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How To Read Wikileaks

12 September 2011 12 September 2011 Tags: , No Comment Print This Post Print This Post

There is a great deal of discussion, particularly in Nigeria, of the impact of Wikileaks on the perception of Nigerian policy by the U.S. Government. This is unfortunate because the readers are not fully aware of the nature of these cables and how they were produced. This leads to unwarranted distress.

The U.S. embassies around the world communicate with the State Department by means of cables which are generated by the embassy. It is always useful to pay attention to two aspects of these cables. The first is the classification (Secret, Confidential, NOFORN, etc.) which regulates to which category the cable belongs. The second is the routing addresses at the top of the cable. In Wikileaks these are produced as a list. On the real cables there are a number of boxes at the top of the cable and the routes are checked and frequently have the number of copies sent to each recipient. The classification system is described in Authorized Classification and Control Markings Register,” Director of National Intelligence Special Security Center, 12 May 2008. This gives a slightly redacted list and explanation.

The important thing to realise is that those quoted in Wikileaks are communications from the embassies to the State Department with copies to various other government departments. Because the State Department is charged with running embassies across the world it is responsible for the State Department traffic from the embassies. There are several other agencies which have their own secure communications systems within the embassies (CIA, FBI, DIA, DOD, DEA, and NSA, among others) which generally bypass the State Department. For example, the CIA has the facility for generating critical information diffusion which is much quicker than the State Department information system. Critical intelligence is defined as “information indicating a situation or pertaining to a situation which affects the security or interests of the United States to such an extent that it may require the immediate attention of the President,” and specific categories of information considered to fall under this definition are listed in DCID No. 1/8 specific categories of information. Field reporting personnel of all intelligence agencies are directed to prefix the indicator CRITIC to all messages containing information under these headings and to forward them under high precedence by the most rapid communications means available. It was arranged that in Washington messages carrying this indicator would receive simultaneous electrical dissemination to all the main USIB agencies and to the Strategic and the Tactical Air Commands. The system was put into effect on 21 July 1958.

State Department cables (on which Wikileaks bases its news) are the regular way the embassies communicate. It is often slow and directed to a large audience, all of whom have differential security clearances. There is very little in these Wikileaks cables which is classified in any serious fashion – that is they are classified as to distribution to non governmental receivers but they are not directed to a U.S. service population with higher levels of security with the right to access special information. These are sent on the parallel systems and directed to individuals or working groups with the need to know and whose names and titles are not listed on the heading of the cable. In other words, the State Department cables are the lowest level of reporting from overseas sites.

In many ways this is reflected in their content. When Nigerian politicians are quoted as sources in these cables it does not mean that they met with the Ambassador personally, although they are ostensibly writing the cable and signing off on the classification and distribution. These cables reflect the “chatter” within the country. Someone from the embassy met with a Nigerian who sounded off with rumours, gossip and often self-serving propaganda which was reported at the morning meeting at the embassy. The notes were then transcribed for a cable and might have included all or some of what had been told. A good ambassador can tell what was more likely to be true and could winnow out the chaff (someone like Lannon Walker or John Campbell); others (like Robin Saunders and Harold Jeter) never understood what was happening in Nigeria and passed on the gossip as if it were automatically true. In several cases these cables were challenged by rival cables transmitted by other agencies.

So while the Wikileaks exposes are interesting, they are not definitive. In many cases in specialised agencies like DOD, CIA and DEA they were largely ignored in favour of more detailed reporting. In classified cables in agencies like the CIA, DIA and others it is a crucial part of the description of the information being transmitted that the full name be given, the likelihood of the information to be true (on a scale of 1 to 5), the access of the informant to the source or subject of the information (on a scale of 1 to 5) and the prior reliability of the source (usually who has a code name assigned to him/her) in previous reports. None of this is to be found in the Wikileaks documents.

So, before Nigerians get too upset about Nigerians ‘betraying their country” to foreigners they should moderate their outrage in realising that these cables, while interesting, are not necessarily completely true and may represent a casual aside by a Nigerian official in conversation with someone from the embassy. If one allows for this, they are interesting but hardly definitive of U.S. perceptions of Nigeria. The U.S. does, to a large degree, have the true information on the subject they are studying; but you won’t find this in the Wikileaks cables.

By Dr. Gary K. Busch


Gary K. Busch is an international trades unionist, an academic, a businessman and a political affairs and business consultant for 40 years, and has traveled and worked extensively in Africa.

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