A U.S. diplomat must possess patience, poise, and tact. He must also be attentive to cultural differences, a good observer, and proficient in several languages. When called upon, he must use his skills as a negotiator in the national interest. And, as the latest dump of WikiLeaks tells us, if the dip works for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he must also be prepared to spy on his fellow diplomats.
To be fair to Clinton, she isn’t the first secretary of state to issue cables telling U.S. foreign service officers to spy on other diplomats. According to the leaked diplomatic cables, Condoleezza Rice likewise instructed State Department diplomats to collect such intelligence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if previous secretaries of state encouraged if not instructed their diplomats to push information-collection all the way to intelligence-gathering.
But what makes Clinton’s sleuthing unique is the paper trail that documents her spying-on-their-diplomats-with-our-diplomat orders, a paper trail that is now being splashed around the world on the Web and printed in top newspapers. No matter what sort of noises Clinton makes about how the disclosures are “an attack on America” and “the international community,” as she did today, she’s become the issue. She’ll never be an effective negotiator with diplomats who refuse to forgive her exuberances, and even foreign diplomats who do forgive her will still regard her as the symbol of an overreaching United States. Diplomacy is about face, and the only way for other nations to save face will be to give them Clinton’s scalp.
How embarrassing are the WikiLeaks leaks? A secret cable from April 2009 that went out under Clinton’s name instructed State Department officials to collect the “biometric data,” including “fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans,” of African leaders. Another secret cable directed American diplomats posted around the world, including the United Nations, to obtain passwords, personal encryption keys, credit card numbers, frequent flyer account numbers, and other data connected to diplomats. As the Guardianputs it, the cables “reveal how the US uses its embassies as part of a global espionage network.”
Additionally, Clinton’s State Department specifically targeted United Nations officials and diplomats posted to the United Nations. Among the targeted were Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and permanent security-council representatives from China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom, as this secret cable from July 2009 lays out. The State Department also sought biometric information on North Korean diplomats, security-council permanent representatives, “key UN officials,” and other diplomats at the United Nations.
Of course, U.S. diplomats have always collected information, no matter where posted. And, as the New York Times reports today, the United States has routinely placed intelligence officers abroad under the diplomatic cover of a State Department posting. But the price of a diplomat (or undercover intelligence officer) overstepping to engage in what the host nation considers to be spying has always been expulsion or, as illustrated earlier this month in Norway, a demand that the U.S. ambassador explain the “spying.”
As the Times and other publications report, international treaties make the United Nations a spy-free zone—or at least they’re supposed to make it spy-free. “In one 2004 episode, a British official revealed that the United States and Britain eavesdropped on Secretary General Kofi Annan in the weeks before the invasion of Iraq in 2003,” the Times reports. Anne Applebaum writes in Slate today that nobody should be honestly horrified at the image of the United States spying in the United Nations. Nobody in the diplomatic community is. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to take advantage of the moment to demand retribution that will shame the high-and-mighty United States.
There is no way that the new WikiLeaks leaks don’t leave Hillary Clinton holding the smoking gun. The time for her departure may come next week or next month, but sooner or later, the weakened and humiliated secretary of state will have to pay.
Save face by sending your leaked cables to email@example.com. Should I resign my Twitter feed? (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word biometrics in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.