The US Foreign Policy establishment is being roiled by the revelations emerging from the Wikileaks secret document dump – or maybe it isn't. While the embarrassing Wikileaks leaks have made front pages around the globe, the reality so far is more heat than light: Italy's Silvio Berlusconi is a sleazebag, Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai is corrupt and possibly nuts, Russia's Dmitry Medvedev is playing Robin to Vladimir Putin's Batman, China is cyberspying on the world and Saudi Arabia wants the US to take down their regional rival Iran – we really needed a much ballyhooed release of secret documents to tell us this? The source for the Wikileaks media exclusive are thousands of stolen “cables”, an arcane term for communications between US embassies/ambassadors/officials abroad and the home office in Washington DC. The cables are secret to the extent that no one who wrote them expected them to be read outside the US foreign policy machine, and as such the authors were unreserved in their critique of foreign governments and officials. But in reality, the cables largely do not (at least not to this point) offer up much information that you couldn't already get from a host of pundits, analysts and websites. Wikileaks, in this regard, is reminiscent of Marshal McLuhan's oft-repeated mantra of the medium being the message.
The source for these documents, as well as the tens of thousands of documents included in their last expose of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is a lone private, Bradley Manning, who worked as an intelligence analyst for the US Army. Perhaps the real story with Wikileaks then should be how a single, low-level functionary could not only have access to tens of thousands of “secret” documents spanning the breadth and width of the United States' foreign involvements, but could also copy and distribute these documents without anyone finding out until it was far too late. It is an action that points to a real lack of oversight and control within America's intelligence apparatus. (Pvt. Manning allegedly snuck the stolen documents out of Army intelligence on what looked like home-burned CDs of Lady Gaga's music.)
And maybe that is the thing to really discuss, because Pvt. Manning's document stealing is far from the first black eye the US intelligence services have received lately. Several months ago word came from Afghanistan that negotiations had begun with “senior Taliban officials” about leaving militancy behind and joining the Karzai regime in helping to rebuild, rather than destroy, their country. It was suggested that the Taliban's sudden willingness to talk was confirmation of the success of the new counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy implemented by Gen. Petraeus; that the Taliban had realized further fighting against the US/NATO Coalition was futile. Mullah Akthar Mohammad Mansour was leading negotiations for the Taliban side, and the whole situation would have made for a great story if any of it happened to be true. Unfortunately the Mullah Akthar Mohammad Mansour who had presented himself to Coalition forces and as such had been given perhaps $100,000 in “aid” and introduced to Afghan President Hamid Karzai wasn't the real Mullah Akthar Mohammad Mansour; a fact the Coalition (specifically Britain's MI6 intelligence services who supposedly vetted Mansour) only learned after the imposter Mansour had fled to Pakistan, presumably with his cache of aid money intact.
Given that the United States-led coalition has spent nearly a full decade engaged with the Taliban, that Mullah Akthar Mohammad Mansour (the real one at least) is a senior Taliban commander and that the COIN strategy stresses detailed knowledge of the insurgent enemy, the Mansour affair is an epic failure on the part of the US/Coalition intelligence services, since the CIA didn't pick up on the fake Mansour either. Sadly it's not the first, in fact it seems like the US intelligence services have missed the boat on a host of major events in the post Cold War era, starting with the CIA's failure to predict Mikhail Gorbachev's dissolution of the Soviet Union. This was followed by the incorrect assumption that Iraq was massing for an invasion of Saudi Arabia which sparked the Gulf War, the failure to detect/stop the 9/11 attacks, and the belief that Saddam Hussein had an active weapons of mass destruction program which sparked Gulf War II. Of course the United States is not alone when it comes to bad intelligence, this summer's round-up of the “Russian spy ring” in and around New York City is proof that the Kremlin is having their own troubles in attracting the best and the brightest to the world of espionage. Though the ring may have launched redhead Anna Chapman into international stardom (she now even has her own iPhone app) and cult hero status back home, it seems to have done little in the way of actual intelligence gathering, despite a decade of trying. The latest story from Russia is that the ring was actually exposed by a traitor within the upper levels of their intelligence services, Col. Shcherbakov (or Col. Poteyev, depending on your source), who Vladimir Putin has all but pledged to hunt down. And while this would seem like a triumph for American intelligence - that they could get a mole so highly placed within the Russian apparatus - it also points out that the FBI/CIA couldn't on their own catch the most inept batch of spies from Eastern Europe since Boris and Natasha chased “moose and squirrel.”
So aside from providing a series of embarrassing stories, why is any of this important? Because intelligence gathering is the way nation-states learn about each other and decide how to act on the global stage, and these anecdotes show that the current state of intelligence gathering in the world – both overt and covert – is providing a mix of information that is either obvious or just plain wrong. In turn that is likely to prompt countries, the United States included, to make some poor foreign policy choices in the months and years to come; given that the world today is a far more complex, some would even say dangerous, place than it was during the Cold War poor policy choices could have disastrous effects.
Let's hope then that the Wikileaks leaks lead to some better intelligence gathering efforts and prompts some better dialog among nations.Afghanistan, NATO, Russia, Taliban, US Foreign Policy, Wikileaks