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Endgame for Assange? The Politics Behind Ecuador’s Asylum Offer

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WikiLeaks Needs to Fine Tune Its Media Strategy

If anyone had any doubts about WikiLeaks' potential to exert profound political change, recent events in Tunisia may serve to undermine such skepticism. As the civil unrest unfolds, some will wonder what actually caused the fall of the despotic Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime. While it would be a stretch to argue that Tunisia represents the first "WikiLeaks revolution," it's clear that some U.S. cables emanating from the American Embassy in Tunis severely tarnished the local government's reputation. The documents, which reported on embarrassing corruption plaguing the Ben Ali regime, were widely discussed amongst Tunisian bloggers and fueled long-simmering tensions within civil society.

Perhaps, then, WikiLeaks represented the straw that broke the camel's back. As he observes the volatile political scene in North Africa, Julian Assange might feel as if his wildest expectations have been superseded. Indeed, some are already discussing the possibility of unrest crossing over into neighboring countries, exerting a kind of "domino-like effect" throughout the autocratic Arab world. How many other damaging documents from U.S. embassies around the Middle East have yet to be released, and what are the ramifications? As they watch Ben-Ali flee from Tunis, many despotic leaders may worry about their fate.

Progressive forces should cheer events in Tunisia, yet I would argue that on balance "cablegate" has failed to live up to its greatest potential. As it seeks to fundamentally alter power relations, WikiLeaks should take stock of the past two months or so of "cablegate" and figure out what has worked and what has, to the contrary, fallen flat. If it wants to maximize its impact, WikiLeaks might consider a) releasing documents that complement critical, breaking stories; b) prioritizing certain regions of the globe over others; c) concentrating on specific instances of U.S. government malfeasance so as to fundamentally alter the terms of Washington's foreign policy, if such illegality is demonstrated through the documents; d) releasing more politically relevant cables and saving the less important documents for later; e) reassessing its overall media strategy in the United States.

I would be the last one to downplay WikiLeaks' many journalistic coups and accomplishments, Tunisia being only the most recent and noteworthy, but the fact is that cablegate has failed to prompt serious debate within the U.S. about the way in which Washington conducts its foreign policy. If it seeks to alter this equation and exert an impact where it matters most, WikiLeaks should become shrewder about what documents it releases and the actual proportion of such releases. The debate is not over whether to release all of the documents at once, which as Wikileaks correctly points out would fail to do the cables justice, but how such a staged release might work. Thus far, the whistle-blowing group has opted for a geographically diverse approach in which separate portions of the globe receive relatively equal and fair exposure. Yesterday, for example, I noticed that all of WikiLeaks' cables related to Holland whereas a mere four days ago the cables pertained to Iceland.

On the positive side, such a strategy grabs the attention of diverse media outlets all over the world. The approach will appeal to WikiLeaks volunteers who are based in many different countries and who strive for greater political transparency at home. Assange, who has been criticized as overly autocratic, may have felt that such a modus operandi was desirable given the diffuse nature of his organization. I don't know how decisions are reached within WikiLeaks, but if one region was favored above all others then volunteers might have become discouraged and, needless to say, Assange can ill afford additional problems with morale at this point.

Rethinking Media Strategy for the Middle East
On the other hand, Assange's strategy thus far has lacked political focus: as soon as the media reports on one story, WikiLeaks releases another batch of documents from a different part of the globe. A more sensible approach would be to declassify relevant documents pertaining to just one or two regions, and for my money the Middle East makes the most sense. In terms of sheer urgency, Iraq and Afghanistan should be a top priority, though releasing sensitive documents from North Africa would be surely welcome right now. In hindsight, releasing the Ben Ali cables at the exact moment that the democracy movement was taking off in Tunisia was a stroke of genius, and by declassifying further sensitive documents from around the region WikiLeaks could give a leg up to nascent democracy movements. In this sense, it is more desirable for WikiLeaks to be flexible and improvise depending on the news cycle, as opposed to simply rotating the geographical focus every few days or so.

For insight into cablegate, head to WikiLeaks own website. If we are going by simple numerical importance, Baghdad is second only to Ankara in terms of actual cable volume. In a bar graph, cables are organized into separate colors without further explanation, though presumably green refers to "unclassified," orange stands for "confidential" and red stands for "secret." It's difficult to make out the exact numbers on WikiLeaks' bar graph, but it appears as if the whistleblowing group holds about 7,000 cables from Baghdad, of which only 30 have been released. It would seem that Baghdad alone sent a whopping 1,000 secret cables to Washington, the greatest number recorded for any foreign U.S. embassy. The U.S. embassy in Kabul meanwhile is less prolific but still substantial with about 3,500 cables, of which only 50 have been released.

