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Analysis: Could WikiLeaks start a war?

It's not black and white, but it wouldn't be the first time leaked cables led to hostilities.

The Polish Embassy in Washington. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; illustration by GlobalPost)

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NEW YORK — “We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare,” opened the world’s most famous leaked diplomatic cable, sent by Germany to Mexico, in January 1917.

If anyone has any doubt about the potentially devastating consequences “leaked” diplomatic cables can have, the opening sentences of the infamous “Zimmerman Telegram” should lay them to rest.

“We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.”

Intercepted by British intelligence and handed over to the then-neutral United States, the telegram, written by German Foreign Minister Richard Zimmerman, proposed a simple swap: Mexico joins Germany in declaring war on the United States, and then Germany makes sure Arizona, New Mexico and Texas are given back to Mexico after the war.

Tempting as it must have been, Mexico eventually declined, and not long after learning about the telegram, the United States declared war on Germany.

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Loose lips … and leaks

Just as historians endlessly debate the causes of World War I, experts in security and free speech have locked horns over the latest cache of secret U.S. government documents made public by WikiLeaks. Do the guerrilla tactics of WikiLeaks advance an unassailable good — transparency, or risk an unpredictable backlash that far outweighs in chaos any benefit?

The rich horde of “diplomatic communiques,” which the website revealed over the weekend, included sensitive information about the motives and logistical realities of American foreign policy, both of the United States itself and of U.S. allies and rivals. The mass lustration has brought angry condemnation from U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and many of the foreign governments whose official secrets also burst into the open as a result of the WikiLeaks action.

At minimum, the revelations will complicate American policy and deeply embarrass some foreign governments. Some of the most embarrassed will claim they are fabrications (and, indeed, what guarantee do we have that a fake hasn’t been baked into the pastry?).

Others will fall back on legal issues, pushing for prosecution of WikiLeaks (though on what grounds no one appears certain), or at very least, the punishment of those found liable for actually leaking these cables to the website.

This file picture dated 1916 shows French soldiers getting out of trucks near Verdun battlefield, eastern France, during World War I. (AFP/Getty Images)

The good old days

Back in 1917, of course, some of these concerns wouldn’t have applied. However, some facts remain unchanged. Already, for instance, some of the most aggrieved U.S. allies — particular Sunni Arab leaders “caught on cable” asking for Iran’s nuclear program to be bombed — have floated the fabrication theory. Iran itself, perhaps embarrassed by the number of fellow Muslims who would like to see it attacked, accused the United States of fabricating and releasing the material to further its own aims.

Another similarity is the way such serious leaks complicate policymaking. In 1917, the discovery of the Zimmerman Telegram posed a major threat to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to keep the United States out of the Great War — an effort which Americans, who had witnessed three years of European slaughter from afar — supported overwhelmingly.

From Feb. 26, 1917, when British intelligence handed the decoded document over to the United States, until March 1, when Wilson authorized the State Department to leak it, Wilson’s White House worked desperately to determine whether or not the telegram was a British fabrication; Britain, of course, had its own motives for seeing the United States join the fray.

Yet by March 1, the evidence was overwhelming in Wilson’s eyes. Indeed, the Germans had in the time since the telegram was written resumed “unrestricted submarine warfare” in the Atlantic, just as Zimmerman had promised. Once the U.S. newspapers got hold of it, a new round of questions about the document’s authenticity arose. But on March 29, Zimmerman himself admitted he had sent the cable in an interview with a German newspaper. The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Could WikiLeaks start a war?

Yes, WikiLeaks could start a war. Undoubtedly, that is not their intention. Judging from the past statements of WikiLeaks founder Julian Asange, he would reject any blame for such an outcome, pointing the finger back at those who made the statements in the first place.