I’ve been doing some heavy duty eavesdropping this week, eavesdropping on what were meant to be private conversations between American diplomats.
In other words, I’ve been reading the Wikileaks files, hundreds and hundreds of supposedly secret missives, sent to Washington from US embassies around the world in order to inform the policy-makers back home.
And, perhaps oddly, I’ve been thinking of Robert Burns. You may be familiar with the lines: “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as others see us!”
(They come from a poem called “To A Louse”, which may be appropriate given how some US officials have been talking of the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange.)
But why Burns? Well, if you’re Kim Jong Il of North Korea, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, or President Sarkozy of France, or Silvio Berlusconi, or Vladimir Putin – yes, even if you’re David Cameron or Gordon Brown – you can now, thanks to Wikileaks, see yourself as others see you. Or at least, as US diplomats see you.
It won’t come as a great surprise to Kim Jong Il that the Chinese are not all that enamoured of him. Nor will President Ahmadinejad be deeply shocked to discover that he’s not flavour of the month in Riyadh.
But to see it written down, to read in black and white what’s being said about you behind your back – well, that must be a bit of a blow.
Still, I think we need to retain a sense of scepticism. Just because something is said in a document marked “Secret” doesn’t always mean it’s the Gospel truth. (And remember, these particular documents were so secret that they were available to something like three million US government employees.)
Take, for example, one of the more interesting disclosures – that China is apparently prepared to countenance the idea of a reunified Korea under South Korean rule.
Says who, you may ask. And it turns out that the source for this little nugget is a senior South Korean official, talking to a US ambassador, about what he believes Chinese officials “would be comfortable with.” I know plenty of journalists who would think long and hard about going into print with that kind of flimsy sourcing.
So what about the description of the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu as “exceptionally dangerous”? The quote comes, in fact, from an unnamed “high-ranking [Turkish] government adviser” – and we all know about the perils of relying on unnamed advisers as sources.
I’m not suggesting that this vast document dump is uninteresting. Far from it. It shines an unprecedented bright light into corners where normally very little light shines at all. The sensation you get reading the documents is rather like what a child feels, ear pressed to the key-hole, listening to the adults talking on the other side of the door. It’s not so much what they’re saying that’s exciting, it’s that they have no idea we’re listening.
Much of what I’ve read so far confirms what was already pretty well known. The Gulf states are deeply distrustful of Iran; corruption and organised crime are a major problem in Russia; Gordon Brown wasn’t much good at being prime minister.
Embarrassing for some of the diplomats who wrote these missives? Of course. Unwelcome to the sources quoted in them? Undoubtedly.
But deeply damaging to US interests? Here’s the verdict from the US defence secretary Robert Gates, who as a former director of central intelligence presumably knows plenty of real secrets:
“Every other government in the world knows that the US government leaks like a sieve … Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”