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US cable leak has “sabotaged” diplomatic work

Wikileaks is giving US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama a headache Keystone

Former Swiss diplomats say the huge release of diplomatic cables by Wikileaks undermines their work, ruining confidence and risks limiting the exchange of information.

Little has filtered out about Switzerland so far. But one memo seen by a Swiss radio station describes the country as “a very successful but frequently frustrating alpine democracy”.

American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks acted illegally in releasing more than 250,000 State Department cables exposing the inner workings of US diplomacy, including candid assessments of world leaders.

On Monday she said the administration was taking “aggressive steps to hold responsible those who stole this information”, alongside measures to tighten security while federal officials scramble to contain the damage.

On Tuesday Interpol issued a “red notice” to assist in the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is wanted in Sweden on suspicion of sexual crimes.

Former Swiss diplomats and observers have meanwhile echoed the almost universal condemnation by politicians and officials of the cable release.


François Nordmann, former Swiss diplomat to Paris and London, is shocked.

“This publication has sabotaged diplomats’ working tools. Even if the documents reveal trends that we already knew about, it’s very embarrassing that top officials, even heads of state, are implicated,” he told Le Temps newspaper.

There has always been the odd case of diplomatic memos being published, former Swiss ambassador to Berlin, Thomas Borer, told Swiss public radio.

“But the enormity of this release has undermined US diplomacy,” he said.

Increasingly cautious

The diplomatic service must get to grips with these kinds of indiscretion, declared the long-serving diplomat and former secretary of state, Franz von Däniken.

Von Däniken believes it may make diplomats increasingly cautious. “A diplomat has to evaluate different situations. If he can no longer do so freely, his information loses importance.”

He then has to formulate his memos more cryptically than he could if he was able to use clear and concise language and judgements, he added. Another possible impact is that diplomats may have to give more verbal reports to avoid leaks.

Debate over the Wikileaks US cables release meanwhile continues to rage on the internet. Several commentators have voice their support, especially in favour of more transparency.

More transparency

Author and historian Timothy Garton Ash describes the release as a “diplomats’ nightmare and a historians’ dream”.

“There is a public interest in understanding how the world works and what is done in our name. There is a public interest in the confidential conduct of foreign policy. The two public interests conflict,” he told The Guardian.

The author of the “Democracy in America” blog on The Economist also commented: “Organisations such as Wikileaks, which are philosophically opposed to state secrecy and which operate as much as is possible outside the global nation-state system, may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy.”

Former British diplomat Carne Ross echoed this position in the British Mirror newspaper: “The Wikileaks approach to transparency is a very blunt and frankly dangerous instrument. But more transparency, much more, is needed. People don’t trust governments for the very good reason that they have not been told the truth – about the War on Terror, Afghanistan or Iraq.”

Frustrating democracy

About 700 of the 250,000 classified documents came from the US embassy in Bern and the US mission in Geneva.

According to Radio Basel, which was able to consult all the Wikileaks US cables at German magazine Der Spiegel’s office in Bern, the US ambassador to Bern, Peter Coneway, wrote in 2008 that Switzerland was “a very successful but frequently frustrating alpine democracy”.

The radio station said the major topics for Bern-based US diplomats were the crisis between Switzerland and Libya and relations with Iran, as well as the transfer of two Uighur former-Guantanamo Bay detainees to canton Jura where they currently reside.

Radio Basel claimed US diplomats were interested in certain Swiss politicians, including Defence Minister Ueli Maurer from the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, described as a trusty follower of former cabinet minister and party leader, Christoph Blocher, whom Coneway referred to as “the People’s Party guru”.

Swiss politicians’ portraits are much more flattering than those of world leaders like Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – “feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader” – German Chancellor Angela Merkel –”risk averse and rarely creative” – and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev who plays Robin to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Batman.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-il is a “flabby old chap” suffering from trauma from a stroke, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is referred to as “Hitler”.

The more explosive issues among the thousands of leaked cables presented so far by five media groups, concern Iran, North Korea, drones in Yemen, Pakistan, the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and spying on United Nations officials.

The whistle-blowing website Wikileaks has released a cache of 250,000 secret messages sent by US diplomatic staff.

So far, Wikileaks has published on its site 278 US “cables”; it has given the files in full to five media groups, including the New York Times and Guardian newspapers.

About 700 of the classified documents published by the online whistleblower came from the US embassy in Bern and the US mission in Geneva.

Most of the cables emanating from Bern were sent between the end of 2005 and February 2010 – more than half from 2009 (89) and 2008 (66).

The Swiss cabinet was not yet aware of the content of these cables and therefore would not issue a statement, a government spokesman said on Monday.

The more explosive issues among the thousands of leaked cables presented so far concern Iran, North Korea, drones in Yemen, Pakistan, the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and spying on United Nations officials.

The leaks also disclosed bluntly candid impressions from both diplomats and other world leaders about America’s allies and foes.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vehemently denied having any Swiss bank accounts, as revealed in a secret US embassy cable published by Wikileaks.

“I do not have a penny in Swiss banks so I have nothing to prove,” he told the media in Ankara on Wednesday.

In a secret diplomatic note from December 30, 2004 the US ambassador to Ankara, Eric Edelman, wrote: “We have heard from two contacts that Erdogan has eight Swiss bank accounts”. The US diplomat wrote that Erdogan’s explanations about his personal fortune were “lame”.

Suspicions raised by the US ambassador have been used by the head of opposition in the Turkish Parliament, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, who asked Erdogan to respond. Several cases have been brought against him concerning his fortune in the past and each time he has been cleared.

(Adapted from German by Simon Bradley)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR