Since late November, the whistleblower website Wikileaks has been in the process of releasing in waves over 250,000 leaked United States diplomatic cables. Known as "Cablegate," this is the largest publication of confidential documents by any organization. (Catch up on Wikileaks developments by reviewing EFF’s page on this issue).

Wikileaks’ disclosures have caused tremendous controversy, with critics of Wikileaks claiming the leaks of classified information could endanger lives and harm international diplomacy. Others have commended Wikileaks, pointing to a long history of over-classification and a lack of transparency by the United States government.

Regardless of the heated debate over the propriety of Wikileaks’ actions, some of the cables have contributed significantly to public and political conversations all around the world. In this article, we highlight a small selection of cables that been critical to understanding and evaluating controversial events.

  1. “Dancing Boy” Scandal Alleges Child Prostitution, Possible Drug Use among U.S. Private Contractors
    The Guardian reported on a cable describing an incident in which employees of DynCorp, a U.S. military contractor, hired a “dancing boy” for a party. The term “dancing boy,” also known as bacha bazi, is a euphemism for a custom in Afghanistan in which underaged boys are dressed as women, dance for gatherings of men and are then prostituted. Read more. The incident allegedly involved soliciting local Afghan police for a bacha bazi as well as usage of illegal drugs. The cable detailed that Hanif Armar, minister of the Interior of Afghanistan, urged the United States to help contain the scandal by warning journalists that reporting on the incident would endanger lives.

    The incident contributed important information to the debate over the use of private military contractors in Afghanistan. The articles published in the wake of Wikileaks’ publication of the cable are far more critical than the original reporting on the issue. For example, back in July of 2009, the Washington Post described the incident as “questionable management oversight,” in which “DynCorp employees in Afghanistan hired a teenage boy to perform a tribal dance.” This cable helped the Post and the public understand there was more to this story than a tribal dance.

  2. Pfizer Allegedly Sought to Blackmail Nigerian Regulator to Stop Lawsuit Against Drug Trials on Children
    A cable released by Wikileaks says that Pfizer “had hired investigators to uncover corruption links to [Nigerian] Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa to expose him and put pressure on him to drop the federal cases.” The Guardian reported that the drug giant was trying to convince the Nigerian attorney general to settle lawsuits arising from medical testing of the oral antibiotic Trovan that it administered to children living in Kano during a meningitis epidemic in 1996. The cable also noted that Pfizer Nigeria Country Director Enrico Liggeri felt the lawsuits “has had a ‘chilling effect’ on international pharmaceutical companies because companies are no longer willing to conduct clinical testing in Nigeria.” This episode helped the public understand more about the controversies surrounding drug testing in underdeveloped countries, as well as the politics behind Nigeria's settlement of the multi-billion dollar lawsuit for $75 million.
  3. U.S. Failed to Bully Spain Into Adopting Untested Anti-P2P bill
    A diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks to the Spanish paper El Pais shows that the United States used bullying tactics to attempt to push Spain into adopting copyright laws even more stringent than those in the U.S. As EFF reported, a U.S. official apparently pressured the government of Spain to adopt novel and untested legislative measures that have never been proposed in the United States. The Wikileaks revelations came just in time, providing critical information in a December legislative session, and saving Spain from the kind of misguided copyright laws that could cripple innovation and facilitate online censorship.
  4. U.S. to Uganda: Let Us Know If You Want to Use Our Intelligence for War Crimes
    The United States has long supported the efforts of the Ugandan government to defeat the Lord's Resistance Army, as part of a conflict known for its brutality and the use of child soldiers. One cable released by Wikileaks indicated the United States was considering selling arms to Uganda. The Guardian reported that the U.S. ambassador accepted verbal promises from the Ugandan defense minister that they would “consult with the US in advance if the [Ugandan army] intends to use US-supplied intelligence to engage in operations not government [sic] by the law of armed conflict.” That same article noted that the United States has been concerned that the Ugandan government is engaged in actions which might violate the laws of war.

    Learning that U.S. intelligence might be used outside the laws of law, and that the U.S. government merely wanted a consultation, helped the public understand more about the American-Ugandan cooperation against the LRA, and informed the debate over the methods used to combat rebellions in Africa. This is not an idle concern- the very next day a cable detailed the use of extrajudicial execution of a Ugandan prisoner.

  5. U.S. Haggling over Guantánamo Detainees
    President Obama promised to close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp since his campaign for the office, and reiterated the promise once he took office. Yet the controversial detention facility remains open. An article by the New York Times analyzed cables released by Wikileaks which indicated the United States is having difficulties in fulfilling this promise and is now considering some unique solutions. The cables show that U.S. diplomats have been searching for countries that would take detainees, often bargaining with foreign countries over the placement of prisoners. In return for accepting detainees, the receiving country might get a one-on-one meeting with Obama, assistance obtaining International Monetary Fund assistance, or some other helping hand from the United States. In one cable, Saudi Arabian King Abdullah recommended that the U.S. implant an electronic chip in each detainee for location tracking, using technology developed for livestock.

The debate over Wikileaks will continue for some time. But these examples make clear that Wikileaks has brought much-needed light to government operations and private actions which, while veiled in secrecy, profoundly affect the lives of people around the world and can play an important role in a democracy that chooses its leaders. As founding father James Madison explained, "a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy or perhaps both." Regardless of whether you agree with WikiLeaks, Cablegate has served an important role in bettering public understanding on matters of public concern.

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