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.

In Other Words

Revenge of the Quiet American

The world of U.S. diplomacy as filtered through WikiLeaks looks an awful lot like a certain other Western imperial power from not too long ago.

The making of WikiLeaks sounds like a plot straight out of Graham Greene, with some 21st-century updates: A disgruntled Army private downloads a digital grab bag of classified documents, burns them onto sham Lady Gaga CDs, and passes them into the hackosphere, where they are published by an international man of mystery. So perhaps it shouldn't be so striking that reading the WikiLeaks archive, one gets an uncanny sensation of entering the Greeneland of Our Man in Havana or The Quiet American, in which social events merge with affairs of state, gossip is retailed as intelligence, and personality stands in for politics.

Greene wrote about the closing days of the British Empire, which began the 20th century formally encompassing a quarter of the world and informally dominating considerably more, but ended it having passed the superpower's cape to the United States. Historians have debated the precise ways in which American hegemony today does and doesn't resemble that of imperial Britain. But reading the leaked cables, there is no mistaking how much U.S. diplomats describe their milieux in terms similar to those of their British predecessors. In everything from literary style to subject matter, this accidental repository would not seem out of place among the records of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, now neatly boxed away in the British National Archives. Like the dispatches of British diplomats in the age of empire, these cables sketch a world of international rivalry, full of thrusting ambition and the abundant eccentricities of things foreign.

Even if you can't name the capital of Azerbaijan, now you know that its first lady has had so much plastic surgery that, while from a distance she is indistinguishable from her daughters, up close she is so distorted as to be "unable to show a full range of facial expression." You may not be able to place Turkmenistan on a map, but you learn that its president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, is "vain, fastidious, vindictive, [and] a micro-manager" who had a military official fired for allowing a cat to run in front of his motorcade.

Such anecdotes -- call it the lifestyles of the rich and infamous -- stand out as the latest version of a long-standing imperial sport. British officials frequently pilloried foreign (usually nonwhite) leaders for their apparently fickle and corrupt behaviors, conspicuous consumption, and vulgar aping of Western ways. These criticisms often implied, by extension, those leaders' unfitness to rule. It's a kind of neo-Orientalism, a way of keeping the small-timers in their place, if not in some cases generating grounds to unseat them outright. The release of a cable revealing the lavish lifestyle of the Tunisian strongarm leader's son-in-law, complete with a pet tiger that reminded the ambassador of "Uday Hussein's lion cage in Baghdad" helped fuel anti-government rioting in Tunisia that eventually forced the president into exile.

There is another reason the cables abound in such vivid descriptions: They belong to a centuries-old literary genre, the diplomatic dispatch. Dispatches turn far-flung consuls into professional authors with a vested interest in making their writings stand out. One doesn't normally think of bureaucrats lavishing attention on literary style, but what better way to get the bosses to notice them? The cables have real panache. How many journalists, even, would characterize the Russian presidential succession as a "feeding-frenzy among those who fear their snouts could soon be torn from the trough"?

Beneath all the colorful language, though, lurk suggestions of a darker parallel with the British Empire. About a century ago, Britain and other European powers engaged in the Scramble for Africa; it waged the Great Game with Russia for control of Central Asia; and it anxiously observed the rise of the United States and Germany as imperial powers. These cables show U.S. diplomats mirroring and echoing such suspicion, insecurity, and ego-gratifying one-upmanship. Ironically enough the British now figure in terms they themselves might have applied to the French: accused of "overreacting" in places, of being "unable to prioritize" in others, and of being "ham-strung by [their] colonial past." During a brunch briefing with the U.S. ambassador in Kyrgyzstan, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, revealed that he thinks the Great Game is still being played, "and this time we aim to win!"

That sounds comical enough, until one runs into analogous terms in two cables from our man in Baghdad describing the present "Great Game" in Iraq, where powers wrestle for place in a region calamitously unsettled by the U.S. invasion. In the 19th century, European empires competed for valuable resource and development concessions in Africa; now U.S. diplomats monitor Chinese investment in Angola, Cameroon, and Nigeria. British fleets once patrolled the seas for slave-traders and smugglers; now the U.S. company formerly known as Blackwater pursues for-profit pirate-hunting operations off the Horn of Africa. Britain pioneered transcontinental information-gathering networks; now the America of Google and Facebook worries about hackers based in Russia and China.

WikiLeaks hopes that revealing these documents will change the way its audience views American power. But the real novelty of WikiLeaks lies in the way the cables invite being read. Whereas Britons of Greene's generation received news of the empire through the filter of roving foreign correspondents and Fleet Street newspapers, WikiLeaks allows anyone with an Internet connection to access the raw material of American diplomacy. To piece together all its eye-catching details into a meaningful narrative, however, takes more than a browser's whim; it calls for the connective, contextualizing skills of historians. Without looking back into Greene's world, we'll never fully understand what is unique about our own.

Actor Alec Guinness on the set of Our Man in Havana. Photo by Peter Stackpole/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images