2011-01-04 James Richardson's Collateral Damage in the Guardian: WikiLeaks & Tsvangirai

Submitted by x7o on Tue, 04/01/2011 - 02:57

Today, James Richardson had an opinion and analysis piece published in The Guardian about the fallout in Zimbabwe from the publication of the 09HARARE1004 cable. Information about Morgan Tzvangirai's meetings with US embassy officials was disclosed in the Harare cable, and this will likely be the subject of a politically motivated high treason trial brought against Tzvangirai by Mugabe, the ultimate penalty for which is a death sentence.

It shouldn't be downplayed how serious it is that Tsvangirai might be facing the death penalty. But there are problems with the conclusions that Richardson draws, and they derive from a worrying looseness with the facts.

It would surely be unreasonable to claim that merely expressing approval of the sanctions in private meetings with US officials warrants a treason trial. But these are the sorts of concerns that journalists must consider when conducting harm minimization, and the unreasonableness of a particular regime is always something that has to be considered a factor when assessing the consequences of publication.

But it is in the apportioning of blame that Richardson reveals a troubling lack of balance in his attitude to Wikileaks.

From WikiLeaks' collateral damage in Zimbabwe | James Richardson | guardian.co.uk:

When WikiLeaks whistleblowers began circulating in April footage of a 2007 Iraq war incursion in which US military personnel unwittingly killed two war correspondents and several civilians, the international community was aghast at the apparent murder. With sobering questions on the material's full context largely falling on deaf ears, the group was free to editorialise the scene as it pleased: "collateral murder".

Here, he places undue weight on "sobering concerns" about the lack of context for the Collateral Murder video, omitting the fact that Wikileaks posted the full video for viewing, as well as the edited version, and that those concerns did not fall on deaf ears, but were debated intensively on the blogosphere for months after the release.

From WikiLeaks' collateral damage in Zimbabwe | James Richardson | guardian.co.uk:

Now, in the wake of the WikiLeaks' release, one of the men targeted by US and EU travel and asset freezes, Mugabe's appointed attorney general, has launched a probe to investigate Tsvangirai's involvement in sustained western sanctions. If found guilty, Tsvangirai will face the death penalty. And so, where Mugabe's strong-arming, torture and assassination attempts have failed to eliminate the leading figure of Zimbabwe's democratic opposition, WikiLeaks may yet succeed. Twenty years of sacrifice and suffering by Tsvangirai all for naught, as WikiLeaks risks "collateral murder" in the name of transparency. Before more political carnage is wrought and more blood spilled - in Africa and elsewhere, with special concern for those US-sympathising Afghans fingered in its last war document dump - WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it - at least to those who understand the value of a life.

Richardson shows in the article an express willingness to countenance already discredited falsehoods alleging Wikileaks' failure to conduct harm minimization in the War Log releases, without making reference to the fact that Wikileaks has, to date, killed nobody during its releases.

These in themselves are suspicious omissions. The most conspicuous flaw in the conclusion Richardson builds towards, however, is the notion that Wikileaks is the sole bearer of responsibility for the fallout from the release of 09HARARE1004.

Wikileaks has been releasing its cables only in collaboration with its media partners, using its media partnerships to outsource its harm minimization procedures. This ensures that cables are only released after they have been greenlighted and redacted by professional and accredited journalists working for one of the media partners.

From: Associated Press: Respected media outlets collaborate with WikiLeaks (Google Cache)

Unlike earlier disclosures by WikiLeaks of tens of thousands of secret government records, the group is releasing only a trickle of documents at a time from a trove of a quarter-million, and only after considering advice from five news organizations with which it chose to share all of the material.

"They are releasing the documents we selected," Le Monde's managing editor, Sylvie Kauffmann, said in an interview at the newspaper's Paris headquarters.
WikiLeaks turned over all of the classified State Department cables it obtained to Le Monde, El Pais in Spain, The Guardian in Britain and Der Spiegel in Germany. The Guardian shared the material with the New York Times, and the five news organizations have been working together to plan the timing of their reports.

