will be even more hesitant now.
WikiLeaks is reported to be having in its possession over 3000 cables exchanged between the US State Department and the US Embassy in New Delhi. It has not yet released them [Details are now emerging -- Ed] As such, one does not know their contents. It is likely that some of those messages discuss sensitive matters having a bearing on India's relations with other countries and also touch upon the internal political situation in India. It is the job of diplomats to keep their Foreign Office informed of internal political developments and give their frank assessment of the leadership of the country to which they are accredited. If such frank and sensitive cables leak out, it could damage the mutual trust between the officials and leadership of the two countries.
The same applies to any leakage of the diplomatic cables with the US Embassy in Islamabad. In the case of Pakistan, the implications could be more serious because of the US dependence on Pakistan for the war against Al Qaeda and for the operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The cables do not give details of individual intelligence operations except a US exercise to build a data-base of senior officials of the UN Secretariat, presumably to facilitate the operations of the US intelligence in the UN headquarters. The cables do give details of discussions of US diplomats and visiting US officials with senior intelligence officers of some countries. These officers and their organisations could withdraw into their shell and may not in future be as forthcoming as they were till now in their interactions with US diplomats and officials.
It will be difficult to quantify the damage caused to US diplomacy, but it will be immense.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.