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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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