They also have been advising WikiLeaks on which documents to release publicly and what redactions to make to those documents, Kauffmann and others involved in the arrangement said. Each publication suggested a way to remove names and details considered too sensitive, and "I suppose WikiLeaks chooses the one it likes," El Pais Editor in Chief Javier Moreno said in a telephone interview from his Madrid office. As stories are published, WikiLeaks uses its website to release the related cables. For example, The Guardian published an article Thursday based on diplomatic cables discussing the assassination of former Russian security officer Alexander Litvinenko by radiation poisoning, and WikiLeaks quickly posted three cables on the same subject.

Assange also confirmed this methodology in a Q&A session published by the Guardian.

cargun:Mr Assange, Can you explain the censorship of identities as XXXXX's in the revealed cables? Some critical identities are left as is, whereas some are XXXXX'd. Some cables are partially revealed. Who can make such critical decisons, but the US gov't? As far as we know your request for such help was rejected by the State department. Also is there an order in the release of cable or are they randomly selected?
Thank you.

Julian Assange: The cables we have release correspond to stories released by our main stream media partners and ourselves. They have been redacted by the journalists working on the stories, as these people must know the material well in order to write about it. The redactions are then reviewed by at least one other journalist or editor, and we review samples supplied by the other organisations to make sure the process is working.

If this is actually the method by which the cables are published, then it will be important to find which media partner first published 09HARARE1004. A glance at the datestamp for 09HARARE1004 reveals it was published on the 8th of December, 2010. The only publication making reference to 09HARARE1004 as early as this, is a publication of the full cable in The Guardian. The Guardian's title for the cable is "US embassy cables: Tsvangirai tells US Mugabe is increasingly 'old, tired and poorly briefed'". It identifies gossip about Mugabe at the salient content of the cable, and entirely fails to identify the importance of the material on international sanctions against Zimbabwe, which is the material which allegedly incriminates Tsvangirai.

7. (C) On the subject of Mugabe himself, Tsvangirai said that in his recent meetings, though Mugabe seems mentally acute, he appears old and very tired. He comes to many meetings unbriefed and unaware of the content. It appears that he is being managed by hardliners. Tsvangirai said his goal now is to find a way to 'manage' Mugabe himself. One way, perhaps, would be to give him something to give his hardliners. Precisely what that something is, he said, is something he is still wrestling with.

If the above outline of the procedure for publication is accurate, and the dates seem to suggest it is, the cable was published in full on the Guardian website before it was ever published by Wikileaks. It was released as part of a group of cables in support of an article in the Guardian by Xan Rice, which treats the Harare cables merely as a quote mine for salacious opinions voiced in diplomatic confidence about Mugabe. The article is called "WikiLeaks cables reveal differing views of 'crazy', 'charming' Robert Mugabe". This batch of cables, and the Guardian's choice of emphasis in their release, actually helped contribute to the pernicious article of common wisdom that "the cables disclose only gossip about world leaders."

An accompanying cable, released on the same day by the Guardian, in conjunction with another article, appears even more incriminating for Tsvangirai.

From: US embassy cables: Tsvangirai sets out options for removing Mugabe


The possibility that these cables might be used to eliminate Tsvangirai, who was a firm favourite in the running for Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, is very grave. But if a lapse in journalistic due diligence bears part of the responsibility, it will be important not to apportion that responsibility in a partisan fashion. A lot of commentators hostile to Wikileaks are willing to attribute to its media partners every triumph, and to Wikileaks itself every pitfall. But as often happens, with the present case this story does not agree with the apparent facts. It was very probably the Guardian which greenlighted the Harare cables, and it was very probably the Guardian's harm minimization efforts which have failed. But the whole episode is to Richardson an indictment of Wikileaks and of Wikileaks only.

Before more political carnage is wrought and more blood spilled – in Africa and elsewhere, with special concern for those US-sympathising Afghans fingered in its last war document dump – WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it – at least to those who understand the value of a life.

As a final note, it is worrying that the Guardian was willing to publish Richardson's article without reminding the public of the facts above. The publication practices employed during Cablegate ought to be well known to the Guardian editors. It ought to be a matter of record that the Harare cables were published in The Guardian first.

The result of Richardson's article is that Wikileaks will shoulder the entire blame for whatever eventually happens in Zimbabwe, a journalistic failure in the Guardian will likely fail to be adequately identified and addressed, and the Guardian will meanwhile generate more internet traffic off the back of it all.

