Wikileaks and papers to censor Ethiopian cables

By Eskinder Nega / December 03, 2010
“(Soon) Everywhere there is a US post (embassy or consulate), there is a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed,” wrote Bradely Manning, 22, from a US army base outside of Baghdad, to his online friend, Adrian Lamo. “Hillary Clinton and several thousands diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack.” (Lamo, a hacker, was horrified and informed the authorities.)

With access to the Defense Department’s Siprnet network “14 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 8+ months”, over which State Department’s cables ranging up to “SECRET NONFORN” level (which means non-US citizens should not see them) are exchanged, Manning was perfectly positioned to deliver on his promise. ( "Information should be free. It belongs in the public domain,” he reasoned.)

In the end, he was to retrieve 251,287 dispatches from more than 250 US embassies and consulates, all compressed in just 1.6 gigabytes of text files. And 1398 of them are exchanges between the State Department and the US embassy in Addis Ababa. These interactions have, in the words of my well connected source (an American) “…word is US State Dept has been reviewing cables from Ethiopia on wikileaks and fears some of its sources may be placed in real jeopardy---think the newspapers and wikileaks have been trying to censor some of the stuff to avoid such an outcome.”

America’s most sensitive documents, however, including those that relate to Ethiopia, classified as “TOP SECRET” and above, are not part of the leaked documents. Manning did not hack the network over which they are exchanged.

The New York Times, one of four newspapers to which wikileaks has (unofficially) provided the entire documents, has obviously shared the Ethiopian cables with the Obama administration; which is recommending multitude of omissions to forestall possible compromises of its sources. The Times, as a matter of routine, shares the State Department’s concerns with the other papers.( Der Spiegel, Germany; Guardian ,UK; Le Monde ,France; and El Pais Spain.) Each paper decides independently whether to accept the State Department’s proposed excision in its entirety or just parts of it. But as Dean Baquet, the Times Washington bureau chief, says, “(those) requests are taken very seriously." The NYT has agreed to some, but not all of the omissions suggested by the State Department so far, according to its editors. No major documents related to Africa have been released to date.

The leaked cables, which cover the period between 2005 and 2010, were sent, from, or to, the US embassy in Addis. Those sent from Addis were intended to be read by officials up to the level of Secretary of State; and should be, as is the case with the cables from other embassies to Washington, mostly drafted by the Ambassador or subordinates. How they perceived, negotiated, dealt, and maybe pressured Meles Zenawi will all soon be, as Manning intended, part of the public domain; no doubt embarrassing both sides.

But the unsettling prospect for the Americans, who reportedly rate their alliance with the EPRDF in Somalia as critical, is the extent to which the leaks may damage what is, by most insiders account, an already precarious relationship. Quick to be slighted, Meles abhors criticism. “He is oblivious to the distinction between a critique and a challenge to integrity,” says one of those he expelled (illegally) from the EPRDF leadership. And in a stroke of bad luck for the Americans, this leak has coincided with his peak petulance towards the West.( This is why Seyoum Mesfin, probably his best friend and most trusted confidant, is heading to Beijing instead of Washington as Ambassador.) Perhaps the only solace for the Americans is that the most discomforting cables will most probably be from the Bush administration. Even then, some sort of fallout---or at least unease--- is almost inevitable.

An interesting read will be the cables of Vicki Huddleston and Donald Yamamato, who lean towards Democrats but had assumed high profile positions under a patently rightist Republican administration. And more intriguingly, light could also be shed on Yamamato’s subsequent demotion, where he still lingers. He now publicly decries the 2006 US backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia as a “mistake.” Pundits are eager to learn if and when he had expressed opposition to the invasion when the Bush administration was in office.

Ethiopian troops first crossed in to Somalia in September 2006. By November 2006, the UN was reporting of Ethiopia’s violations of 1992 arms-embargo on Somalia. US involvement, suspected by many, could be exposed by the leaks. Arms transfers are a Defense Department turf, however, and correspondences, if there were any, could very well have taken place over a different network.( The Defense Department has its own network.)US involvement in the violation of a UN arms-embargo, if confirmed by the leaks, could hardly come at a worst time. The US is chief sponsor and adamant would-be enforcer of all ten UN arms embargos---ranging from those against Hezbollah to Iran and North Korea--- still in effect.

Of interest would also be ---if it’s anywhere in the cables---the American estimate of Ethiopian causalities in Somalia. Meles insists that it was no more than 500, at least in 2006. Of course, no one, including his most avid supporters, believes him. Considered from the perspective of the ferocity of the war and fanaticism of Islamic militants, the figure has been disparaged as ridiculously low.

But as far as the international community is concerned, the potential for bombshell lies squarely in the story of, in the words of Human Rights Watch,” decentralized, outsourced Guantanamo”--- the secret prisons in Ethiopia where suspects with strong links to al-Qaida were held by the Ethiopian government on behalf of the CIA and FBI.

According to a series of stories for McClatchy newspapers in 2007, two journalists reported that over 150 people had been deported from Kenya to Ethiopia and interrogated by CIA and FBI agents in three secret prisons. Incredibly, up to 200 agents of the CIA and FBI were reportedly involved. Though US government officials had at the time conceded to quizzing prisoners in Ethiopia, and rationalized it on national security grounds, the intricacies of the arrangement are still shrouded in secrecy. No one believes the EPRDF went overboard to assist the Americans for nothing. Almost anything related to this theme would generate a major international story.

For the Ethiopian public, however, the height of excitement will be measured in the cables that deal with the 2005 elections. Who did the Americans think won the elections? What did they think of the June and November massacres? Or the imprisonment of CUD’s leaders? And the closure of newspapers and imprisonment of their editors? Certainly, Washington must have sought guidance and update at some point. Maybe a little bit of intra-EPRDF politics? And hoping against hope, some fantasize about a cable that deals with high level corruption.(Very unlikely.)

Perhaps, in the end, there will not be much in the cables, after all. And all this excitement will all be for nothing. Well, possible, but unlikely. And while it lasts, the excitement is thrilling.