Why EL PAÍS chose to publish the leaks
By Javier Moreno
El Pais, Dec. 23, 2010
1. The leak and its consequences.
When WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange called my cellphone on a Friday afternoon in November, I could barely hear him. The conversation, held amid the usual tumult of Rome’s airport on a weekend, was strangely short. Assange talked slowly, making sure to pronounce each word carefully, his deep, almost baritone voice, reducing itself almost to a whisper at the end of each sentence. A few moments before the conversation, I had noticed how the Italian police seemed particularly interested in the little luggage that I was carrying, and that as the phone had rung, they were examining the cloth that I had used to wipe the screen of my iPad. Were they looking for drugs, or explosives, or both?
Assange, as far as I could tell at that time, was willing to give EL PAÍS access to 250,000 cablegrams sent between the US State Department and its embassies in around 30 countries, garnered as a result of the largest leak of secret documents in history.
When we talked again, two days later, this time in much greater depth, the full magnitude of the undertaking that has become known as “cablegate” began to make itself clear. At the same time, I began to realize the repercussions that publishing the material would have on US foreign policy, as well as on the reputation of the US government; that of its allies; its enemies; for the future of journalism; and on the debate regarding freedom of information in Western democracies.
Nearly a month after The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and EL PAÍS began publishing the leaked information, we can draw at least one initial conclusion. Rather than sparking an acute state of supranational security crisis, as predicted by some observers, Washington and Europe’s political elites have reacted with a mixture of irritation and embarrassed annoyance that is extremely informative as to the true scope and meaning of the WikiLeaks documents.
Before a single line had been published, there had been a barrage of public and private admonishment, with grave warnings emanating from Washington about irresponsibility and illegality. Editors involved in the project were told that publishing the material in our power – both the stories written by our reporters and the cables they were based on – would endanger dozens of lives, ruin diplomatic efforts in the fight against global terrorism and irrevocably weaken the international coalition led by the United States by exposing its allies to such embarrassing situations that it would hinder or prevent future cooperation.
I was far from surprised when US President Barack Obama described the leaks as deplorable, and much less when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated his condemnation, using almost the same words, at the press conference she held in Washington to condemn WikiLeaks and express her regret at the decision by the five newspapers concerned to ignore the pleas of her government not to publish. What the material soon revealed confirmed the State Department’s worst fears, and triggered bitter complaints by diplomats worldwide. Not only were reprehensible actions and orders exposed; the cables also provided ample evidence of the doublespeak engaged in by Washington’s allies on a range of topics.
2. America, just doing its job.
I don’t have the details at hand right now, but it seems clear that the US Administration soon concluded that its initial strategy of condemning the publication of confidential information and predicting diplomatic apocalypse, was not having the desired result. So a new, very different strategy was crafted that soon found its way into countless editorials and opinion pieces in major newspapers, magazines and television networks in the US and elsewhere.
This new spin, endorsed mainly by conservative media outlets, showed that rather than being duplicitous, US diplomats are unafraid to criticize the governments of the countries they are based in, and highly skilled at dealing with wily foreign leaders.
Rather than showcasing Washington’s failures, the leaked cables show that in private, officials actually live up to the same high-minded principles proclaimed in public. In short, the United States shows greater regard for international security than for its own interests.
In the case of Spain, the homegrown version of this spin in much of the media was that the leaked cables are of little value, telling us nothing that we didn’t already know, and thus not worth reporting on. This approach was picked up on by radio and television commentators and chat shows, where journalists would sit around dismissing the content of the cables, playing down their likely impact, and ignoring, either through sheer laziness – or for political reasons – the mounting tide of interest that the leaked documents were creating both at home and around the world.
3. Lying to the people.
But as we know, millions of readers of newspapers, websites, blogs, and other media around the planet have taken a keen interest in the cables. I believe that the global interest sparked by the WikiLeaks papers is mainly due to the simple but very powerful fact that they conclusively reveal the extent to which politicians in the advanced Western democracies have been lying to their citizens. The same could obviously be said of less democratic governments in other parts of the world, and would surprise nobody, but that would be the subject of a whole new essay.
That said, it is sufficient to illustrate the point by noting the response from the regime in Cuba, which at first was jubilant at the embarrassing situation that the United States now found itself in. But that sense of jubilation quickly faded as the published cables revealed the extent of Havana’s undercover involvement in Venezuela and other Latin American countries, as well as the degree to which the Caribbean island’s economy had deteriorated. Finally, the Cuban authorities complained to EL PAÍS, even resorting to insults.
By releasing the US State Department cables, WikiLeaks has opened a very large can of worms indeed, and there is not enough space here to go into details. But for the purposes of my argument here, it is necessary to mention those that directly affect the democratic principles that our societies are supposedly built on. There is also the question of what might be called the moral collateral damage that the leaks have created, and that comes at a time of growing skepticism on the part of the electorate about what our governments get up to, supposedly in our name.