(2011-01-04, 03:32 GMT) Update 1: An interesting article on ForeignPolicy.com explores the issues raised by Richardson, and poses the question "Does Robert Mugabe really need WikiLeaks?"

(2011-01-04, 04:28 GMT) Update 2: A tweet from the official Wikileaks twitter account immediately prior to the tweet linking to this article would appear to confirm the accuracy of the details above about how the cables are cleared for publication.

NB: On this point, there is now some controversy. Please see Update 7 for details.

(2011-01-04, 14:00 GMT) Update 3: I am informed of the following by a contact, all of which checks out:

I can confirm that the 09HARARE1004 cable was released in a torrent (which I still have) time-stamped 8 December 2010 22.31 UTC (while the Guardian's article is time-stamped 8 December 2010 21.30 GMT (aka UTC)... [T]he torrent was named "cablegate-201012082231.7z". If you [search for] it, it still can be found some places.

This confirms that the publication of the 09HARARE1004 cable in the Guardian predates the publication by Wikileaks by 61 minutes.

(2011-01-04, 15:00 GMT) Update 4: More on the publication arrangement between Wikileaks and its media partners.

There appears to be some dispute over the precise terms of the arrangement between Wikileaks and its media partners, and the publication procedure. Much of the misinformation likely derives from this rather skewed and remarkably vindictive piece in the Washington Post, which claims that the agreement Wikileaks offered to media partners specified monetary compensation if the embargo was broken. This has to do with the embargo only, and not with editorial control after the release of the embargo, but it may have given rise to false rumours that Wikileaks maintains editorial control over Cablegate.

Hilde Haugsgjerd, the editor of the Norwegian paper Aftenposten, which has received the full complement of cables from a source other than Wikileaks, appears to have been propagating the idea that Wikileaks maintains veto powers over the publication of cables - a relationship from which she claims her paper is free. This Nina Berglund article recaps on these claims, and sets against them recent statements by Guardian editorial staffers, Nick Davies and David Leigh, to Norwegian publication Journalisten, which roundly contradict Haugsjerd's story.

Davies rubbished the idea that Assange maintains editorial control in his HuffPost article last week in response to Bianca Jagger (which I have written about here.) And Leigh lays out clearly the terms on which the Guardian publishes the cables. (relying on Google translate for the quote.)

"There are apparently many misconceptions about the original" consortium " So these are the terms:

1. We at Guardian have all the telegrams. So do the other newspapers.

2. We have even decided exactly what we wanted to publish, and when it happens. After we had written cases, we sent daily copies of the relevant telegrams to WikiLeaks, edited (deletion of names, etc., editor.) In accordance with our decisions, so they could publish at the same time as us.

3. The other papers in the "consortium" made it the same way. We had, of course, various special interests.

4. We agreed with WikiLeaks to start the process on a specific date - March 29 November. "

Leigh says that the process he describes above, took place in just over two weeks it established cooperation between newspapers and the organization was in effect. During that time also worked for the newspapers to avoid scooping each other.

- Apart from that, we acted as fully independent editorial .(..) We all had at all times full and independent control over their own publishing decisions.

These clarifications of the editorial approach to Cablegate at the Guardian would appear to further undermine James Richardson's argument. A further confirmation is given at the end of this Luke Harding piece.

(2011-01-05, 20:10 GMT) Update 5: A post from zunguzungu deals with the issue above, while also providing some convincing political analysis of the Zimbabwean context in which the above story is unfolding. The thrust of the argument is that James Richardson and others are taking a simplistic perspective on the issue, and invoking Zimbabwean politics only insofar as it serves to make a point about Wikileaks.

(2011-01-12, 20:43 GMT) Update 6: Yesterday, a week late, The Guardian issued a marginal retraction of the Richardson story. I covered the inadequacy of this effort on WL Central, here.

Glenn Greenwald also gave the issue a full treatment, here on Salon.com. Greenwald tweeted at Alan Rusbridger, who
tweeted back that a reply at greater length would be forthcoming, so it is likely that we will see some more on this matter from the Guardian.

(2011-01-12, 21:34 GMT) Update 7: Some more information has emerged on the timestamp of the original release by Wikileaks of the 09HARARE1004 cable. I am writing a new post about this, and will link to it presently from here. (Edit: Here is the link.)