What's with the long hold up here, and why have the releases slowed to a trickle? It would seem that WikiLeaks banked on the New York Times and expected that America's most influential paper would help it sift through many of the State Department's most important documents. It's understandable that WikiLeaks would turn first to the Times, one of the few outlets which actually pursues investigative journalism and sets the bar for wider media coverage. Clearly, however, that strategy has proven unsatisfactory as the Times hasn't published many stories based on cablegate. It's anyone's guess as to why the paper failed to take advantage of WikiLeaks scoops, but I suspect that the Times simply cannot bring itself to question the underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy.

Understandably, WikiLeaks wants to be scrupulous in vetting its material, but by the time all relevant cables are disclosed from Kabul, the war in Afghanistan will have claimed many more lives. Perhaps, WikiLeaks simply lacks the capacity to evaluate all of the documents in its possession. What, then, are WikiLeaks' options? One strategy would be to join forces with assorted media activists in an effort to pressure the Times to move faster. The alternative is to partner with other media outlets and foreign policy experts, from The Nation to Mother Jones to The Huffington Post to Juan Cole to the National Security Archive. From there, news and analysis would flow to progressive TV and radio such as Democracy Now! or the Rachel Maddow show.
Coming to Terms With America's "Informal Empire"

In terms of sheer urgency, the Middle East takes priority over other regions of the globe. Yet, if WikiLeaks truly seeks to have an impact on the tenor of U.S. foreign policy, then it should consider devoting more time and resources to Latin America. Arguably, the region still constitutes America's "informal empire," though much of the U.S. public seems apathetic or oblivious to this fact. TV outlets haven't helped much, either: though MSNBC briefly covered WikiLeaks revelations that Hillary Clinton requested personal information about Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, including psychological details and medications, in general the media hasn't shown much interest in cables emanating from U.S. embassies around Latin America.

One possible reason why is that WikiLeaks, to my knowledge, has not uncovered any overt illegalities on the part of the U.S. government. Perhaps, Washington has cleaned up its act in Latin America and there is no "smoking gun" that would incriminate high level State Department officials. Given the U.S. track record in the region, however, I find this difficult to believe. What is more probable WikiLeaks that Wikileaks, for whatever reason, has simply glossed over its most damning evidence or is biding its time before releasing sensitive material.

Whatever the case, I find WikiLeaks' approach to Latin America baffling. According to its own site, the whistleblowing group holds about 3,000 cables each from U.S. embassies in Bogotá and Caracas. Yet, to date WikiLeaks has only released 28 and 27 cables, respectively, from both diplomatic posts. That is perplexing given that U.S. diplomats were concerned about Chávez's wide-ranging influence over South America's leftist "Pink Tide" (officials were even concerned about Venezuelan influence as far afield as the Falklands Islands).

Though the left would like to claim that the U.S. played a significant role in Chávez's brief ouster in April, 2002 the concrete evidence is lacking. For Assange, documenting this period should be a top priority, though to date WikiLeaks has only published certain Caracas cables from 2004 to 2010. Presumably, there would have been much correspondence between Caracas and Washington in the early years of Chávez's reign and throughout 2002-03 when political destabilization was at its highest.

WikiLeaks could focus on this period, yet instead the organization has chosen, inexplicably, to concentrate on Brazil. According to WikiLeaks, there are more cables pertaining to the U.S. embassies in Bogotá, Caracas, and even Tegucigalpa than Brasilia [to date, WikiLeaks has released 219 cables from Brasilia compared to just 2 from Tegucigalpa]. Furthermore, with the exception of early cables released by WikileWikiLeaksaks which document relations between Washington and the Brazilian Minister of Defense Nelson Jobim, the Brasilia documents don't reveal anything too earth-shattering.

Shaking Up the U.S. Public

WikiLeaks needs to get its Latin America material out to the U.S. public, but so far its media strategy hasn't proven very effective. The only paper that has been consistently running stories on the region is Spain's El País, an outlet which had earlier partnered with WikiLeaks. For whatever reason, however, even El País has been tapering off in recent weeks. The Norwegian paper Aftenposten also got its hands on WikiLeaks cables, but to date editors at the publication have chosen to concentrate their resources on European documents. At one point, Aftenposten asked its readers for research suggestions, and a couple of days later looked into such conspiratorial topics as the Bilderberg society and U.F.O.'s.

