Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Media has behaved more responsibly over the Wikileaks than the US government.

The state department should clean up its act, says Liam Clarke

Thank you, Hillary Clinton and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for bringing me back to my senses. A purveyor and solicitor of leaks myself, I was beginning to sound like an alcoholic preaching abstinence as I tutted over the damage that would be done to diplomacy by the indiscriminate leakage of official documents.

Besides, the disclosure of private views could fuel conflict. What about the news that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had advised the US to bomb Iran and that other Middle Eastern rulers had felt the same way?

The initial coverage on Press TV, the Iranian news channel, was worrying. "US uses its embassies for espionage" screamed a headline which ranks alongside "Pope a devout Catholic" for shock-value, but underneath, the analysis was acute.

Yvonne Ridley, one of the station's commentators, whom I have known since before she was kidnapped by the Taliban and converted to Islam, has a good journalistic nose and was naturally delighted by the revelations.

"Wherever you live, whoever you are, however you pray, let's face it - we are being governed by self-serving, spineless, lying and jumped-up prats. And the majority conspire together," Yvonne chortled as she gleefully dissected the diplomatic traffic.

The later reaction of president Ahmadinejad wasn't so enthusiastic. He blamed the Americans for deliberately releasing the documents to embarrass him and wanted to put the lid on the whole thing.

"Let me first correct you. The material was not leaked, but rather released in an organised way," he lectured Press TV's correspondent.

Ahmadinejad seemed embarrassed, claiming that Wikileaks is "not worth commenting upon and that no one would waste their time reviewing them".

His problem was that the leaks blasted a hole in Iran's self-image as the emerging Islamic superpower around whom others would cluster in opposition to US and Zionist aggression.

Instead, it was clear that some of the most powerful countries in the region feared him and looked to the Americans to defend their interests in face of his nuclear programme.

The former Iranian revolutionary guard responded with denial: "The countries in the region are like friends and brothers and these acts of mischief will not affect their relations."

Ahmadinejad spends much of his life surrounded by flunkies and mullahs. In this hothouse atmosphere, he has fallen prey to some rarefied conspiracy theories - including the one that the Americans blew up the Twin Towers themselves in order to stir up anti-Islamic sentiment.

I am not convinced by propaganda claims that Ahmadinejad is a madman, so, when he has time to consider it, this sudden pulling aside of the diplomatic veil may serve as a reality check and encourage him to adjust his policies.

Kim Jong-il, North Korea's hereditary dictator, may also suspect the Americans of organising the leaks to mess him about if his advisers dare show him the reports covering the Korean peninsula.

The leaks show China, Kim's only regional ally, telling the capitalist roaders in South Korea that they are open to re-unification under Seoul's control.

The only price the Chinese ask is a withdrawal of American troops after reunification.

Kim is still officially at war with the south and has recently been lobbing missiles their way. Wikileaks will serve as a warning that, if things do go pear-shaped, he is on his own.

Worse still, from the dictator's viewpoint, both the southerners and their US allies know the full extent of his isolation. For a man proclaimed a 'secular god' and seldom told anything he wouldn't like to hear, this is a useful piece of information.

Hillary Clinton condemned the leaking of official documents, claiming that it infringed the privacy of diplomacy. This was less than convincing given a leaked communique showing that she had encouraged espionage within that bastion of private diplomacy, the UN.

I once buttonholed Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief-of-staff and adviser on Northern Ireland, over an incident in which my wife, Kathryn Johnston, and I were arrested and our home raided after we published transcripts of bugged telephone calls to himself and Mo Mowlam on Martin McGuinness's home line.

"You give us too much credit," Powell said, looking shifty, when I asked him if, as the timeline suggested, Downing Street had ordered the raids.

It was what we in the business call a "non-denial-denial".

In his book on the period, Powell talks of MI5's embarrassment, but doesn't point to any actual damage.

In fact, the friendly tone of the bugged conversations reassured people that the peace process was on course at a time when Sinn Fein was making some belligerent noises in public. There is an undeniable possibility of damage from leaks, but so far so good. In fact, the Guardian and New York Times, who control much of the leaked material, have handled it more responsibly than the US state department.

The papers have carefully considered what they will make public. In contrast, the state department decrypted confidential diplomatic traffic from around the world and circulated the clear version to three million people.

They are the ones who need to clean up their act.

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