On Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010, news organizations announced the leak of 251,287 classified diplomatic cables. These diplomatic documents, also referred to as cables, represent a sampling of the everyday communication between the State Department and 270 embassies and consulates.
These cables contain damaging information, such as the following:
- Criticism offered by U.S. commanders, the Afghan president and local officials in Helmand of England’s military efforts in Afghanistan.
- Alleged corruption when local officials in the United Arab Emirates found that Afghanistan’s vice president was carrying $52 million in cash.
- Allegations that China’s Politburo hired hackers to sabotage Google’s system in China.
This is a small sample of the significant secrets that were revealed yesterday. The cables also include frankly worded messages, such as the cable in which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (depicted as “pale and hesitant”) is labeled as playing “Robin” to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is called the “Batman” in the relationship.
These cables were allegedly leaked by a low-level Army intelligence analyst to WikiLeaks, an organization designed to share official secrets. WikiLeaks publishes original source material, along with news analysis, to bring greater transparency to the world. WikiLeaks shared the illegally obtained cables with five publications: The New York Times, London’s The Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel, Spain’s El País, and France’s Le Monde. Each news source has been instructed to release the cables in timed stages, which WikiLeaks has organized by country or topic. This slow-drip method will keep the cables in the news for a long time.
The Public Relations Response
White House officials learned about the leaks in advance when The New York Times contacted them, shared the information the newspaper planned to reveal and asked for any statements that appeared to put lives at risk. The newspaper complied with some of the White House’s requests and shared the administration’s requests with other news organizations, as well as its own decisions about what to exclude.
With advance knowledge of the leak, U.S. ambassadors were warned and instructed to talk with their contacts about what to expect before the information comes out. It’s a smart move to get ahead of a story and to prioritize publics when doing so. As developed by Grunig and Hunt and discussed by Brad Rawlins, publics with functional linkages to an organization have high priority. A functional linkage means that a public provides input or output to the organization.
Thus, U.S. ambassadors, diplomats and intelligence operatives should be among the first to know about the leaks, and they should have the ability to talk with their contacts about the stories before they appear. There is an excellent example of part of an ambassador’s statement on The New York Times’ blog (scroll down to the statement by Cameron Munter, America’s new ambassador to Pakistan).
Crisis in the Relationship With Ambassadors
One of the many consequences of the leak is the damage to the United States’ relationship with its ambassadors, diplomats and intelligence operatives: Will future cables be safe from leaks? How can ambassadors convince contacts to trust them when there is a breakdown in trust between ambassadors and the U.S.?
Trust is based on perceptions of competence and promise keeping (see Hon & Grunig). The government will need to communicate the effectiveness of efforts to fix the security breach. It will also need to make promises to the diplomatic community and keep those promises to gradually rebuild trust. Cultivating personal relationships can also play a vital role in repairing trust.