In Other Words

A Short History of Secrecy

Think Julian Assange is sui generis? He's just one in a long line of agents provocateurs, stretching back through Trotsky to the Greeks.

WikiLeaks is something new, but human beings have always been fascinated by secrets and what to do about them. According to Greek legend, King Midas's barber knew his master's shameful secret: that the king had been given donkey ears by an angry god. The barber, unable to bear the burden of his knowledge, whispered the secret into a bed of reeds; when the wind blew, the Greeks believed, you could hear the reeds telling of Midas's shame.

Those in power, not surprisingly, have tended to agree with Midas that certain things -- military plans and international negotiations, for example -- are best kept secret. Yet down through the centuries there have always been Julian Assanges too, arguing that secrecy is in itself bad. Neither side has ever definitively won, but powerful elites have lined up so consistently and effectively on the side of secrecy that calls for greater transparency have generally lost the argument. Are we about to see another revolt against government secrecy snuffed out, or has WikiLeaks ushered in a more lasting change?

Before the 19th century, when foreign affairs rested in the hands of a select few, secret deals and treaties were an accepted commonplace. Diplomats were expected to report frankly to their masters, hence the long-standing convention of the sacrosanct diplomatic pouch: No matter what, governments were not supposed to open the packages that foreign diplomats received and sent. But there was no shame in governments trying to spy on each other. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, agents of Prince Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, famously rooted through the wastepaper baskets of other delegates for compromising documents. Secrets were stolen for tactical reasons, however, not for sheer joy in exposure. And certainly no one in power wanted government secrets leaking out to the public.

Until recently, too, incriminating documents were more easily kept private. Without the mixed blessings of typewriters and then photocopiers, scanners, and today's easily reproducible electronic versions, governments often had only one or two handwritten copies of, say, secret treaties and could keep them safely locked up. Or so they hoped. The crucial treaty, the vital war plans stolen, are familiar elements in thrillers by Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and others, as is the anarchic Assange-like thief who threatens to steal and publicize them, at the cost of millions of lives.

He had another spiritual ancestor -- in terms of transparent diplomacy, at least -- in Leon Trotsky. After the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917, the new people's commissar of foreign affairs took delight in rummaging through the files and publishing secret czarist treaties, whether on carving up the Ottoman Empire or enticing Italy into the war on the Allied side. All this helped fuel a general revulsion against the "old diplomacy," increasingly seen as responsible for the war itself.

It was a feeling shared by many Americans, including President Woodrow Wilson. In the very first of his famous Fourteen Points, he called for "open covenants of peace, openly arrived at" and for a diplomacy in full public view. But soon after his arrival for the World War I peace conference in Paris, he was brought up short by the practical difficulties of conducting tricky discussions in the open. He and his fellow statesmen almost immediately reverted to private, confidential talks. Wilson, to his credit, did not resort to making secret promises and agreements. But his successors have not always been able to resist the temptation. With a wink and a nod, Franklin D. Roosevelt let Stalin understand at Yalta that the United States would not go out of its way to counter the spread of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. And Richard Nixon promised much more to the Chinese, in aid and military support, than he was capable of delivering.

The WikiLeaks cables, interestingly, show us that diplomacy in its essence remains much the same; it is, after all, as much about the personalities and foibles of those whom diplomats encounter as about grand strategy. Today's accounts of U.S. officials suffering for the cause recall centuries of such encounters. Think of the unfortunate U.S. ambassador to Eritrea and his wife who were treated to "grilled sheep innards served with honey and chili sauce (but no silverware), washed down with a sour, semi-fermented traditional drink called, aptly, 'sewa.'" Libya's dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi is described as "notoriously mercurial," veering between taciturn and sullen and "engaging and charming" -- an evaluation that reminded me of diplomatic depictions of Czar Nicholas II of Russia, who, one German ambassador reported in the 1890s, changed his mind "like a reed in the wind." French President Nicolas Sarkozy is described as rude, impatient, hyperactive, and infuriating, with "few restraints -- political, personal or ideological -- to act as a brake on his global ambitions." The description surely resembles the reports British diplomats used to send back to London before 1914 about Kaiser Wilhelm II, "William the Fidgety," as his cousin King George V of Britain nicknamed him.

During the 20th century, most democracies developed protocols and laws both for classifying government documents and for releasing them, opting for a safe 30 years after the fact. In the age of WikiLeaks, however, even these protocols begin to seem outmoded. We are getting the raw material of history right now rather than decades later.

And what is our response? To blame Assange, or to try to drive diplomacy back to the days of fountain pens and carbon paper? That probably won't happen, but WikiLeaks will surely have consequences. Who is going to be reckless enough to record honest opinions now?


In Other Words

Anatomy of a Honey Trap

What if the hidden messages in the WikiLeaks cables were less about Tunisia and Russia, more about Winnie the Pooh?

Supporters of WikiLeaks proprietor Julian Assange have protested his arrest in Sweden on sexual charges as a classic "honey trap" -- a sting operation in which an attractive person is used to entrap or coerce a target. In this case the claim is that two Swedish women used sex as a way of trapping Assange. Even though the sex was reportedly consensual, the prosecutor allowed a claim of rape because it was unprotected -- that is, either Assange did not use a condom (alleged by one of the women) or the condom broke (alleged by the other woman).

