Once classified reports could go viral, US diplomats thought twice about what they wrote and foreign contacts were careful with what they told diplomats
The release of a quarter of a million US diplomatic cables leaked by Chelsea Manning, the US army whistleblower whose 35-year sentence was commuted by President Obama on Tuesday, had a powerful impact on the practice of diplomacy around the world.
From November 2010 on, the knowledge that their classified reports might ultimately go viral online made US diplomats think twice about what they wrote back to Washington and made their foreign contacts think twice about what they told the diplomats.
The cables may even have played a part in sparking the Arab spring revolt. The colourful accounts of the opulent lifestyles of the family of Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, circulated on Twitter and Facebook, acted as an accelerant to the rage of the countrys disaffected youth.
In one of the more colourful cables of the cache, the US ambassador to Tunisia, Robert Godec, described a 2009 dinner with Ben Alis daughter and her husband, a wealthy businessman, Mohammad Sakher El Materi, who owned a pet tiger, fed on a constant supply of chickens, which reminded Godec of Uday Husseins lion in Baghdad.
After dinner, [Materi] served ice cream and frozen yoghurt he brought in by plane from Saint Tropez, along with blueberries and raspberries and fresh fruit and chocolate cake, the cable reported.
The report spread instantly and far around a country where it was estimated that 2 million out of 10 million people were Facebook users. It is impossible to say whether it had been read by Mohammed Bouazizi, the fruit seller who set himself on fire a few days after the Godec cable was published in protest at harassment by the municipal authorities, but it had certainly been seen by a large number of the rioters who came out to the streets in response to his suicide.
The cables were a window into how the worlds elites acted and talked behind closed doors. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was reported as having frequently exhorted the US to attack Iran to put an end to its nuclear weapons programme, according to one cable.
He told you [Americans] to cut off the head of the snake, said the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, according to a report on Abdullahs meeting with US Gen David Petraeus in April 2008.
The leaks also revealed that US diplomats had been ordered to take part in an intelligence-collection operation at the United Nations targeted at the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and the permanent security council representatives from China, Russia, France and the UK.
Washington wanted diplomats as well as the intelligence agencies to pick up details such as credit card numbers, email addresses, phone, fax and pager numbers and even frequent-flyer account numbers of UN figures as well as biographic and biometric information on UN security council permanent representatives.
The secret national human intelligence collection directive was sent to US missions at the UN in New York, Vienna and Rome; 33 embassies and consulates, including those in London, Paris and Moscow.
The cable raised questions about the dividing line between diplomats and spies in Washingtons eyes, and without doubt made UN and other foreign officials think very carefully about subsequent meetings with US diplomats.
US officials have asserted that the release of the material endangered the lives of US diplomats foreign sources. The state department legal adviser at the time, Harold Koh argued the document dump could place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals as well as ongoing military operations.
He accused WikiLeaks of endangerment without regard to the security and the sanctity of the lives your actions endanger.
There are no proven cases of deaths directly attributable to the release of the cables. But there was no doubt about the breadth and depth of the embarrassment.