Tens of thousands of soldiers are fighting a war in Afghanistan that their respective leaders know is not winnable. Tens of thousands of soldiers are shoring up a government known around the world to be corrupt, but which is tolerated by those who sent the soldiers there in the first place. The WikiLeaks cables show that none of the Western powers believes that Afghanistan can become a credible nation in the medium term, and much less become a viable democracy, despite the stated aims of those whose soldiers are fighting and dying there. Few people have been surprised to learn that the Afghan president has been salting away millions of dollars in overseas aid in foreign bank accounts with the full cognizance of his patrons.
Meanwhile, next door, Pakistan is awash with corruption as well. It also has a decaying nuclear arsenal that is a major security risk. The country funds terrorist activity against its neighbor India and many countries in the West.
Money from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates is also used to fund Sunni terrorist groups; but as these governments are allies of the United States, Washington prefers to remain silent, excluding them from its list of sponsors of terrorism or those belonging to what the Bush regime dubbed “the axis of evil.” Clinton, or one of her direct subordinates, gave the order to carry out espionage within the United Nations, and not just on representatives of so-called rogue states, but on the UN secretary general himself. In turn, he has so far failed to demand an explication for this flagrant breach of international law.
We may have suspected our governments of underhand dealings, but we did not have the proof that WikiLeaks has provided. We now know that our governments were aware of the situations mentioned above, and, what is more, they have hidden the facts from us. I no longer think that commentators such as John Naughton were exaggerating when they compared the Karzai regime in Afghanistan with the corrupt and incompetent puppet government that the United States put in place in South Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. By the same token, Washington and NATO are seemingly becoming increasingly mired in a campaign bearing uncomfortable parallels with the war in Vietnam.
4. The incompetence of political elites.
Cynics will argue that none of what we have learned from WikiLeaks differs from the usual way in which high-level international politics is conducted, and that without diplomatic secrets, the world would be even less manageable and more dangerous for everyone. Political classes on both sides of the Atlantic convey a simple message that is tailored to their advantage: trust us, don’t try to reveal our secrets; in exchange, we offer you security.
But just how much security do they really offer in exchange for this moral blackmail? Little or none, since we face the sad paradox that this is the same political elite that was incapable of properly supervising the international financial system, whose implosion triggered the biggest crisis since 1929, ruining entire countries and condemning millions of workers to unemployment and poverty. These are the same people responsible for the deteriorating quality of life of their populations, the uncertain future of the euro, the lack of a viable European project and the global governance crisis that has gripped the world in recent years, and which elites in Washington and Brussels are not oblivious to. I doubt that keeping embassy secrets under wraps is any kind of guarantee of better diplomacy or that such an approach offers us better answers to the problems we face.
The incompetence of Western governments, and their inability to deal with the economic crisis, climate change, corruption, or the illegal war in Iraq and other countries has been eloquently exposed in recent years. Now, thanks to WikiLeaks, we also know that our leaders are all too aware of their shameful fallibility, and that it is only thanks to the inertia of the machinery of power that they have been able to fulfill their democratic responsibility and answer to the electorate.
The powerful machinery of state is designed to suppress the flow of truth and to keep secrets secret. We have seen in recent weeks how that machine has been put into action to try to limit the damage caused by the WikiLeaks revelations.
Given the damage they have suffered at the hands of WikiLeaks, it is not hard to see why the United States and other Western governments have been unable to resist the temptation of focusing attention on Julian Assange. He seems an easy enough target, and so they have sought to question his motivation and the way that WikiLeaks works. They have also sought to question why five major news organizations with prestigious international reputations agreed to collaborate with Assange and his organization. These are reasonable questions, and they have all been answered satisfactorily over the last four weeks, despite the pressure put on us by government, and worse still, by many of our colleagues in the media.
5. Assange and working procedures.
Two senior journalists from EL PAÍS met with Assange in Switzerland on several occasions, but I have only met him once, although I have spoken to him on the telephone several times. Those conversations were limited to establishing a timetable for publication of the leaked documents, and to agree on measures to protect the lives of people who might face the death sentence, or were operating in countries where there were no legal guarantees.
It is also important to establish that at no time did Assange ask for money in return for providing access to the leaked documents, nor would EL PAÍS have agreed to such terms. The documents’ reliability are beyond question, and nobody – not even opponents of their publication – have questioned their authenticity. The obstinate focus on Assange and his methods, the scrutiny of his motivations, and the repeated attempts to destroy his personal reputation all reflect the colossal lack of respect that US diplomats show for the laws, rules and procedures in the countries where they carry out their missions – beginning with Spain, if the published cables are anything to go by.
We must not lose sight of the fact that the important thing about the WikiLeaks revelations are the revelations themselves, despite the media choosing to focus a substantial amount of its coverage on supposed shady deals that the newspapers involved have cut with Assange; on the way that WikiLeaks is financed; the organization’s alleged lack of transparency; and, worse still, on the allegations of sexual impropriety on his part.
