'Open Diplomacy' or Espionage?

     FT. MEADE, Md. (CN) - Retired diplomats offered surprisingly diverse perspectives on the "open diplomacy" ideal that Pfc. Bradley Manning professed in sending WikiLeaks more than 250,000 cables.
     Documents published under the name "Cablegate" account for more than one- third of sensitive files that Manning exposed, and are among the most controversial.
     Amnesty International claims the releases helped fuel the so-called Arab Spring. Manning's supporters cite their role in exposing U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and spying on the United Nations.
     Critics claim the releases may have spurred repressive regimes such as Belarus to crack down of democratic reformers.
     Manning repeatedly referred to the publication of the cables as an experiment in "open diplomacy," in online chats with Adrian Lamo, the former hacker who alerted authorities to the security breach.
     During those chats, Manning's online handle "bradass87" shared an excerpt of a New York Times report from Jan. 20, 1919 describing "open diplomacy" as envisioned by President Woodrow Wilson.
     "'Open diplomacy' does not mean that every word said in preparing a treaty should be shouted to the whole world and submitted to all the misconstructions that malevolence, folly and evil ingenuity could put upon it," bradass87 quoted the newspaper as reporting. "Open diplomacy is the opposite of secret diplomacy, which consisted in the underhand negotiation of treaties whose very existence was kept from the world."
     Princeton Professor John M. Cooper, who wrote a biography of Woodrow Wilson, described Wilson's ideal as "unprecedented."
     The concept, envisioned in the first of his "Fourteen Points," called for "Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view."
     Wilson "practiced what he preached," Cooper said, adding that the 28th president was the first to conduct a press conference.
     In the wake of "Cablegate," Princeton Professor Peter Singer published an article asking, "Is Open Diplomacy Possible?"
     Singer told Courthouse News: "It's been endorsed by a president of the United States, and one of the more thoughtful presidents of the United States, I might say."
     But President Wilson never opened hundreds of thousands of cables to press and public scrutiny, and the United States has never allowed open access for such documents, at any classification level.
     Dismissing such a notion as "naïve," Cooper said, "You can't [do that]. Come on!"
     Manning's defense attorney David Coombs described his client as "young, naïve, but good intentioned," in his opening statement.
     But two of four retired diplomats interviewed by Courthouse News suggested that open diplomacy could work, under certain conditions.
     Brady Kiesling, who served 20 years as a diplomat before resigning in protest of the Iraq war, defended the concept in a telephone interview as an official system of public access.
     "It's not hopelessly naïve," he said. "It is difficult, and it takes essentially a philosophical leap that the current U.S. national security state is not prepared to make."
     After postings to Tel Aviv, Casablanca, Romania and Armenia, Kiesling was stationed in Greece when he got fed up with what he called the "irrelevance of State Department expertise" in the prelude to the Iraq War.
     "I leaked my resignation letter to the New York Times so I couldn't lose my nerve," Kiesling said.
     He said he was in Greece when WikiLeaks released "Cablegate" in 2010.
     "Greek journalists immediately dived in looking for the smoking gun of all our nefarious schemes, and what they found was a U.S. government that was considerably more modest, more professional, more competent and less evil than they had any use for," Kiesling said.
     He said a more open system of access might help quell anti-U.S. paranoia.
     "Openness in U.S. diplomacy is a good thing, because even the most embarrassing truth about us is considerably less embarrassing or less harmful than what people believe they know about us without knowing the truth," Kiesling said.
     If such communications became part of the public record, U.S. diplomats would have more to fear from their own agencies than from any foreign government, he said.
     "In a way, it's all right to have the KGB listening to you. It would keep [its] secrets," he said. "Well, who knows what they'd do with them, but they wouldn't share them with the CIA very often. But the CIA might use them against you."
     Retired Army Col. Ann Wright, a former deputy chief of mission to Sierra Leone who also resigned to protest the Iraq war, noted the reluctance of U.S. intelligence agencies to share information with each other.
     The 9/11 Commission Report blamed this suspicion between agencies, in part, for the intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
     Wright said that her access to cables was so limited that she read more cables via WikiLeaks than she had in her 16 years in the Foreign Service.
     And Wright was a colonel, though Manning never even made sergeant.
     Shortly after she resigned, the Army tried to address the intelligence-hoarding problem by radically opening up access, Wright said.
