Analysis: Could WikiLeaks start a war?

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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.

More on WikiLeaks cables:

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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.

This is highly reckless. At some point, in dealings between sovereign nations subject to (either) electoral pressures or restive populations, private conversations need to occur, and they need to occur in private. They cannot always occur in person — thus the need for diplomatic cables, and, indeed, classified information writ large.

As someone involved in reporting on Al Qaeda in the late 1990s, I constantly wonder whether 9/11 might have been avoided had an ignorant (or just reckless) CIA agent not decided in 1997 to brag to the Washington Times that the agency was listening in on Osama bin Laden’s satellite telephone. Do I think the CIA source is more at fault? Yes. Do I think the newspaper is blameless: Hell no, and especially not a newspaper that staunchly defends American intelligence agencies.

Bin Laden, of course, never used his satellite phone again.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate that some information should not be public is to turn this column on its head: What if, for instance, WikiLeaks had revealed the initial feelers about a U.S.-China summit between President Nixon and Mao Zedong? Would Nixon have gone to China? I doubt it.

Or, let’s say WikiLeaks learned that the Egyptian president had decided to fly to Tel Aviv to engage in peace talks with the Israelis in 1971? Would this not have given Sadat’s enemies, both at home and in Israel, more than enough information to make sure it never happened?

Even in a world where the media trips over itself to report the latest video porn “leak” by Paris Hilton or the latest “policy statement” of Sarah Palin, we should understand the difference between things that matter and things that do not.

Countries have secrets — and they should have some, even if they will inevitably overdo it. The test of a true democracy is not whether or not secrets exist, it’s whether the secrets themselves are serving a higher purpose or a necessary (if unpleasant) goal.

In many cases since 9/11, the secrets held by the U.S. government have not always served a more noble purpose, and that is the fuel that runs the engine of a place like WikiLeaks. The U.S. public distrusts Washington, and the global public distrusts the United States. In effect, the public (finally) has adopted the default view of serious journalists.

Yet the black-and-white worldview WikiLeaks imagines goes too far: no gray is permitted — sunshine falls on everything. This confuses being “ardent” with being wise, and “transparency” with honesty. The world, unfortunately, is far more complicated than that.

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