It won't have eluded the percipient reader of this first paragraph that words like consensual and unprotected have some resonance in the world of international diplomacy -- nor that the "leaks" in WikiLeaks are in this accusation made vividly, and disconcertingly, literal. As for "honey trap," a phrase more familiar in Britain than the United States, its connection with "sting" seems more than coincidental. The honeybee has long been associated in literature and political philosophy with a model of human society -- from Virgil's Georgics to Mandeville's Fable of the Bees to Tolstoy and Marx. Was this "honey trap" baited to protect human society from the unprotected leaking of classified documents? Was the sting set up to prevent what, in apiary culture, has been dubbed "colony collapse disorder"? Or were the (former) colonies in fact themselves collapsing under the weight of government dissimulation?

One of the stories that circulated widely last year via WikiLeaks was the saga of Bruno the bear. The two-year old Bruno was the first wild bear seen in Germany since 1835. Initially greeted as a welcome visitor to Bavaria, Bruno soon attracted negative attention by doing what came naturally -- killing sheep, chickens, and a child's pet rabbit. The Wikileaks cable even described him sitting on the steps of a police station, eating a guinea pig. Clearly this was, as the minister-president of Bavaria dubbed him, a Problem Bear. Calls for his assassination went out, despite the protests of schoolchildren, and after a group of Finnish bear-hunters with dogs failed to corner and capture him, Bruno was shot by "an unnamed hunter." All has not been lost however, since Bruno the Problem Bear was subsequently stuffed and put on display at the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. The official title of the museum is the Museum of Man and Nature. In this case, as more than one commentator noticed, Man seems to have won over Nature.

Bruno's sad tale provoked a good bit of international press, as well as deep mourning within parts of Germany. In June 2006, the high point of the Bruno story, the Guardian published a piece on the bear's formerly "idyllic existence." What were his pastoral delights, according to this source? "Swimming in lakes, eating honey and killing the odd sheep." A pattern thus begins to emerge. For Bruno, too, it now seems clear, was caught in a honey trap. Groomed as a national hero, at first expected to bring honor and glory back to Bavaria, he was shot dead within three weeks of his arrival. Was it completely an accident that calls began to be heard for the resignation of the Environment Minister, Werner Schnappauf? Or was Bruno a plant, and his end foreordained: suicide by honey? In some European languages, the Wikipedia article on honey notes, "even the word for ‘bear' (e.g., in Russian, ‘medvéd,' in Czech, ‘medv?d,' in Croatian, ‘medvjed") is coined from the noun that means ‘honey' and the verb which means ‘to eat.'" When Wiki calls to Wiki, who can fail to hear the echo?

The most famous honey-eating bear in Western literature is of course Winnie the Pooh, whose chronicler consistently spells the substance "hunny." Once again, no acute reader alerted by the WikiLeaks cables can fail to spot the "hun" hidden in this apparently harmless substance. The first of the Pooh books was published in 1926, and the term "Hun" had been associated with the modern German state since 1900, when Kaiser Wilhelm II used it in an exhortation to his troops during the Boxer Rebellion in China. "Hun" was used by the Allies throughout World War I to describe the Germans and their rapacity (derived from Attila the Hun), and was again omnipresent in the political language of World War II. In a broadcast on the Soviet-German war in June 1941, Winston Churchill spoke dismissively (and alliteratively) of "the dull, drilled, docile brutish masses of the Hun soldiery, plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts." How short a line can be drawn between this Winnie and A.A. Milne's hun(ny)-eating bear? If we add to this imposing list of "coincidences" (worthy of leaking to any embassy or consulate) the fact that, according to the outlier historian David Irving, some of Winston Churchill's most famous speeches during World War II were subsequently recorded for broadcast by the English radio actor Norman Shelley -- who supplied the voice for Winnie-the-Pooh on the Children's Hour throughout the '30s and '40s -- we can begin to see the pervasiveness with which the theme of the honey-trap has seeped into the political culture of the West.

And in case we are in any doubt about the interconnectedness of these themes, we have only to consult Frederick Crews's Postmodern Pooh, in which a discussion of the symbolism of "the amply proportioned Winnie-the-Pooh tiptoeing on a chair to reach a honey-pot in his larder" dismisses as trivial the allegorical readings of this image as Aspiration, Commodity Fetishism, or Male Rapacity. "Translation itself," we are told, "the escape from literary presence to packaged significance -- is precisely the error here. What you ought to be registering is a teddy bear stretching for a honey pot. To insist on further portent is to take a step backward in sophistication." The author of this timely selection signs his name Orpheus Bruno. Could there be any more convincing evidence of the honey-trap/Bruno/Winnie axis we have been tracing? Indeed, it requires no translation.  

In 1974 the great master of spy stories, John Le Carré, wrote in his novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, "I made a mistake and walked into a ‘honey trap.'" But although honey trap was originally associated with espionage, the Oxford English Dictionary says that it is now a term found "especially in journalism." Since WikiLeaks itself sits at the confluence of espionage and journalism, it should perhaps come as no surprise that its founder has been stung. Yet even in this sticky situation, the documents continue to flow.