     Those reforms gave Manning access to government documents that enabled him to pull off the record-breaking leaks, trial evidence has showed.
     Wright, who supports Manning, said the federal government could benefit from creating its own repository of low-sensitivity cables.
     As a rule, the public can get access to cables only through Freedom of Information Act requests.
     Under a recent executive order, sensitive government records must be declassified automatically after 10 years, though classification can be extended to 25 years in exceptional cases.
     The National Archives maintains open access to historical cables, which WikiLeaks used to build a database of 2 million unleaked cables from the Henry Kissinger era to supplement the Manning disclosures.
     Wright proposed speeding up the declassification process dramatically.
     "After six months, one year, if they're really unclassified, should the public have access to them even the next day?" she asked. "It would be fascinating to have real-time access to what our diplomats are considering important."
     She acknowledged that a "Diplomats for Bradley Manning" group would be a "lonely club - filled with a few retired FSOs" (Foreign Service Officers).
     "Active-duty FSOs wouldn't touch this with a 10-foot pole," she said.
     Former Ambassador Edward Peck, who served in the Nixon, Carter and Reagan administrations, also opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He, like Wright, was a passenger on the flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip in opposition to an Israeli blockade.
     But Peck disagrees with Wright about the WikiLeaks disclosures.
     "I think Mr. Manning, with perhaps the best of intentions, did not advance America's interests," Peck told Courthouse News. "I don't think that he was being malicious, of which some people will accuse him. But it is not productive to broadcast publicly information that has to do with what you are trying to accomplish overseas and with whom you are working to accomplish it. That just isn't smart."
     During his 32-year career, Peck was a special assistant to the under secretary of state in the Nixon administration, chief of mission to Baghdad under Carter, and a Foreign Service officer in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. In objecting to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he said, presciently: "when you take out Saddam Hussein, the key question you have to ask then is, what happens after that? And we don't have a clue. Nobody knows, but it's probably going to be bad. And a lot of people are going to be very upset about that ..."
     Peck said diplomatic cables are analogous to attorney-client and doctor-patient communications. Imagine an attorney telling a judge, "My client is guilty as hell. He told me," Peck said.
     "Well, that sort of defeats the whole purpose of law, because they're not supposed to know that from the attorney who got that on a confidential basis from his client, the other country, if you will."
     Peck called the system of public access to diplomatic cables "imperfect," but said openness should not be sought through Manning's methods.
     Charles A. Ray, who was U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe when he reached the age of mandatory retirement, agreed.
     Ray wrote to Courthouse News in an email: "I strongly believe in allowing the public as much view of what we do as the security of our people in the field will allow."
     In a telephone interview, he said he practiced that principle by chatting with Zimbabweans on Facebook, regularly posting on the U.S. Embassy website and engaging with the press.
     But he did not believe in cracking open diplomatic cables for public scrutiny.
     "The most innocuous cable can compromise an individual's privacy, if you're not careful," Ray said.
     He said that cables that he classified, and Manning exposed, had little impact on his work.
     Courthouse News found more than 40 cables that Ray had classified as "Confidential." He said that the impact of the disclosures was limited in his former post.
     "The damage was a lot less than the media reports would indicate," Ray said. "There was a momentary chill in some people talking to us, and that lasted all of a month."
     One cables revealed a protest of economic sanctions in front of the U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe on Feb. 24, 2010.
     One of the slogans heard that could be heard that day was, "Charles Ray must go. He is responsible for the sanctions," according to the cable.
     Ray responded publicly via his blog on the U.S. Embassy website, in a post titled, "Sanctions: Much ado about nothing much." He pointed out that U.S.-Zimbabwe trade doubled during the program of targeted sanctions.
     Manning's attorneys claim that government documents indicate that most diplomats have faced little blowback from publication of the cables. Manning said he leaked cables marked "SipDis," a tag for wide distribution generally used for lower-sensitivity documents and approved for more than a million government eyes. Manning's attorneys may not claim lack of actual harm at trial because the military judge, Col. Denise Lind, has ruled that whether the leaks actually caused damage is relevant only for sentencing.
     Lind is hearing the case without a jury.
     Department of State witnesses will take the stand for the first time in the coming days as Manning's trial enters its third week.