Early Tuesday morning, WikiLeaks released a small number of classified cables under the title “NSA Targets World Leaders for US Geopolitical Interests”. While these documents are barely a trickle compared to the previous wave unleashed by Chelsea Manning (and much less explosive), they do offer a window into the behavior of certain world leaders and their governments, past and present.
While it isn’t news that the NSA has been bugging phone calls and secret conversations with close allies, this latest trove is unique in that WikiLeaks claims in its press release relating to the documents that some of the them, dated between 2007 and 2011, “are classified TOP-SECRET COMINT-GAMMA and are the most highly classified documents ever published by a media organization.” Besides once again revealing the fact that people with high security clearance tend to be terrible writers, they will also remind European leaders of the extent of US spying, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Italy Documents
The most widely reported on of the cables details discussions between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and former Italian President Silvio Berlusconi in 2010. The NSA analysis, based on intercepted calls from three phones belonging to Marco Carnelos, diplomatic advisor to Berlusconi, Italy’s NATO Ambassador Stefano Stefanini and national security advisor Bruno Archi, show that the Israeli PM was worried about strained relations with the US over new settlement construction in disputed East Jerusalem.
The Israeli Prime Minister is said to have claimed that the 1,600 new homes being being by settlers were “in keeping with national policy dating back to the administration of Golda Meir, and blamed this mishandling on a government official with poor political sensitivity.” Palestinians have long claimed East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
According to the document, Berlusconi, “promised to put Italy at Israel’s disposal in helping mend… ties with Washington”. Netanyahu also noted his feeling that tensions had been raised with the Obama administration by a lack of direct contact between himself and the US President. This seems to demonstrate what some commentators have sensed for years, while Washington and Tel Aviv may be the best of allies, there is tension between the two leaders. It’s telling that Netanyahu shows deep concern in private but blusters in public, especially in a way that plays well with the American right wing.
A second document, also featuring Berlusconi, but from a different source, details a meeting between him, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the latter two seeming to bully the Italian leader over the country’s debt. The document, which describes an intercepted telephone call by the Italian Prime Minister’s personal advisor, Valentino Valentini, reports him saying that the meeting was “tense and very harsh toward the Rome government” and offered no “strong, concrete” ideas to rein in the country’s economic problems.
Shortly after the release of these documents, an Israeli television station posted a story claiming that the government in Rome had summoned the US ambassador over the reports, something which doesn’t seem to have been reported in the American press. According to a Google news search Wednesday afternoon, the last New York Times story on Wikileaks, an Op-Ed, appeared on February 7th and was titled, “How Julian Assange Is Destroying WikiLeaks”. So much for the paper of record.
Climate Change Discussions
Perhaps even more relevant for activists than the above, is a document discussing calls between Japanese and German officials regarding upcoming negotiations on global warming that later took place at the G-8 summits in Toya, Japan in 2008 and Copenhagen in 2009 and failed to push any solutions forward. The document to some extent reveals the “real politic” behind the efforts to combat climate change at the international level.
It is interesting that the German diplomat, Bernd Pfaffenbach, “noted that, in response to a U.S. request, his country would likely give up its demand for a 25- to -45 percent mid-term carbon dioxide reduction at the MEM (Major Economies Meeting)” in Japan. The same cable also notes that both countries were skeptical about getting “developing economies” on board to set even provisional targets for cutting emissions, which they wanted to delay discussing until the G-8 meeting in Copenhagen.
Spying on Bernard Doyle and the UNHCR
Another aspect of this story ignored in the mainstream English language press but reported on at length by Rory Byrne of Security First, is that Irish citizen Bernard Doyle, who works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).as the “Regional Representative for Central Asia”was targeted by the NSA since at least 2003 when he held a lower position in Afghanistan.
As Byrne explains, what makes this troubling is that the agency works with a wide variety of NGOs in many of the world’s trouble spots. As part of their work they “are increasingly collecting large amounts of data on people they are caring for… and if it becomes increasingly seen by the recipients on the ground that the information is vulnerable to outside digital/human penetration, then the NGO worker on the ground becomes a target, people are killed and important projects with vital long-term strategy impact are damaged.”
A shorthand that appears on a number of the documents is the term FVEY, meaning that the files can be shared with the Five Eyes intelligence allies Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. This sharing likely means that, regardless of the laws in any one of these English speaking nations, its citizens can be targeted by one of the others and the information passed along to the NSA or other equivalent intelligence agency in that citizen’s home country.
There are those who argue that governments have a right to keep secrets and, in cases where lives are put in jeopardy this is true, but, even in these cases, with proper redactions there are certain things that the public does have a right to know, especially when governments or their representatives are acting in a corrupt or criminal manner. Much of what was revealed by the diplomatic cables released in 2010 showed incompetence and even outright malfeasance on the part of both US diplomats and foreign leaders. It shouldn’t be forgotten that one of the sparks for the Arab Spring was diplomatic cables detailing the corruption of former Tunisian President Ben Ali and his wife, Leila.
Julian Assange is no doubt, like all of us, flawed (and if certain of the allegations against him in Sweden are true, more than most) but he has also been the victim of a mainstream press that is either in the pocket of powerful interests or jealous of WikiLeaks’ success. It remains to be seen whether more NSA intercepts will be released in the future (and if there is a new Manning or Snowden out there) but WikiLeaks has once again proven its relevance even if its founder remains trapped in Ecuador’s London embassy.