Thursday

23rd Mar 2017

EU officials give first analysis of WikiLeaks impact

  • Soldiers roll up US flag. The leaks are not going down well in Brussels so far, despite causing some amusement (Photo: Vince Alongi)

More investment in European External Action Service (EEAS) security, loss of goodwill in the EU's special relationship with the US and heightened tension in the Middle East are all likely consequences of the WikiLeaks scandal, EU insiders say.

WikiLeaks is a no-go area in on-the-record press briefings in Brussels, with EU spokespeople saying they do not comment on leaks or trying to brush them off as a distraction to real business. But senior EU officials interviewed on an anonymous basis by EUobserver in the wake of the publications say it will have practical and political implications for EU foreign-policy-making.

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EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton is set to face pressure to spend more money on cyber security and counter-espionage measures in the EEAS' hub and its foreign delegations. WikiLeaks comes just as an Ashton taskforce is finalising plans for the physical security of the EEAS headquarters in Brussels and installing new encryption systems for sending cables back-and-forth to its 136 foreign embassies.

European Commission delegations in the past mostly cabled on mundane issues, such as distributing aid. But EEAS appointments of senior politicians to head missions in, for example, Tbilisi and Beijing, indicate the cables will be more spicy in future.

Security specialists in Brussels are "shocked" and "astonished" that a 23-year-old official, the suspected source of the US breach, had access to verbatim transcripts of ambassadors' conversations in top foreign postings.

"The juicy tidbits, the verbatim stuff, should only be seen by a very few people. If Solana, say, had spoken to the King of Jordan, we would afterward learn that: 'We are confident the Jordanians think the following' or 'the Saudis are nervous about the Iranian situation.' Not 'Solana and the King said this-and-that on such-and-such a date'," one EU contact explained.

The contact admitted that the human element is never 100 percent secure: "Vetting is at best a deterrent, a negative exercise - you need to know the guy does not have a girlfriend in the SVR [Russian military intelligence]. But all the big spies in history passed their vetting."

Some EU experts are confident a WikiLeaks-type incident cannot happen in Brussels even on present arrangements - top-level-classified documents from the EU's intelligence-sharing bureau, the Joint Situation Centre, for example, are circulated in paper copies only. But others are less sanguine. "The lesson learned is that any secret can appear in the public sphere at any time, and more and more due to the Internet ... a piece of paper can be scanned," a French intelligence expert said.

Meanwhile, EU officials are on tenterhooks for US gossip on their colleagues, with Brussels expecting about 500 cables from the US mission to the EU to be released shortly.

The 600 cables so far in the open have not revealed anything major about US interests that EU counterparts did not already know. But the leaks will make EU personnel "more cautious" in what they tell their US colleagues in future and have generated antipathy toward the State Department.

While the cables make entertaining reading, US ambassadors, many of whom are political appointments rather than professional diplomats, are seen by some in the EU as indulging in "tittle-tattle" and journalistic-type sensationalism that would not be tolerated in many European foreign ministries.

Washington appears weak because it has been unable to quickly shut down WikiLeaks. A set of cables on the 2008 Russia-Georgia war also demystifies US superpower. Senior US diplomats come out looking as if they "fell asleep at the wheel" and gullibly swallowed Georgian reports, one EU source said: "It shows the US is not omnipotent. People expected them to have spy images of who moved when, who shot first. But they had no idea."

Brussels will in future find it harder to believe in US statements on the importance of multilateralism.

One source in the EU institutions said the State Department seems to have divided the world into "white faces" and "indians," with the white faces trying to lead the indians around in a game of manipulation. "Their dealings with European capitals show they put more weight in their bilateral relations than in dealing with the EU," the source added.

A British intelligence expert said US foreign policy might deteriorate if Washington reacts to WikiLeaks by going back to a pre-9/11 model of information-sharing, in which junior officials have access to only small chunks of information, helping the top cadre to quash ideas that do not fit their agenda: "They will say: 'Interesting. But you don't have the full picture.' The few at the top of the pyramid will find it easier to protect the status quo. It will lead to self-censorship and dysfunctionality."

A British specialist on Middle East policy added: "It's rather ugly. There's an element of condescension ... The cables show a kind of paranoia about terrorism and Iran. But there is no evidence of any vision for the region beyond that, of how to resolve the issues, except by further militarisation and co-opting people into counter-terrorism operations."

Rocking the boat

Laying aside tension on Iran, conflict-prone Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon have recently been quieter than ever in the past 10 years.

The WikiLeaks impact on the region is unpredictable. One contact said it might refresh diplomatic relationships if US personnel frantically row-back on their published comments. Another source said it could lead to an outbreak of anti-Western protests as with the 2003 Mohammed cartoons after the cables are translated into Arabic and filter down to street level.

In the worst-case scenario, US cables on the 2005 assassination of Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) set up to probe the murder could push forward the publication of the STL verdict or derail an agreement among Arab powers on how to handle the ruling. The tribunal is carefully stage-managing the verdict, which is expected to blame Hezbollah, in case Hezbollah provokes a conflict with Israel in order to distract from loss of face at home.

EU experts agree that the WikiLeaks cables are authentic and that Mr Assange does not appear to be the agent of a third country. One EU official noted that if the leaks were, say, a US plot to justify a military strike on Iran, a much smaller sample would have been released.

"I don't think they [WikiLeaks] really understand what they have. If there is any political agenda here, it is to weaken the US government ... It happened on his [US President Barack Obama] watch," the source said.

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