2010 Year in Review - Diplomacy

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
2010 Year in Review

Major World News Stories of 2010

Julian Assange

Julian Assange

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Release of Secret Military, Government, and Diplomatic Documents Sparks Outrage and Controversy

WikiLeaks, a website that describes itself as devoted to transparency in the news, dominated headlines in July, October, and December. Though it claims to be politically neutral, it is considered by many to be biased and determined to embarrass the United States. Indeed, over the course of several months, it leaked to several news organizations hundreds of thousands of secret government and military documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as cables that gave a behind-the-scenes look at American diplomacy from the perspective of high-level officials.

Taken individually, the documents shed little new light on the two wars or the inner workings of the government. Together, however, they revealed gaping holes in U.S. internal security.

Grim Portrait of Afghanistan

WikiLeaks released 92,000 classified U.S. military documents in July 2010 that portrayed a much less optimistic picture of the war in Afghanistan than had been reported by the U.S. government. The documents, which provided a "ground-level" look at the wars through dispatches from officers and soldiers, illustrated how the insurgency has continued to increase in strength and resiliency while allied forces lacked many resources necessary to achieve success in the war and bring stability to the war-torn country. The documents also reinforced the widely held perception that the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency, has been playing both sides in the war against the Taliban and militant groups, clandestinely supporting the insurgents in their fight against allied troops in Afghanistan while also cooperating with the U.S.

Civilian Casualties Higher Than Reported in Iraq

In October, WikiLeaks provided several news organizations some 400,000 reports that spanned six years of the war in Iraq. Like the reports from Afghanistan, these documents were not earth shattering or explosive, but they did provide details that have not been widely publicized by the U.S. government or military. The documents illustrate how the U.S. military relied heavily security contractors, especially at the beginning of the war, and paint a picture of trigger-happy contractors who gunned down Iraqi civilians as well as insurgents with abandon. The contractors lacked organization and many became victims themselves—about 175 contractors have been killed since 2004.

In addition, the leaked documents indicate a much higher number of civilian casualties than has been reported by both the U.S. and Iraq. Despite claims by the U.S. military that it does not track civilian casualties, WikiLeaks reports said as many as 66,000 civilians were killed between 2004 and 2009. In December 2006 alone, about 3,600 Iraqi civilians were killed. Equally disturbing is the report that Iraqi officials regularly tortured prisoners and American officials opted to ignore the abuse. The torture was compared to what prisoners endured at the Guantánamo Bay prison. Also included in the October batch of documents were reports that Iran has intervened in the war on behalf of Shiite militants, providing them with training, arms, and roadside bombs—not a big surprise, but further confirmation of Iran's role in the war.

Diplomatic Cables Prove Embarrassing for Officials

Bradley Manning, a private in the U.S. Army, downloaded more than 250,000 diplomatic cables from a "secure" government computer and then turned them over to WikiLeaks, which released the documents to a few news organizations in November. The media began publishing the cables in early December. The content of the cables, which originated from the U.S. State Department, included officials' personal—and often critical—opinions of other world leaders, threats to the U.S. posed by terrorists and nuclear states, details about deal making between nations, and other sensitive topics. Top-level U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, promptly went into damage-control mode upon the release of the documents, reaching out to counterparts all over the world and apologizing as necessary.

Among the trove of documents, the following revelations were considered notable—and memorable:

  • The Chinese government masterminded the hacking of Google's computers in January 2010. The leaks also said that computers owned by the U.S. government, the Dali Lama, and American businesses have been hit as well.
  • Hillary Clinton instructed State Department diplomats to try to acquire personal information, such as credit card and cellphone numbers, email addresses, and frequent flier numbers, from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and members of the UN Security Council.
  • Some Arab leaders fear Iran's growing nuclear program and have privately persuaded the United States to intervene. In fact, a cable from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to Washington urged the U.S. to "cut off the head of the snake," referring to Iran.
  • The U.S. has acknowledged that it believes Iran has acquired missiles from North Korea that could reach parts of Western Europe.
  • American diplomats negotiated deals with foreign countries to accept Guantánamo Bay detainees. For example, they offered Slovenian officials a meeting with President Obama in exchange for taking a prisoner.
  • In addition to acknowledging Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's penchant for late nights partying with young women, the cables quote an American diplomat calling him "feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader."
  • Ahmed Zia Massoud, a former Afghan vice president, was found with $52 million in cash. The cables also reveal deep skepticism among world leaders about the leadership ability of Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, and describe him as increasingly unpredictable and unreliable.
  • American and South Korean officials have discussed unifying North and South Korea if the North Korean government falls apart.

Legal Trouble for Enigmatic Founder of WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks was founded in 2007 with this mission: "Our primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations." Its early leaked documents included a chronicle of alleged corruption by Kenya's president Daniel arap Moi, the Standard Operating Procedures manual for the Guantánamo Bay prison, messages from Sarah Palin's personal e-mail account, and details about a toxic-waste dump in Africa. In April 2010, WikiLeaks released Collateral Murder, a video of a 2007 U.S. Army Apache helicopter attack in Iraq that killed at least 18 people, including Iraqi citizens and two Reuters journalists. The video captured the soldiers' callous remarks about the victims and prompted questions about the legality of the operation.

The repeated leaks of classified information prompted U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to contemplate criminal charges against Assange. He said the U.S. is conducting "a very serious, active, ongoing investigation that is criminal in nature." After the December leaks, several companies that WikiLeaks has used to collect donations, such as PayPal and MasterCard, shut down WikiLeaks' accounts. Hackers who support Assange and WikiLeaks then attacked these companies' websites.

Julian Assange, the Australian-born co-founder of WikiLeaks who is described as a brilliant yet enigmatic figure, ran into legal problems throughout the year. In August, two women in Sweden accused him of sexual assault. After a legal back-and-forth, he was arrested in England on December 7 on a Swedish warrant in connection to the accusations. He was freed on bail a week later and is facing possible extradition to Sweden.

It's impossible to predict the long-term repercussions of the leaks, but it's fair to assume that foreign leaders will be less forthcoming in their discussions with the U.S., and the U.S. government will take measures to beef up internal security. WikiLeaks' goal of transparency may in the end be fleeting—or at least severely hampered.

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