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'According to Wikileaks': The journalistic legacy of Bradley Manning

At a hearing yesterday, Pfc. Bradley Manning took full responsibility for leaking the documents that came to be known as the Afghan and Iraq war logs and the "Cablegate" archive of classified diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. Given the fate that likely awaits Manning, it's a bit hard not be struck and saddened by his statement that he leaked the documents in order to “spark a domestic debate of the role of the military and foreign policy in general” and “cause society to reevaluate the need and even desire to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore their effect on people who live in that environment every day.”

Whatever the impact of Wikileaks documents, it would be hard to argue they had a major impact on the foreign-policy attitudes of the American public, or even provided much new information that might cause readers to revise their attitudes. 

But two years after the Cablegate leak, there is one legacy of Wikileaks that confronts us nearly every day: the cables have become one of the vital tools of international journalism. Nearly every day, newspaper, wire service, and magazine dispatches from around the world feature theremarkable but no longer unusual phrase, " according to classified State Department cables released by WikiLeaks."

Here are just a few examples from a quick Nexis search of recent coverage:

  • The Los Angeles Times' Paul Richter opens an article on Secretary of State John Kerry's trip to the Middle East with an anecdote from the then Senator's meeting with Bashar al-Assad in 2009. The conversation, in which Kerry asked Assad why so few Arab leaders trust him, was pulled from a Wikileaks cable.
  • A Reuters article on the death of AQAP leader Said al-Shehri sources the claim that he "allegedly joined al Qaeda and helped to facilitate the movements of Saudi militants seeking to travel to Afghanistan via Iran" to a Wikileaked Pentagon document. 
  • A New York Times article on a British lawsuit involving a U.S. drone strike cites a 2008 cable reporting that "British officials demanded to be given full details of intelligence-gathering flights the United States flew from its base in Cyprus, in case they “put the U.K. at risk of being complicit in unlawful acts.”"
  • Reporting on the recent killing of a Kurdish cativist Sakine Cansiz, the AP notes that "in a 2007 cable, U.S. officials had identified Cansiz as one of the outlawed PKK's top two "most notorious financiers" in Europe and wanted her captured to stop the flow of money to the rebels." 
  • A Washington Post feature on Yemen's rival clans quotes a classified dispatch from former Amb. Thomas C. Krajeski, describing how former president Ali Abdullah Saleh had allowed the powerful al-Ahmar tribal family to “run their affairs with informal armies, courts and economic empires”. 
  • An AP story on the international soccer match-fixing scandal describes how "An American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks quoted the U.S. Embassy in Sofia as reporting that "Bulgarian soccer clubs are widely believed to be directly or indirectly controlled by organized crime figures who use their teams as a way to legitimize themselves, launder money and make a fast buck.""
  • Writing on Europe's planned Galileo GPS system, Andrew Higgins of the New York Times mentions that a 2009 cable from the U.S. embassy in Berlin "quoted the OHB chief, Berry Smutny, describing Galileo as doomed to fail."  

Often allegations made in Wikileaks cables are used by reporters as a kind of shorthand for situations where a foreign official is widely believed to be corrupt but there's little publicly available factual data to back up the claim. 

  • For instance, reporting on the Paraguayn presidential race, the Times writes that "State Department diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks revealed allegations that a bank under Mr. Cartes’s control was involved in money-laundering in 2007."
  • A Los Angeles Times dispatch on the removal of a statue of Azerbaijani leader Heydar Aliyev from a Mexico City park quotes a cable in which "a U.S. ambassador compared his family to the Corleones of "The Godfather" fame."

Ironically, given the political goals of Wikileaks, the use of the cables by reporters often gives U.S. officials the final say on which foreign officials are bad guys.

But on the other hand, if the ultimate goal was to introduce a bit more transparency to international politics, Manning's actions have to be considered at least partially successful. 

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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Cheney rips Condoleezza Rice in new documentary

In an upcoming documentary about the life and legacy of Dick Cheney previewed by Foreign Policy, the former vice president lashes out at former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Brooding over one issue specifically, Cheney criticizes his former colleague for overriding his recommendation to bomb a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.

"I thought [destroying the reactor] would reassert the kind of authority and influence we had back in '03 when we took down Saddam Hussein and eliminated Iraq as a potential source of WMD," Cheney says in the film, The World According to Dick Cheney. "Condi was on the wrong side of all those issues so we had significant issues."

Back in 2007, the Bush administration received intelligence that Syria was secretly building a nuclear reactor with the help of North Korea. Ultimately, the White House declined to hit the facility to the dismay of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In the film, Cheney criticizes Rice for advocating against a unilateral strike.

"Condi recommended taking it to the United Nations. I strongly recommended that we ought to take [the reactor] out," he said.

When reached for comment, Rice told FP that refusing to bomb the reactor was the right decision at that point in time. "The situation turned out exactly how it should have," she said.

In an e-mail exchange, Rice's chief of staff, Georgia Godfrey, added that U.S. intelligence officials were not 100 percent certain the Syrians were housing a nuclear reactor, and that the Israeli government dealt with the threat anyway. (In 2011, a U.N. investigation found that Syria "very likely" was working on a nuclear reactor prior to the Israeli bombing of the facility as part of its so-called Operation Orchard in September 2007.)

Regardless, Cheney appears on camera saying the United States had an opportunity to communicate an important message, and Rice got in the way. "There are certain bright lines out there and you do not cross them and one of those bright lines is you do not provide nuclear technology to terror-sponsoring states," he says. "You don't want Syria to have that kind of capability that they might be able to pass on to Hamas or Hezbollah or al Qaeda."

This is the second time Cheney has singled out Rice, a rumored 2016 presidential candidate, for criticism since leaving office. In his 2011 memoir In My Times, Cheney called the former diplomat "naive" for her attempts to negotiate with North Korea and said she once "tearfully admitted" her mistakes to him in his office. At the time, Rice fired back, saying, "I would never - I don't remember coming to the vice president tearfully about anything in the entire eight years that I knew him."

The film, directed by R.J. Cutler of The War Room and The September Issue acclaim, debuts on Showtime March 15.