Much has been made in the past week of the hundreds of diplomatic cables concerning Taiwan that were among those released by WikiLeaks on Aug. 30, sparking a war of sorts among newspapers and TV stations to see which one can report most on the subject. Media organizations have been busy sifting through the 80 or so pages listing the Taiwan-related diplomatic cables to identify those that have the most news value. And judging by the Web hit counts, those efforts are not unwarranted.
The diplomatic cables’ appeal with the public stems from one characteristic alone: The great majority of them are classified (standard classification levels in Western government agencies are “unclassified,” “classified,” “secret” and “top secret,” with various means of narrowing the distribution list, such as “Top Secret, NATO/ISAF” or, for example, “UMBRA/ORCON for highly sensitive signals intelligence).
One need not be an intelligence specialist, however, to realize that there is very little in those cables that isn’t already public knowledge. Classified documents can give the reader the impression that he or she is getting a rare glimpse at what lies behind the curtain, but in reality, most such documents do little more than state the obvious. Several are written because desk officers must meet a monthly quota. Others are simply wrong, highlighting the lack of knowledge of local conditions that is often characteristic of foreign officers who are usually on a two or three-year rotation.
During my years as an employee of the Canadian government, I would often read US, UK and Canadian diplomatic cables with the hope of getting some of the local flavor that I could not obtain from the comfort of my office in Ottawa. It would be unfair to claim that all were useless, but in general, one learned very little from them, at least nothing that could not be found elsewhere — in newspapers, for example, which also (though not always) tend to be better written.
And let’s be honest: The WikiLeaks cables, which rarely go beyond the secret level, do not contain the real juicy stuff, such as reports from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency. And even those, which I handled on a daily basis when in government, are often stunningly thin on the knowledge side, and their higher classification is much more predicated on the need to ensure operational security than on the actual value of the information contained in them. (Other reasons accounting for high classification include the need to protect sources, to keep alliances from becoming public knowledge, or not reveal the specific means used to collect information, such as intercepts, listening devices, surveillance and so on.)
So while WikiLeaks fever is spreading around Taiwan, the public is actually not learning much that is new. A few cables recently featured in the media should suffice to make my point.
Taipei needed the acquiescence from Beijing to send its envoy Lien Chan (連戰) to attend the APEC summit in Peru. Really? Beijing’s interpretation of the so-called “1992 consensus” includes “one China,” full stop, whereas that used by Taipei includes “with each side having its own interpretation.” You don’t say? The administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) feared the Dalai Lama’s visit in August 2009 would complicate negotiations with Beijing on the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). Shocking! China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) don’t see eye to eye on the “diplomatic truce” with Ma, the former expressing anger at being told by Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) that it cannot “steal” more of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, while the TAO — whose sole focus is on ties with Taiwan — sides with Hu on the matter. Wow! Washington doesn’t like it when the UN says “Taiwan is part of China” ... The Chinese Communist Party is interested in learning more about “young talent” within the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) ... The American Institute in Taiwan was hoping the beef dispute would be resolved before former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) vacated the presidential office ... China’s offer to “withdraw” its ballistic missiles in exchange for a US decision to stop selling weapons to Taiwan was “fake,” as the missiles can easily be redeployed ... Taipei needed Beijing’s “permission” to be allowed to participate at the World Health Assembly ... And on, and on and on. Really, didn’t we know, if only unconsciously at times, all of this?
At best, the leaks provide some confirmation and make KMT officials who stick to a policy of denial look ridiculous. But that’s about it, really.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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