Obama administration officials say that Julian Assange, 39, editor-in-chief of the WikiLeaks organization, must be hunted down and prosecuted – or at least restraints clamped down on the website providing front-page fodder worldwide. But US Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged Monday, November 29, the day after the site began dumping 250,000 US diplomatic cables, that although the US believes crimes have been committed, the investigation is complicated by the fact that key individuals are outside the US and its legal jurisdiction.
So Assange, an Australian, whose whereabouts are unknown, may get away with never standing trial in America – depending on Washington's determination to go after him.
Interpol has issued a Red Notice requesting information about his whereabouts, and the Swedish police want him on two rape charges against which he has appealed claiming they are an attempt to damage his credibility. But he may yet defy the long arm of American justice, like the ex-CIA whistleblower, Philip Burnett Franklin Agee, nearly half a century before him.
Agee was the object of a relentless agency pursuit in the 1960s after he started telling the world that his Roman Catholic conscience had compelled him to reveal what he had seen during his service, especially in Mexico and Greece. In 1975, while in London, where he was lionized by the Left, he managed to publish his book "Inside the Company." It was eventually translated into 27 languages.
In 1978 and 1979, Agee published a two-volume work: "Dirty Work: The CIA in Western Europe" and "Dirty Work: The CIA in Africa," which blew the covers of 2,000 CIA personnel. His US passport was revoked in 1979. After obtaining citizenship in Germany and in various South American and Central American countries under pro-Communist regimes, Agee finally settled in Cuba, where he died in 2008.
The CIA never managed to lay hands on him.
Diplomacy has lost its cachet and diplomats no longer make policy
The damage the former CIA insider caused US intelligence and its worldwide reputation was inestimably greater than the harm the outsider Assange has caused as a rogue element on the loose.
While avidly sensationalized by the media across the world, with high-profile editorial production teams picking out the juicy bits, WikiLeaks' third release of classified US files was by and large shrugged off by political, diplomatic and intelligence insiders as containing very little new material, although it gained weight by being sourced directly to official US documents.
The horrified protestations by some distinguished officials and academic scholars that international diplomacy will never be the same fell pretty flat too. For years now, since top leaders have been able to communicate directly through hot lines and jet diplomacy, diplomats have lost their cachet as behind-the-scenes policy-makers and holders of state secrets.
In the 21st century, even foreign ministers have dropped down their government's power chains. Less than a handful of distinguished officials, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, and, more recently, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu, are exceptions that prove the rule.
The post of British Foreign Secretary currently held by William Hague is a special case by virtue of his responsibility for the British spy agency MI6. Its every operation is subject to his personal approval and signature. Without this prerogative, the British foreign secretary' would hold no more than a junior position in policy-making like his counterparts in Berlin, Paris, Rome and Jerusalem.
Ahmadinejad is leery of leaks' credibility
Today's diplomats find themselves reduced to two functions as gatherers of information or bureaucrats.
In their first capacity they may be borderline spies, although at some point in their past careers they may have been the real article. Their assignment by US Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton to collect the credit card numbers, email addresses and fax numbers of political and military personalities in the countries where they serve does not make them full-blown spies. It only attests to the decline of their calling without demonstrating their intelligence skills.
As bureaucrats, their work is largely confined to technicalities.
That is precisely the point. The fact that the diplomatic files tossed to the media, though refreshingly blunt and entertaining, are small beer insofar as they determine US administration policies, is the feature which intelligence circles from Moscow to Caracas, and Beijing find the most intriguing.
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad predictably pointed to the disclosures as "worthless" and an American attempt to harm its enemies rather than itself.
The leaked calls from Arab leaders to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities he dismissed as “mischief” and a “Satanic plot” which would have no impact on his country's "friendly" relations with regional states.
Ahmadinejad denied they were leaks at all, insisting they were deliberately orchestrated by the US government for "political" reasons and “psychological warfare” – meaning that Julian Assange was working for Washington.
The trove is geared to vilifying Iran. Who by?
While Ahmadinejad in shooting the Islamic Republic's propaganda line goes too far as usual, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources gathered from political and intelligence circles in Asia and Europe at least four questions common to most about the flood of revelations still incoming – unless it is assumed that Assange tossed into cyberspace every file that came to hand without checking its content or making selections:
1. How did Iran come to be the party injured most by the WikiLeaks documents – and not the US? If the earth shook anywhere this week it was in Persian Gulf and Middle East capitals, where Arab rulers' extreme antipathy for Iran and its revolutionary Shiite regime was displayed for all the world to see.