The New York Times, meanwhile, only writes about Latin America when WikiLeaks cables reinforce the notion of Third World corruption. Take, for example, the case of rightist Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli who reportedly asked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration or DEA to help him carry out illegal wiretaps on his political foes. Last month, the Times published a story on Martinelli in which the DEA was portrayed as a somewhat beleaguered agency forced to deal with shady and unsavory characters throughout the Third World. Though the Times mentioned that Martinelli may have wanted to spy on his leftist opponents, the paper failed to contextualize the wider political backdrop which pitted a pro-corporate and pro-U.S. president against combative organized labor.

Similarly, the Times passed when it came to other important stories which have cast the United States in an unflattering light. Take, for instance, U.S. cynicism toward Bolivia and Cuba, nations that have been pushing for a more radical agenda at international climate change summits. One would think that WikiLeaks cables might create a furious "climategate" scandal, yet the Times chose to ignore the matter. Furthermore, the Times failed to report on cables that revealed that the FBI kept tabs on the Mapuche, a Chilean indigenous group fighting for its ancestral lands and against the pro-corporate and pro-U.S. regime in Santiago. In yet another oversight, the Times ignored additional cables showing that the U.S. and Costa Rica may have shared high level intelligence in an effort to thwart Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.
To be sure, none of these revelations expose blatant illegalities, yet they reveal U.S. foreign policy as deeply immoral and crass. Is the U.S. public ready for a wholesale debate about these cables and changing the way business is done at the State Department? Recently, the Daily Show had a rather witty if somewhat cynical take on WikiLeaks. During a monologue, comedian Jon Stewart suggested that the U.S. public is already aware of previous coup d'etats in such diverse nations as Guatemala, Chile and Iran, and as a result is totally jaded.

For WikiLeaks, which has worked hard and taken risks, the U.S. certainly provides a dispiriting picture. Given that the New York Times is an unreliable partner, the whistleblowing group might calculate that the progressive media is more likely to run stories about the U.S. cables. Yet, even as some commentators loudly proclaim their socialist credentials, MSNBC pundits rarely provide any coverage of foreign events, preferring instead to dwell on Sarah Palin and refute whatever Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck said over the course of the afternoon.
What is it going to take for the U.S. public to sit up and pay attention to cablegate? Perhaps it will be a hard sell any way you look at it, though WikiLeaks might want to consider becoming more creative and innovative in its media strategy.

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Endgame: Could Lula’s Support for Wikileaks Translate into Brazilian Asylum for Assange?

According to Spanish newspaper El País, Julian Assange might be looking for political asylum in Brazil, and the Wikileaks founder is reportedly even interested in basing some of his organization’s operations in the South American nation. Brazil, Assange explains, “is sufficiently large so as to resist U.S. pressure; the country has the requisite economic and military means to do so.” The Wikileaks marked man adds that Brazil “is not like China or Russia which are intolerant toward freedom of the press.”

What could have prompted Assange to consider asylum in South America? In recent days, outgoing President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has been one of Wikileaks’ most prominent defenders, remarking that Assange is a champion of free expression. Interrupting a run-of-the-mill speech about infrastructure development, Lula declared “What’s its name? Viki-leaks? Like that? To WikiLeaks: my solidarity in disclosing these things and my protest on behalf of free speech.”

The Brazilian president added, “I don’t know if they put up signs like those from Westerns saying, ‘wanted dead or alive.’ The man was arrested and I’m not seeing any protest defending freedom of expression…Instead of blaming the person who disclosed it, blame the person who wrote this nonsense. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the scandal we now have.”

Assange has praised Lula for speaking out about Wikileaks, and promises to release more cables relating to U.S.-Brazilian relations. Relatively speaking, Wikileaks has already published a great number of documents from the U.S. consulate in São Paulo and the American Embassy in Brasilia. Assange says some members of his organization are Brazilian, and “it would be great to receive an offer” of political asylum from Lula.

Lula Might Want to Read the Cables

So, just how likely would it be for Brazil to extend asylum to Assange? It is one thing to praise Wikileaks for shedding light on U.S. foreign policy and quite another to welcome such a whistleblower to Brazilian shores. On the face of it, such an endgame would seem unlikely: though Wikileaks cables have proven to be a severe embarrassment to Washington, the documents aren’t too flattering toward Brazil either.

