It has now been two weeks since the beginning of Cablegate – the largest leak of classified intelligence in history. In recent days we have seen the organisation responsible, Wikileaks, endure repeated attacks from across the political spectrum. Crude suppression tactics have been mobilised by powerful American politicians in a desperate attempt to remove Wikileaks from the internet; Paypal, Visa, Mastercard and Amazon have all now severed their ties with the organisation after pressure from the US Homeland Security Committee.
On Tuesday, after much speculation, the police finally crossed paths with Wikileaks’ co-founder, Julian Assange. He was arrested in London and jailed – incidentally in the same prison once occupied by Oscar Wilde – pending an extradition trial in relation to sexual offence allegations made against him in Sweden. “Many people believe that this prosecution is politically motivated,” said his lawyer on the steps of Westminster Magistrates Court. “I am sure that justice will out and Mr Assange will be released and vindicated in due course.”
Yet amazingly, as Cablegate enters its third week, we must remember that this flurry of historic high-drama has been caused by the release into the public domain of just 1,344 of 251,287 – approximately 0.5% – of the confidential embassy cables. The worst, it seems fair to say, is yet to come.
It is going to be a long and arduous process. There will be months of scandals, colourful revelations and allegations of every kind imaginable. Concentration and stamina will be required, for there is a strong likelihood that some massive stories could slip under the radar, lost in an information abyss. Only 14 days in, the sheer deluge of cables already appears to be causing the onset of apathy and laziness, particularly among sections of the press.
Earlier this week, for instance, we learned from the cables that on 24 September 2009 Whitehall told America to ignore then Prime Minister Gordon Brown's statement on the UK’s nuclear deterrent, Trident. Brown had planned to scale back Trident, and on 23 September 2009 said in a speech to the UN General Assembly: “If we are serious about the ambition of a nuclear free world we will need statesmanship, not brinkmanship.” This announcement, one of the cables reveals, “caught many in HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] by surprise.” The Americans were subsequently reassured by high-ranking foreign office policy officials, seemingly behind Brown’s back, that there would be “no daylight” between US and UK nuclear policy. “HMG has not formally decided to scale back the deterrent but would only do so if a government defense [sic] review determines,” the officials stressed.
However the Trident revelations, publicised by the Guardian, were not widely covered by the British media – who were instead focused intently on the arrest of Julian Assange and the lurid content of the allegations made against him. Similarly, during the first few days of Cablegate, several newspapers – particularly the tabloids – devoted more coverage to diplomatic name-calling than to the major revelations that British officials not only promised to protect US interests during the Iraq inquiry, but also made a deal with the US to allow the country to keep cluster bombs in the UK despite the ban on the munitions signed by Gordon Brown.
This week we also learned that prior to the general election in March, Conservative party politicians promised behind the scenes to run a “pro-American regime” and made assurances that, if voted into power, they would buy more arms from the US. While the cables have further revealed – as many suspected – that prior to the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the UK was under intense pressure from the Libyan government. One cable, dated 24 October 2008, reads: "The Libyans have told HMG flat out that there will be 'enormous repercussions' for the UK-Libya bilateral relationship if Megrahi's early release is not handled properly [...] HMG is also adamant that, despite devolution, London controls foreign policy for the UK, not Edinburgh."
It is at a time like this when journalism should come in to its own. Forget that Vladimir Putin is known in diplomatic circles as “alpha-dog” or Angela Merkel as “Teflon” – there is simply too much at stake here to get distracted by the so-called “tittle-tattle”. As Henry Porter noted in an excellent piece for the Observer, “we have been given a snapshot of the world as it is, rather than the edited account agreed upon by diverse elites”.
Consequently, after having seen a mere 0.5% of the cables so far, we already have clear evidence that suggests members of the British political establishment have engaged in, at the very least, highly undemocratic practice. With clarity the cables confirm that unelected officials, whose faces and names are unknown to the British public, are shaping foreign policy and international relations behind closed doors. Not only this, but these same officials expect and demand the privilege of secrecy in order to do so. This not acceptable in any modern democracy.
But as the first few ripples of Cablegate reverberate through Whitehall, the present coalition government scrambles to “secure its digital borders.” And this will, of course, inevitably lead to greater secrecy and even less transparency in the future. Thus the British media must not fail to harness the moment. The press, web publications and citizen journalists should together use Cablegate to arraign the political establishment, for the good of society and the health of democracy. “You’re going to have so much information about what we do... so use it, exploit it, hold us to account,” said Prime Minister David Cameron in a video posted on YouTube less than a month ago. Now is the time to hold him to his word.