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Nikolas Kozloff

Nikolas Kozloff

Posted: January 19, 2011 09:15 PM

If anyone had any doubts about WikiLeaks' potential to exert profound political change, recent events in Tunisia may serve to undermine such skepticism. As the civil unrest unfolds, some will wonder what actually caused the fall of the despotic Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime. While it would be a stretch to argue that Tunisia represents the first "WikiLeaks revolution," it's clear that some U.S. cables emanating from the American Embassy in Tunis severely tarnished the local government's reputation. The documents, which reported on embarrassing corruption plaguing the Ben Ali regime, were widely discussed amongst Tunisian bloggers and fueled long-simmering tensions within civil society.

Perhaps, then, WikiLeaks represented the straw that broke the camel's back. As he observes the volatile political scene in North Africa, Julian Assange might feel as if his wildest expectations have been superseded. Indeed, some are already discussing the possibility of unrest crossing over into neighboring countries, exerting a kind of "domino-like effect" throughout the autocratic Arab world. How many other damaging documents from U.S. embassies around the Middle East have yet to be released, and what are the ramifications? As they watch Ben-Ali flee from Tunis, many despotic leaders may worry about their fate.

Progressive forces should cheer events in Tunisia, yet I would argue that on balance "cablegate" has failed to live up to its greatest potential. As it seeks to fundamentally alter power relations, WikiLeaks should take stock of the past two months or so of "cablegate" and figure out what has worked and what has, to the contrary, fallen flat. If it wants to maximize its impact, WikiLeaks might consider a) releasing documents that complement critical, breaking stories; b) prioritizing certain regions of the globe over others; c) concentrating on specific instances of U.S. government malfeasance so as to fundamentally alter the terms of Washington's foreign policy, if such illegality is demonstrated through the documents; d) releasing more politically relevant cables and saving the less important documents for later; e) reassessing its overall media strategy in the United States.

I would be the last one to downplay WikiLeaks' many journalistic coups and accomplishments, Tunisia being only the most recent and noteworthy, but the fact is that cablegate has failed to prompt serious debate within the U.S. about the way in which Washington conducts its foreign policy. If it seeks to alter this equation and exert an impact where it matters most, WikiLeaks should become shrewder about what documents it releases and the actual proportion of such releases. The debate is not over whether to release all of the documents at once, which as Wikileaks correctly points out would fail to do the cables justice, but how such a staged release might work. Thus far, the whistle-blowing group has opted for a geographically diverse approach in which separate portions of the globe receive relatively equal and fair exposure. Yesterday, for example, I noticed that all of WikiLeaks' cables related to Holland whereas a mere four days ago the cables pertained to Iceland.

On the positive side, such a strategy grabs the attention of diverse media outlets all over the world. The approach will appeal to WikiLeaks volunteers who are based in many different countries and who strive for greater political transparency at home. Assange, who has been criticized as overly autocratic, may have felt that such a modus operandi was desirable given the diffuse nature of his organization. I don't know how decisions are reached within WikiLeaks, but if one region was favored above all others then volunteers might have become discouraged and, needless to say, Assange can ill afford additional problems with morale at this point.

Rethinking Media Strategy for the Middle East

On the other hand, Assange's strategy thus far has lacked political focus: as soon as the media reports on one story, WikiLeaks releases another batch of documents from a different part of the globe. A more sensible approach would be to declassify relevant documents pertaining to just one or two regions, and for my money the Middle East makes the most sense. In terms of sheer urgency, Iraq and Afghanistan should be a top priority, though releasing sensitive documents from North Africa would be surely welcome right now. In hindsight, releasing the Ben Ali cables at the exact moment that the democracy movement was taking off in Tunisia was a stroke of genius, and by declassifying further sensitive documents from around the region WikiLeaks could give a leg up to nascent democracy movements. In this sense, it is more desirable for WikiLeaks to be flexible and improvise depending on the news cycle, as opposed to simply rotating the geographical focus every few days or so.

For insight into cablegate, head to WikiLeaks own website. If we are going by simple numerical importance, Baghdad is second only to Ankara in terms of actual cable volume. In a bar graph, cables are organized into separate colors without further explanation, though presumably green refers to "unclassified," orange stands for "confidential" and red stands for "secret." It's difficult to make out the exact numbers on WikiLeaks' bar graph, but it appears as if the whistleblowing group holds about 7,000 cables from Baghdad, of which only 30 have been released. It would seem that Baghdad alone sent a whopping 1,000 secret cables to Washington, the greatest number recorded for any foreign U.S. embassy. The U.S. embassy in Kabul meanwhile is less prolific but still substantial with about 3,500 cables, of which only 50 have been released.

What's with the long hold up here, and why have the releases slowed to a trickle? It would seem that WikiLeaks banked on the New York Times and expected that America's most influential paper would help it sift through many of the State Department's most important documents. It's understandable that WikiLeaks would turn first to the Times, one of the few outlets which actually pursues investigative journalism and sets the bar for wider media coverage. Clearly, however, that strategy has proven unsatisfactory as the Times hasn't published many stories based on cablegate. It's anyone's guess as to why the paper failed to take advantage of WikiLeaks scoops, but I suspect that the Times simply cannot bring itself to question the underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy.

Understandably, WikiLeaks wants to be scrupulous in vetting its material, but by the time all relevant cables are disclosed from Kabul, the war in Afghanistan will have claimed many more lives. Perhaps, WikiLeaks simply lacks the capacity to evaluate all of the documents in its possession. What, then, are WikiLeaks' options? One strategy would be to join forces with assorted media activists in an effort to pressure the Times to move faster. The alternative is to partner with other media outlets and foreign policy experts, from The Nation to Mother Jones to The Huffington Post to Juan Cole to the National Security Archive. From there, news and analysis would flow to progressive TV and radio such as Democracy Now! or the Rachel Maddow show.

