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Laying Cable with Barry and Dub

If WikiLeaks bores anybody to death, will Julian Assange be guilty of murder?

Tim Cavanaugh
December 8, 2010

In all the talk about people whose lives have been endangered by WikiLeaks’ broad release of diplomatic cables, why don’t you hear more about Elias Murr?

According to March 2008 notes prepared by then-chargé d’affaires in Beirut (later ambassador to Lebanon) Michele J. Sison, Lebanese Minister of Defense Murr offered tips on how the Israeli Defense Force could invade his own country without getting into a fight with his army.

Elias Murr with David Petraeus The cable indicates Murr believed Israel in the summer of 2008 would repeat its 2006 broad-based attack on Hizbollah in Lebanon. (It didn’t.) During that conflict, Murr reportedly said his aim as defense minister would be to ensure that the Lebanese Army did not engage the Israelis. He described plans to stash food, money, and water for the marooned soldiers of the 1st and 8th Brigades, who while sitting out the war in the Beka'a Valley would be unable to forage from a local populace described as “mainly Hizballah supporters.”

According to Sison:

Murr also gave guidance to [then-Lebanese Armed Forces commander and now President of Lebanon Michel] Sleiman that the LAF should not get involved "when Israel comes." This guidance came four days after Sleiman had instructed his officers to be prepared (ref D). Murr told us that he promised Sleiman the political cover for LAF inaction. Murr's opinion is that an Israeli action against Hizballah would not be a war against Lebanon and that Syria and Iran did not ask Lebanon's permission to equip Hizballah with its rockets. As such, the LAF has been ordered to not get involved with any fighting and to fulfill a civil defense role, such as humanitarian support, when/if hostilities break out. Murr told us that he would personally speak to the Shia officers in the Army to make sure they understood why the Army was not going to participate.

The offensive never happened, but Murr’s plan to cooperate tacitly with an army on the attack—from a country with which Murr’s country is technically at war—seems like exactly the kind of sensitive information whose release could endanger life and limb, and underscores the many calls for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be hunted down, executed, or at least subjected to absurdly loaded questions. (In the event, Assange was jailed yesterday on none-too-compelling sex crimes charges.) Here you have a minister of defense abjuring the defense of his own country’s territory, in a country where political violence is never far away.

Yet Murr does not appear to be in any peril. A spokesman for the defense minister says the cable (which surfaced in the Lebanese paper Al Akhbar, not in the original searchable WikiLeaks cable dump) is “not complete and not accurate…does not reflect the truth about what happened during the meeting and it has no value” and is only intended “to sow discord in Lebanon.” After a brief dustup in the Israeli and local media, the issue fizzled out.

That’s because the Murr cable—like, apparently, every cable included in the rapidly fading WikiLeaks diplomatic database—simply revealed what everybody already knew. The Lebanese army would not engage Israel just as it has declined to engage Israel on all previous occasions; a Lebanese official exudes a mixture of bravado (“Murr told us that ‘they (Hizballah) are scared, terrorized’”) and confessional self-pity (“Murr reported that Christians want to sell their property so they can leave Lebanon”); and somebody in the Middle East is both looking for revenge and anticipating counter-revenge (“Hizballah must respond to the Mughniya assassination, but they know it will bring retribution”).

This is news?

And it’s the same way no matter what you look for. Whether you choose to drill down on intellectual property or Canadians or (as I did) Lebanon, the disclosures are eerily in tune with the cocktail party view of U.S. policy. Pick a topic, any topic, and it will conform to what you pretty much understood from following the mainstream media. Vladimir Putin (or just Vladimir, as George W. Bush insists on calling him in one of several cool literary effects in his memoir Decision Points) has broad regional desires but is uncannily tuned in to public and international perceptions. The Sunnis want the Americans to attack the Shiites. Israel is wary of, but realistic about, military assistance the United States provides to other countries in the Levant. And so on. It’s a drama without plot twists, as measured and judicious as one of those unsigned editorials The New York Times and its imitators still run every morning.

Let’s take an example. In March 2005 Hervé de Charrette (then an official of Nicolas Sarkozy’s political party, now president of the French-Arab Chamber of Commerce, "a permanent business forum for French and Arab entrepreneurs") offers “a hand of friendship and cooperation” to then-U.S. Ambassador to France Howard Leach. He praises U.S. efforts in the Middle East, regrets the “embarrassing” decline in relations with the United States under then-president Jacques Chirac, and promises his party will reach out “to its natural partner the Republican Party, but also to the Democrats.”

Now repair to page 465 of Decision Points, wherein Bush in turn gushes about “Nicolas Sarkozy, the dynamic French president who had run on a pro-American platform.”

This smoothness of cross-referencing applies within the cables themselves. Here’s Murr (again, per Ambassador Sison’s 2008 notes) sizing up the lessons Israel learned during its unsuccessful and broadly destructive incursion into Lebanon in 2006:

Murr harbors no illusion that they will not get bogged down in the village a second time. Instead, Murr thinks they will bypass strongholds in villages and pursue the main forces, the rockets…

Murr thinks that Ehud Barak is a very different Minister of Defense than the one who tried to win a war using airpower…

18. (S) Making clear that he was not responsible for passing messages to Israel, Murr told us that Israel would do well to avoid two things when it comes for Hizballah. One, it must not touch the Blue Line or the UNSCR 1701 areas as this will keep Hizballah out of these areas. Two, Israel cannot bomb bridges and infrastructure in the Christian areas. The Christians were supporting Israel in 2006 until they started bombing their bridges. If Israel has to bomb all of these places in the Shia areas as a matter of operational concern, that is Hizballah's problem. According to Murr, this war is not with Lebanon, it is will [sic] Hizballah...