Leaving aside the debate about the future of journalism and new technology in the WikiLeaks age, there is no doubting that the information made available by the whistleblower site is of paramount interest, despite the efforts of governments to hide or ignore the damage that they have caused. For example, after three weeks of revelations, it is now abundantly clear that the US Embassy in Madrid pressured, conspired, and did everything in its power to achieve goals that no ambassador would ever have dared suggest in public, much less insist upon.
Even the least attentive observer cannot fail to be shocked by the maneuvers to shut down three investigations by the High Court that affected the United States, or by the efforts to force Spanish companies and banks to cease trading with Iran, even though they were acting within the boundaries of international law.
Fortunately, Spain’s judges are fiercely independent – as the US ambassador bitterly pointed out on more than one occasion. By the same token, this country’s business and financial community knew that it was not breaking international law by trading with Iran. Nevertheless, the US Embassy exercised obscene pressure in a bid to achieve its aims, as the leaked documents published by EL PAÍS show.
6. A question of ethics.
I don’t know who gave the order. I don’t know if came directly from Washington, or if the US ambassador came up with the idea himself. But it is clear from the cables that the US Embassy in Madrid was determined to stop Spanish companies from doing business with Iran. To this end, the Embassy did not hesitate to employ whatever method it deemed necessary, with no heed to the potential costs. And those costs were high. It was equally aggressive in trying to derail Spanish judicial inquiries into torture at Guantánamo, the CIA’s kidnapping of suspected Islamic militants, and the killing by US troops in Iraq of a Spanish cameraman in 2003.
It may yet emerge that the US Embassy broke the law in pursuing its country’s perceived interests. But in any event, what the WikiLeaks cables show is an all-too close relationship between the US Embassy, Spanish government and judicial officials that can only be a threat to the democratic health of this country.
We have also seen how US diplomats in Berlin warned the German government of the serious consequences of bringing charges against CIA agents accused of kidnapping Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen who was abducted and taken to Afghanistan where he was tortured. El-Masri was then dumped in Albania when it was realized they had the wrong man. Kidnapping and torture are serious crimes. For US diplomats to pressure an ally to prevent suspects from being investigated is unacceptable, and trashes the idea that those diplomats are just doing their job.
With regards to Spain’s trade with Iran, the US mission here contacted the Bank of Spain, which happily provided information about Spanish banks’ involvement there. Reading the replies sent by the central bank, I was left with the sensation that the US Embassy here enjoys a worrying degree of influence over our institutions.
The Couso case, investigating the death of the Spanish cameraman in Baghdad, remains open, a fact which to some extent saves the honor of Spain’s judicial system. The meager degree of commercial and financial interests on the part of the Spanish banks concerned served little to advance the cause of the ayatollahs. But, in pursuit of such a squalid gain, there was no hesitation in steamrolling proper procedures. A democracy comprises diverse elements: institutions and rules; free and fair elections; independent judges and a free press, among others. At the bottom of all this there are legal procedures. When these are flouted, all the rest is put at risk.
We have come to accept the difference between the government that we elect every five years, and the military, bureaucratic, and diplomatic apparatus that it is sustained by, but that all too often it fails to control. The WikiLeaks cables have confirmed this beyond any doubt.
This does not mean that Obama or Clinton are exempt from explaining their country’s approach to international diplomacy – simply that what we have come to learn through the leaked documents that this approach was a constant, regardless of who occupies the White House.
7. The obligations of the media.
As Simon Jenkins of The Guardian wrote earlier this month, power hates to see the truth exposed. I would add that above all, power fears the truth when the truth doesn’t fit its needs. I knew immediately after I received the first call from Assange that Friday in late November that EL PAÍS had a great story on its hands, and that it was our duty to publish it.
Then came the talks with other newspapers, weighing up the pros and cons, a careful evaluation of the likely consequences, and the subsequent doubts that kept many of us at the paper awake at nights. But despite our concerns, there was something that all of us involved in the process never doubted for an instant: we had a responsibility to the democracies that we live in to publish the story. Revealing the truth is the touchstone of true journalism, and the reason we get out of bed in the morning.
I am aware that publishing this information contrary to the wishes of my government has involved certain risks. But I am also aware that by publishing this detailed account of what our governments get up to in our name has made a contribution to the empowering of voters, and will hopefully strengthen their will to improve our democracy.
It is the prerogative of governments, not the press, to bury secrets for as long as they can, and I will not argue with this as long as it does not cover up deceitful acts against citizens. But a newspaper’s main task is to publish news, and to seek out news where it can find it. As I said in a recent online chat with EL PAÍS readers, newspapers have many obligations in a democratic society: responsibility, truthfulness, balance and a commitment to citizens. Our obligations definitely do not, however, include protecting governments and the powerful in general from embarrassing revelations.