Coming to Terms With America's "Informal Empire"

In terms of sheer urgency, the Middle East takes priority over other regions of the globe. Yet, if WikiLeaks truly seeks to have an impact on the tenor of U.S. foreign policy, then it should consider devoting more time and resources to Latin America. Arguably, the region still constitutes America's "informal empire," though much of the U.S. public seems apathetic or oblivious to this fact. TV outlets haven't helped much, either: though MSNBC briefly covered WikiLeaks revelations that Hillary Clinton requested personal information about Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, including psychological details and medications, in general the media hasn't shown much interest in cables emanating from U.S. embassies around Latin America.

One possible reason why is that WikiLeaks, to my knowledge, has not uncovered any overt illegalities on the part of the U.S. government. Perhaps, Washington has cleaned up its act in Latin America and there is no "smoking gun" that would incriminate high level State Department officials. Given the U.S. track record in the region, however, I find this difficult to believe. What is more probable WikiLeaks that Wikileaks, for whatever reason, has simply glossed over its most damning evidence or is biding its time before releasing sensitive material.

Whatever the case, I find WikiLeaks' approach to Latin America baffling. According to its own site, the whistleblowing group holds about 3,000 cables each from U.S. embassies in Bogotá and Caracas. Yet, to date WikiLeaks has only released 28 and 27 cables, respectively, from both diplomatic posts. That is perplexing given that U.S. diplomats were concerned about Chávez's wide-ranging influence over South America's leftist "Pink Tide" (officials were even concerned about Venezuelan influence as far afield as the Falklands Islands).

Though the left would like to claim that the U.S. played a significant role in Chávez's brief ouster in April, 2002 the concrete evidence is lacking. For Assange, documenting this period should be a top priority, though to date WikiLeaks has only published certain Caracas cables from 2004 to 2010. Presumably, there would have been much correspondence between Caracas and Washington in the early years of Chávez's reign and throughout 2002-03 when political destabilization was at its highest.

WikiLeaks could focus on this period, yet instead the organization has chosen, inexplicably, to concentrate on Brazil. According to WikiLeaks, there are more cables pertaining to the U.S. embassies in Bogotá, Caracas, and even Tegucigalpa than Brasilia [to date, WikiLeaks has released 219 cables from Brasilia compared to just 2 from Tegucigalpa]. Furthermore, with the exception of early cables released by WikileWikiLeaksaks which document relations between Washington and the Brazilian Minister of Defense Nelson Jobim, the Brasilia documents don't reveal anything too earth-shattering.

Shaking Up the U.S. Public

WikiLeaks needs to get its Latin America material out to the U.S. public, but so far its media strategy hasn't proven very effective. The only paper that has been consistently running stories on the region is Spain's El País, an outlet which had earlier partnered with WikiLeaks. For whatever reason, however, even El País has been tapering off in recent weeks. The Norwegian paper Aftenposten also got its hands on WikiLeaks cables, but to date editors at the publication have chosen to concentrate their resources on European documents. At one point, Aftenposten asked its readers for research suggestions, and a couple of days later looked into such conspiratorial topics as the Bilderberg society and U.F.O.'s.

The New York Times, meanwhile, only writes about Latin America when WikiLeaks cables reinforce the notion of Third World corruption. Take, for example, the case of rightist Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli who reportedly asked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration or DEA to help him carry out illegal wiretaps on his political foes. Last month, the Times published a story on Martinelli in which the DEA was portrayed as a somewhat beleaguered agency forced to deal with shady and unsavory characters throughout the Third World. Though the Times mentioned that Martinelli may have wanted to spy on his leftist opponents, the paper failed to contextualize the wider political backdrop which pitted a pro-corporate and pro-U.S. president against combative organized labor.

Similarly, the Times passed when it came to other important stories which have cast the United States in an unflattering light. Take, for instance, U.S. cynicism toward Bolivia and Cuba, nations that have been pushing for a more radical agenda at international climate change summits. One would think that WikiLeaks cables might create a furious "climategate" scandal, yet the Times chose to ignore the matter. Furthermore, the Times failed to report on cables that revealed that the FBI kept tabs on the Mapuche, a Chilean indigenous group fighting for its ancestral lands and against the pro-corporate and pro-U.S. regime in Santiago. In yet another oversight, the Times ignored additional cables showing that the U.S. and Costa Rica may have shared high level intelligence in an effort to thwart Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.

To be sure, none of these revelations expose blatant illegalities, yet they reveal U.S. foreign policy as deeply immoral and crass. Is the U.S. public ready for a wholesale debate about these cables and changing the way business is done at the State Department? Recently, the Daily Show had a rather witty if somewhat cynical take on WikiLeaks. During a monologue, comedian Jon Stewart suggested that the U.S. public is already aware of previous coup d'etats in such diverse nations as Guatemala, Chile and Iran, and as a result is totally jaded (the discussion about fomenting unrest in the Third World starts at about 5:00).

For WikiLeaks, which has worked hard and taken risks, the U.S. certainly provides a dispiriting picture. Given that the New York Times is an unreliable partner, the whistleblowing group might calculate that the progressive media is more likely to run stories about the U.S. cables. Yet, even as some commentators loudly proclaim their socialist credentials, MSNBC pundits rarely provide any coverage of foreign events, preferring instead to dwell on Sarah Palin and refute whatever Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck said over the course of the afternoon.

What is it going to take for the U.S. public to sit up and pay attention to cablegate? Perhaps it will be a hard sell any way you look at it, though WikiLeaks might want to consider becoming more creative and innovative in its media strategy.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008) and No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave, 2010). Visit his website, www.nikolaskozloff.com