For Murr, the LAF's strategic objective was to survive a three week war "completely intact" and able to take over once Hizballah's militia has been destroyed. "I do not want thousands of our soldiers to die for no reason," Murr declared.

And here’s Benjamin Netanyahu discussing the same combat lessons with Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-New York) in 2007 (from notes by then-Ambassador Richard H. Jones):

Netanyahu said the problem was not the war's goals but rather the disconnect between goals and methods. If the IDF had used a flanking move by a superior ground force, it could have won easily. Instead, Israel "dripped troops into their gunsights," an approach he termed "stupid." The top leadership had lacked a sense of military maneuver. In addition, they had been afraid to take military casualties, but instead got many civilian casualties. If Olmert had mobilized the reserves in ten days, seized ground, destroyed Hizballah in southern Lebann, and then withdrawn, he would be a hero today. Instead, Netanyahu predicted, Olmert will not last politically.

Three years on, the political predictions have proven accurate. Ehud Barak is still Israel’s defense minister, and Netanyahu defeated Ehud Olmert to become prime minister of Israel (though that happened almost two years after the comments above). The military judgments largely dovetail.

And you know who else I’ll bet would corroborate these reports—in the unlikely event he were to stop by for a chat at the U.S. embassy? Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. I’m serious: I’ll bet 15,000 Lebanese lira that in whatever counterpart cable went between South Beirut and Damascus (don’t expect to see that one from WikiLeaks!), Nasrallah summed up his view of the 2006 war and the future war using pretty much the same language as Murr and Netanyahu.

This combination of predictability and squalidness gives the cables a somebody-else’s-diary vibe: You know where it’s all headed; you’re just not sure the author has figured it out yet. The cable dump (healthy movement of a regular nation) also reveals an almost total continuity between the foreign policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. It’s hard enough telling fish from fowl within the borders of the United States; but at the level of the foreign policy the United State projects upon the world, the differences between Republican and Democratic policy shrink, as Gen. George S. Patton said, to insignificance.

In their capacity to capture horror and render it banal, the cables make you understand how the same people can be dismissing WikiLeaks’ information as unimportant while also calling for treason charges against non-U.S. citizen Assange. On May 8, 2008, Mariot Leslie, a British defense and intelligence official with NATO, tells Undersecretary of State John Rood of reservations the United Kingdom has about the incautiously named operation CEDAR SWEEP, which required U.S. use of the British base at Akrotiri in Cyprus, apparently for surveillance flights over Lebanon. The British, according to Leslie, are concerned that the invitation for these flights came not from the government of Lebanon itself but specifically from its defense ministry, which is headed up by Elias Murr, whom we met above. She and a colleague also note the Lebanese Armed Forces’ reputation for torturing detainees:

FCO is concerned that human rights reports, including the State Department’s own, do not reflect the sterling reputation of the LAF as conveyed in our April 14 request for use of Akrotiri airbase. HMG expects the United States to monitor use of the CEDAR SWEEP intel and ensure the LAF lives up to its commitment to maintain high human rights standards… To the extent that the USG becomes aware of arrests made as a result of CEDAR SWEEP intel, HMG expects the USG to ensure the detainees are treated lawfully. If the U.S. became aware of “reasons to doubt LAF assurances,” HMG would expect to be notified immediately.

This memo from the U.S. embassy in London objects to this British “piling on of concerns and conditions, which portend a burdensome process for getting the rest of our intel flights approved,” and requests that the State and Defense Departments intercede with their UK counterparts. Apparently the intercession worked, because on May 16 Leslie returns to the embassy to concede the point, diplomatically:

Leslie expressed annoyance at the additional conditions conveyed by the FCO working level on May 14 (Ref A), noting she had not been aware beforehand that such a message would be conveyed. In fact, she regretted the tenor of the discussions had turned prickly and underscored HMG appreciation for U.S.-UK military and intelligence cooperation. To set the record straight, she clarified that [a related letter from the Ministry of Defense] was not/not intended to question whether the U.S. had obtained full GOL (vice just MOD) approval for the operation or to put any additional conditions on it. Furthermore, regarding the May 14 expectation that the U.S. must follow up on all cases of alleged terrorists who were detained as a result of CEDAR SWEEP intel, Leslie said that was not at all what HMG intended to convey to the USG. In fact, ministers had merely wanted to impress upon the USG that they take the human rights considerations seriously.

And because no discussion of torture is complete without a mention of the toilet, Leslie points out that she had been concerned mainly because “the Cypriots are hypersensitive about the British presence there and, she said, could ‘turn off the utilities at any time.’”

The intellectual argument against Wikileaks—that agencies empowered to torture people and undermine sovereign nations should be subjected to less scrutiny than a municipal department of sanitation—is itself treasonous. Anybody who makes this argument is unfit to live in, let alone govern, a free society.

The emotional argument, on the other hand, is clearly powerful, as we have seen in the establishmentarian consensus that Assange needs to be imprisoned no matter how flimsy the pretext. But I expect the emotions are already fading, as the various anti-Assange factions get distracted by a trove information that is broadly useful if never surprising.

What troubles me is that it is so unsurprising. That may be explicable through capture bias: When people approach American diplomats, they make their requests (usually for American blood and treasure) in language American diplomats can understand. But the creepy thing is how even these supposedly confidential documents confirm the consensus on the United States and its roles in the world. When everybody is in agreement, it’s time to worry.

Tim Cavanaugh is a senior editor at Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Tim Cavanaugh is Managing Editor, Reason.com


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