Friday, December 24, 2010

The Trouble With Wikileaks

I've seen all too many stories based on the cables being portioned out by Wikileaks that report somebody telling somebody else about a third party as though it were fact. Here are three from today.
This is why Wikileaks is so crucial: A June 2009 cable from France, days after the great Cairo speech of Obama, in which the Israelis are said to claim a secret deal with the US for settlement growth.
That story goes on to quote the cable:
MFA Middle East Director (Assistant Secretary-equivalent) Patrice Paoli informed POL Minister Counselor June 18 that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told French officials in Paris June 15 that the Israelis have a "secret accord" with the USG to continue the "natural growth" of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
A French official said that Ehud Barak claimed a "secret accord" with the USG to continue Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Let's unpack that. How did the French official know this? Did he hear Barak? Was it a rumor? If Barak said that, was he claiming something that didn't exist? Joking? Exaggerating? This piece of information has passed through at least two people.

Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear site in 2007, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a cable to diplomats, Yedioth Ahronoth reported Friday.
It is the first official confirmation that Israel was involved in the attack, the newspaper said.
I think I would save the phrase "official confirmation" for announcements from the government. "Confirmation" would have been sufficient. This is not surprising news, given the unofficial confirmations involving cheshire-cat smiles and refusals to comment. It's a more direct piece of information than the first example, though. The quote from the cable I find more interesting is
destroyed the nuclear reactor built by Syria secretly, apparently with North Korea's help
Note the word apparently. That could denote uncertainty or it could be a bureaucratic tic.

And Colum Lynch points out the problem with the report that Egypt was offered a nuclear weapon. That link doesn't quote the cable, but my recollection is that I had a number of questions. How would Maged Abdelaziz know this? His response to Rose Gottemoeller's asking of that question is quite vague. There weren't any specifics about who was offering, either. My impression was that it might have been the Russian government or it might have been someone else.

Most of the cables are like this: a tantalizing bit of information, with little confirmation. Because so much of the media is treating the revelations themselves as the news, the real stories are being missed. Any of these three might be made into a real story by further investigation along the lines of the questions I've asked. But that would be a lot more work, and most of the cables would be found to contain less news than their release is being treated as. Unfortunately, many readers will retain that Egypt was offered nukes by Russia or that the United States has a "secret accord" with Israel.

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