(2011-01-13, 19:42 GMT) Update 8: Further clarifying the publication procedure of the Wikileaks / media partnership relationship is this article on Bloomberg, apparently syndicated from the Associated Press article linked above. I have also been directed to the Guardian's statement, at the outset of Cablegate, about the publication procedure:

WikiLeaks has not revealed the source of its information. It has played no part in the preparation, editing and reporting of the individual papers. Co-operation with WikiLeaks has been restricted to agreeing the dates on which we could cover specific regions. The news organisations have redacted some of the cables in order to protect a number of named sources and so as not to disclose certain details of current special operations. We have shared our redactions with WikiLeaks.

(2011-01-13, 19:52) Update 9: The Guardian this afternoon published an article by Ian Katz which acknowledges the worries I outlined in this post, and proceeds to outline a balanced appraisal of the situation. The piece represents a public notice of the mistake in the Richardson article, and an attempt by The Guardian to address its own unfair practices. It puts to bed the notion that Wikileaks bears the sole responsibility for the publication of 09HARARE1004. There can remain difference of opinion about who bears more blame, whether that blame is justifiably apportioned, but The Guardian's move here ensures that those debates will occur with reference to the facts about how the cables are published. This can only be described as commendable.

Understanding the value of a life

One aspect of the Richardson piece that you didn't home in on, but which I find particularly abject, is this line:
"WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it - at least to those who understand the value of a life."

It is not necessary to assess the value placed on life by WikiLeaks to note that this statement is made in the best satirical tradition, as of course it is documented so extensively (Chomsky always provides rather winning summaries) as to be unnecessary to pull specific examples that the American Government, and the various US institutions that Richardson implicitly considers aware of the value of life, has been responsible in whichever recent decade you care to mention for extreme levels of death and violence.

Indeed, one indicator of the comparative levels of value placed on life by the respective organisations would be to compare examples where they have actively sought to end lives. I am aware of no example of WikiLeaks conspiring to kill, while (to resort to examples) the build up to the Iraq war and obfuscation therein showed the willingness of the US machinery of state to indulge in mass delusional, obfuscatory and deceitful behaviour with the intention of killing very substantial numbers of Iraqis.

So, by all means question the understanding of WikiLeaks in the ways of statecraft, but I suggest that Mr Richardson should not dare to characterise the US diplomatic service as experts in the value of life (unless he is asserting a specific dollar quantisation for it) until he has written a short essay examining the comparative value of the lives of Morgan Tzvangirai and Salvador Allende.

This article from the Daily Mash makes a similar point rather nicely. My favourite line, I think, is, "the key thing that has undermined the safety of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is them firing their big fucking guns at Iraqis and Afghans."

The absurdity of asserting "no harm" in Wikileaks release

It's the height of naivety to assert, as you do above, that "Wikileaks has, to date, killed nobody during its releases" (which is linked to http://wlcentral.org/node/278).

This is a disingenuous and unverifiable claim to make, and betrays a profound misunderstanding of the potentially terrible uses of the Cablegate material by authoritarian governments.

Redaction by Wikileaks is an impossible exercise, because WL can never know the context of the original materials involved. Who *might* have spoken to the Americans is at least as significant as who *did*. Individuals do not have to even be NAMED in the cables to be targeted. A name-redacted release (or even one with NO names) can be correlated with travel and phone records, and people can be targeted merely on the suspicion that they were speaking candidly to American diplomats. Moreover, the very people likely to be targeted for retaliation often live in authoritarian countries and are unlikely to be public figures, and so their possible arrest, imprisonment, torture or worse is unlikely to go reported. But make no mistake, it can and does happen, and is happening right now. The reason that officials at the State Dept don't comment on this is because they don't want to further encourage the targeting of vulnerable sources.

If you believe in Wikileaks, then you believe, at least in principal, that releasing the documents is worth endangering these people, many of whom are heroically working in repressive environments and risk their lives talking to the Americans.

At least have the balls to own up to your own position.

How cables are published

It's unbelievable all the confusion surrounding the way cables are published by newspapers vs wikileaks site. All the while Wikileaks could very well post an explanation on its own website. But no! Everyone is kept guessing and the process appears a mess.

And it IS a mess.

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