Political idealists may have hoped that Brazil, which forms part of the regional “Pink Tide” which has come to power in recent years, would move the leftist agenda forward in South America. Yet, Wikileaks documents seem to dash any such hopes. As I discussed in an earlier article, the Brazilian political elite is divided with some senior figures in the security apparatus opposing Venezuela’s Chávez and negotiating with the U.S. behind closed doors.

While Wikileaks cables suggest that the Brazilian Foreign Affairs Ministry, also known as Itamaraty, disagrees with the nation’s defense establishment when it comes to setting policy toward the U.S., it can hardly be said that Lula diplomats are a radical bunch intent on overturning Washington’s goals. Indeed, Itamaraty has sought to portray itself as a valuable geopolitical partner to the U.S., willing to promote “political stability” in the immediate regional neighborhood.

Bush Years and Brazil’s Double Game

Perhaps, after scrutinizing some of the recently released Wikileaks cables, Lula will think twice before backing Assange. In tandem with earlier documentation, the cables confirm the overall cynical nature of Brazilian foreign policy during the Bush era. They show that even as Lula was extending warm ties to Hugo Chávez, Chief of Staff Jose Dirceu was meeting with White House Special Envoy for the Western Hemisphere Otto Reich. A staunchly anti-Chávez figure, Reich expressed “deep concern” with the political situation in Venezuela. Dirceu was critical of Chávez, remarking that Lula was “uncomfortable” with the Venezuelan’s behavior at a recent meeting of the G-15 in Caracas. Since the meeting, Lula had refused to take any of Chávez’s calls, though the Brazilian might agree to do so “as unpleasant as it may be.”

Shortly after the Reich-Dirceu tete-a-tete, Brazilian officials expressed “grave concerns” about the “seismic changes” occurring in Bolivia. Evo Morales’ electoral victory was still some two years off, and the Andean nation was going through a period of severe political instability. On the one side was the Carlos Mesa government, intent on ramming through a neo-liberal economic agenda, and on the other a rising tide of Indian opposition. Far from expressing any solidarity with Morales, Brazilian authorities said they were “disturbed” by the “energized indigenous movement” and sought to preserve political “moderation” at all costs in the neighboring Andean country.

If the Bush administration had any qualms about the political allegiances of the Lula regime, Dirceu sought to alleviate such concerns, remarking to U.S. ambassador John Danilovich that both Washington and Brasilia shared a common interest in promoting regional stability. The Lula government would seek to “ameliorate tensions” in Venezuela, Dirceu said. Another cable from the following year of 2005 lays even more bare Brazilian intentions toward Venezuela. According to the document, Dirceu said he planned to travel to Caracas to deliver a blunt message to Chávez to “stand down from his provocative rhetoric,” “do his homework” and “stop playing with fire.”

Specifically, the Brazilians were upset with Chávez for pursuing useless provocations against the United States. Moreover, by pursuing an escalating war of words with Washington, Chávez was adversely affecting the course of commercial integration with Brazil. Dirceu’s mission was cleared at the top level by Lula, who sought to meet with Bush “at the earliest opportunity” so as to “clear the air” on Venezuela. When Danilovich asked Dirceu whether Brazil was in reality pursuing a strategic alliance with Chávez behind Washington’s back, the Brazilian assured the U.S. ambassador that there was “not a single item of anti-American intent” in Lula’s “regional policy matrix.” In the long term, Dirceu added, Brazil hoped to draw Venezuela into more moderate and practical economic integration.

Perhaps, Lula’s erstwhile leftist supporters within his own Workers’ Party would have been surprised by what came next. According to the documents, Dirceu said it was “crucial” for Bush to meet personally with Lula so that the two might discuss the future of the Free Trade Area of the America or FTAA, a corporate free trade scheme backed by Washington but widely reviled by the South American left. Brazil, Dirceu remarked, could not “afford to create the impression that it lacks interest in the FTAA.” The Brazilian added that his government ought to increase its commercial relations with the U.S. “one hundred fold.” In five to ten years, Dirceu continued hopefully, South America might constitute one market under Brazilian dominance, and U.S. firms based in Brazil would certainly want to export their goods throughout the region.