Saudi King Abdullah was documented as urging the US to carry out a preemptive strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called Iran the overriding threat to its own and the region's security. He warned that if Tehran acquired a nuclear weapon, Egypt would have no choice but to follow suit.
Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar, regarded as Tehran's closest ally and diplomatic partner after Syrian President Bashar Assad, sang a different tune in private: He is quoted as asking the commanders of the big US Al Udeid Air Base, the largest outside America, how he could seize Iran's Persian Gulf oil and gas fields straight after an US strike against the Islamic Republic. According to the WikiLeaks files, Washington pays no rent for the base and had 60 percent of the cost of improvements covered by the Emir, but has not obtained his permission to use the facility for "kinetic operations" against Iran.
Cutting Iran down to size – from Mid East superpower to regional menace
Much of the trove depicts Iran in quite different colors from its self-image as a rising Middle East superpower, but rather as the menace perceived by the Arab world, one which is uniting the region's majority Sunni Muslims against its Shiites. On the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon, Iran has the failure of its revolutionary religious and political ideology to take root in the Sunni world shoved down its throat.
(See a separate item in this issue: For Tehran, this may be the last straw.)
2. Even though the WikiLeaks cables record Ahmadinejad as saying confidentially: 'We managed to beat the Americans in Iraq, but the last battle between us (and the Americans) will take place on Iranian soil," they intimate that an attack on Iran faces a single obstacle, namely the United States. Both President George W. Bush and Barack Obama have gone to extreme lengths to hold Israel back from an attack and fended off collective Arab pressure for an American offensive to destroy Iran's nuclear program.
Another question asked in Beijing, Moscow, Berlin and also Tehran, is why the Wikileaks release began Sunday, November 28, just one week before the start of the resumption of world power nuclear talks with Tehran. The Russians, Chinese, Germans and Iranians are asking themselves if the timing wasn't meant to intimate to Iran that it faces two hard choices: Either knuckle under to the international limitation on uranium enrichment to a harmless measure of purity and freeze its military nuclear program, or Washington will remove the restraints holding Israel back from striking Iran and be more receptive to Arab demands for an American attack.
Leaks don't put the Saudis off their drive for attack on Iran
The Saudis also showed some skepticism about WikiLeaks credibility in the longish story they ran in the semi-official Arab News of Tuesday, Nov. 30 on the changeover of directors of Israel's external spy agency under the caption: Mossad insider succeeds embattled spy agency chief.
(See an analysis in this issue of the fundamental reform underway in Israel's intelligence organizations.)
Saudi experts were astonished to find this report when never before had any Saudi publication published a word about military or intelligence appointments in Israel.
However, to show they were not embarrassed or put off by the WikiLeaks disclosure of their demand of the US to attack Iran, Saudi rulers chose to indicate that, notwithstanding Washington's refusal, they still favored intelligence cooperation with Israel for setting up such an attack. They ran this unusual item as a signal to the incoming Mossad Director Tamir Pardo that, as far as Riyadh was concerned, things must go on as before.
It fits into the background of the ongoing intelligence cooperation established in more than a year of meetings, mostly in the Jordanian capital of Amman, between the outgoing Mossad Director Meir Dagan and Saudi Intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, revealed largely as a result of past DEBKA-Net-Weekly disclosures.
No discreditable American secrets betrayed
3. Once again, timing raises questions. For instance, was it just coincidence that the publication occurred on the second night of Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri's visit to Tehran as he was about to be received by Iranian leader supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Monday, November 29)? That meeting fatefully sealed Hariri's surrender to Tehran's demand for the Lebanese national army to acquiesce to "cooperation" with Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps.
One of the US diplomatic cables released that day cited the Lebanese prime minister as being in favor of an attack on Iran. Tuesday, when he arrived in Paris from Tehran to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy, he made haste to issue a muddled and feeble denial of this leak, finding himself boxed into becoming the first statesman in the world to comment on the classified material swamping the media.
4. And a final question piquing the curiosity of all the intelligence analysts poring through the mountains of US cables: How can it be that in the hundreds of files so far examined not a single one betrays any significant military, intelligence or political secrets or anything really discreditable about the Americans or the governments covered in US diplomatic correspondence with Washington?
No one seriously believe that such omissions are fortuitous.