2011-02-03 Shamir & The Guardian, Part 1: Astana & Tashkent Cables

Observations about the cables referred to in Israel's Shamir's recent CounterPunch article, Redacting Corruption: The Guardian's Political Censorship of Wikileaks raised some controversies about Shamir's legitimacy as a publisher of Wikileaks' cables. Shamir criticized The Guardian for redacting cables for political reasons, and published unredacted versions of those cables to support his case. The unredacted cables he published appeared to have slight disparities, raising the possibility, for some, that Shamir may have "gone rogue" - publishing unredacted versions of cables without prior authorization by Wikileaks, or even doctoring cables.

A close examination of the cables in question reveals most of these claims as idle speculation. It is highly unlikely that his recent article betrays journalistic foulplay of the sort alleged.

Shamir's article deals with three cables, 10ASTANA72, 06TASHKENT465 and 06TASHKENT902. The article provides links (here and here) to self-published and unredacted versions of the Tashkent cables, and reveals the passages that were redacted in the Astana cable. At the time of the publication of Shamir's article (11th, January, 2011) neither Tashkent cable had been yet released on Wikileaks site. Furthermore, the version of the 10ASTANA72 cable on Wikileaks' site was the redacted version released by The Guardian.

The "cablegate-201012200724.7z.torrent" from Jan 08th is available here, which contains the cables as they were on the date of the publication of Shamir's article. This confirms that the above details.

However, the Wikileaks site has since been updated (on January 13th. 10ASTANA72 cable is now displayed in its unredacted form. Both 06TASHKENT465 and 06TASHKENT902 have been released too, mostly unredacted.

The release of unredacted cables by Shamir, led to some speculation by bloggers, such as Neal Ungerleider, and saw headlines such as "Unredacted Wikileaks Cables Leaked to Internet," where the reader is asked to believe that it is apparently newsworthy that one news source chose to publish cables in a less redacted fashion than another one. Shamir was reputed to have been "doing an end-run" around Wikileaks, violating "internal Wikileaks decisions to censor" cables:

From: Unredacted WikiLeaks Cables Leaked to Internet, by Neal Ungerleider

One of the uncensored WikiLeaks cables he posted to CounterPunch, ASTANA 72, also appears in censored form on the WikiLeaks website itself. Two other cables posted by Shamir, TASHKENT 465 and TASHKENT 902, do not appear on the WikiLeaks website as of January 12, 2011. 902 was published as an extremely limited excerpt on The Guardian's website and 465 is not even labeled by its number. In all three cases, it appears Shamir violated an internal WikiLeaks decision to censor a cable in one case and embarked on a rogue cable release in two others.
...The fact that Shamir was doing an end-run around WikiLeaks was noted in a post on the British blog Hurry Up Harry by author “Joseph W”:

WikiLeaks’ Israel Shamir, who has in his possession all of WikiLeaks’ unredacted cables, has written a polemic in CounterPunch against The Guardian’s editorial policy. He claims that The Guardian is redacting WikiLeaks cables for political reasons. Yet The Guardian’s redacted cables match the cables you can already read on Wikileaks.ch.

As in all things WikiLeaks, the details of the story remain murky. Shamir has close ties to the Belarus government and recently visited Belarus, which has an infamously repressive government. Given that detail, it is seems extremely interesting that all the unredacted cables he leaked had to do with former Soviet states.

These musings are probably unfounded, since it is now well documented that Wikileaks does not excercise authority over decisions on what material to release and redact. That discretion has been outsourced to Wikileaks media partners. Media partners decide on which documents to publish, and on what redactions are necessary, and then forward those redacted documents to Wikileaks, who then publish the redacted version on their website in tandem with the media partners' own release.

With this in mind it will be clear that Shamir isn't performing an "end-run" around "internal Wikileaks decisions." As a journalist provided with access to cables pertaining to the former-Soviet bloc, he is (whether rightly or wrongly) choosing not to redact material that The Guardian chose to redact. Up until January 13th, Wikileaks' releases mirrored those of The Guardian because it received its cues as to which cables to release, and in what form, from The Guardian. Release of the Tashkent cables and of the unredacted Astana cable have occurred either because Shamir has notified Wikileaks of his own publication of these cables, or because Wikileaks have noticed that he has released them.

One further issue must be addressed which might cause confusion. A careless typo in the article leads to the dating of one of the Tashkent cables as "2005."

From: Redacting Corruption: The Guardian's Political Censorship of Wikileaks, by Israel Shamir.

Perhaps we might review other Guardian news stories for this kind of heavy-handed doctoring of newly available documents. Consider the secret cable TASHKENT 000902, sent May 5­th, 2005. Here is The Guardian’s presentation of the cable. It is censored almost completely; only two irrelevant sentences survived the self-serving butchery of Guardian editors. With editors like these, the sword hanging over Private Manning and the noose around the neck of Julian Assange become superfluous.

Shamir links to his own version of the cable too, but has apparently, for whatever reasons, removed the datestamp on it. The impression the article gives is that the TASHKENT902 cable was released May 5th, 2005. This would make the full reference ID of the cable 05TASHKENT902 - an important detail, because the Reference ID is one way of searching for a cable.

When Shamir's article came out, Wikileaks' site had not uploaded the Tashkent cables, and in order to verify the existence of this cable, I double checked the date against the Google Fast Fusion hosting of the full database of metadata for the cables, and found that no cable had been sent on May 5th, 2005, which made Shamir's mention of it look suspicious. But a glance at the datestamp of The Guardian's version of the cable, which Shamir linked to, soon set me right. The correct date that the cable was sent is May 5th, 2006. When the cable was released by Wikileaks on the 13th, this was confirmed. The 2005 date is therefore probably an unfortunate typo. The cable's full reference ID is 06TASHKENT902.

Shamir is a figure of some controversy, and there may be reason to suspect foulplay in Belarus. However, there is a harmful willingness on the part of bloggers and the mainstream media to zone in on apparent disparities, and - without adequately investigating - to infer surreptitious motives from them. As an approach to either the mainstream media, or to figures like Shamir, this is never an approach conducive to the pursuit of truth. It is instead the turning loose of the most pernicious cognitive biases to wilfully distort a field that is already complicated enough to begin with. Shamir is just as guilty of this as his critics. As I will describe in the next post in the series, he telescopes conclusions about the Guardian's redaction practices, when far more plausible conclusions are easily available. The fault is no less egregious in Shamir's critics than it is in Shamir himself.

The speculative conclusions that gave rise to this controversy are indulgences that those aspiring to serious journalism should not allow themselves. In the above quote from Neil Ungerleider's post, Ungerleider concludes that it is "extremely interesting" that Shamir is dealing only with cables from the former Soviet bloc. The above treatment addresses some of the falsehoods that funded this conclusion, but a separate falsehood - that Shamir has access to all 250,000 cables - was also operative here. An earlier post in this series explains that, apart from the fact that Shamir has a particular interest in this region, these are the only Wikileaks cables that Shamir has access to.

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