From Bush to Obama: Brazil Reluctant to Challenge U.S. Interests

Four years after Dirceu’s meeting with Danilovich, Brazil was still reluctant to challenge U.S. hegemony in the wider region. When democratically elected president of Honduras Manuel Zelaya was deposed in a military coup, Brazil strenuously protested. Yet, again Wikileaks cables show Lula as a timid player and fundamentally unwilling to counter the U.S. in its traditional sphere of influence. Perhaps, Brazil was afraid of being too closely identified with Zelaya, a Chávez protégé, for fear of jeopardizing its cherished ties to the newly installed Obama White House.

The Honduran imbroglio was all brought to a head when, in the midst of political hostilities, Zelaya made a surprise visit to the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa. According to cables, Brazil had no hand in the matter and was caught off guard by the ousted Honduran leader. Though Brazil graciously welcomed Zelaya inside, the Lula government had no idea how to handle the subsequent standoff. When Honduran security forces surrounded the premises in a show of force, Lula requested U.S. assistance in helping to supply its embassy and head off any potential violence.

The Brazilians grew apprehensive of what might happen, and asked for diesel fuel to run their generator. Unfortunately, Brazilian officials noted, they did not have “the type of protection the U.S. Embassy has, the Marines,” and as a result could not defend their embassy. The Brazilians added that they believed Chávez was behind Zelaya’s appearance at their embassy, a maneuver which they apparently did not welcome. Perhaps somewhat incensed by Chávez, Brazil did not coordinate with Venezuela during the crisis, preferring instead to check in with Secretary of State Clinton who declared that Zelaya should behave himself and act in a peaceful manner.

Writing to her superiors, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Brasilia Lisa Kubiske summed up the crisis succinctly. “Having been vocal in its support for Zelaya’s return and dragged--almost certainly without advance warning--into an unaccustomed place at the center of the crisis,” she wrote, “Brazil appears to be at a loss as to what to do next. It is remarkable that the government of Brazil has apparently made no effort to reach out within the region or taken a more assertive role in seeking a resolution. Instead, planted firmly in the back seat, it appears Brazil is looking to the United States, the OAS, and the United Nations to safeguard its interests and, it hopes, navigate toward a long-term solution.”

In the end, Honduras held elections under extremely dubious circumstances and political repression against Zelaya supporters continued, accompanied by rampant human rights abuses. According to cables, however, the Lula government refrained from asserting itself too much. Brazilian officials told the U.S. that they were displeased about the situation in Honduras but did “not want this issue to create difficulties” with Washington. Celso Amorim, Brazil’s Foreign Minister at Itamaraty, added that the U.S. and Brazil should continue to pursue close ties even when the media sought to exploit the two countries’ differences. The diplomat declared that Brazil was not ready to recognize the recent election in Honduras as valid, but the Lula government was “done harping on this point.”

Wikileaks Endgame?

Clearly, Brazil has not emerged from the Wikileaks scandal smelling like a rose. Far from standing up for the progressive left in the wider region, the Lula government has more often than not acted timidly while negotiating with U.S. diplomats behind closed doors. It’s a sorry spectacle, and there may be more unflattering revelations in the pipeline: Assange has declared that Wikileaks possesses a whopping 2,855 cables related to the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, of which only a few have been disclosed thus far.

Lula has publicly defended Wikileaks, but there may be limits to the Brazilian’s magnanimity. Thus far Lula has not addressed any of the leaked cables specifically, preferring instead to simply criticize Washington’s heavy handed use of foreign policy. For his part, Assange has been praising Lula to the skies, remarking that the Brazilian leader is brave for defending Wikileaks. Whether such flattery will work is another matter, however. If the Lula administration were to grant political asylum to Assange, this would create a diplomatic firestorm and seriously damage U.S. relations.

It seems unlikely that incoming president Dilma Rousseff, who takes office on January 1st, would want to risk such a fallout. Lula, however, might be another matter. The legendary president leaves office with a record-breaking 83% popularity, and Lula might think he can afford to make a controversial move on Wikileaks. That, at any rate, is what Assange clearly hopes for: recently, the Wikileaks founder remarked that Lula was nearing the end of his second term and as a result “he can speak more freely about what he genuinely thinks.”

I suspect that Assange may be overestimating Lula’s willingness to confront the U.S., but you never know. In any case, if Brazil does provide refuge to Assange the announcement will have to come in the next few days, as the window of opportunity for the Wikileaks founder is likely to close very shortly.

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