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No stunning revelations in leaked cables, says former US NATO ambassador

The diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks don’t really contain any new revelations, but they may still complicate US foreign policy and relations with its allies, a former US ambassador to NATO tells Deutsche Welle.

Headline of the Guardian newspaper about the Wikileaks document dump

Former US NATO ambassador, Robert Hunter

Robert Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1998 and is the principal architect of the "New NATO." During his long government career he also served o n the National Security Council and was a principal author of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. Earlier, he worked as foreign policy adviser to the late Senator Edward Kennedy and as foreign and domestic policy adviser to US Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Hunter is currently a senior adviser at the Rand Corporation in Washington, DC.

Deutsche Welle: You have served as US ambassador to NATO. Were you in any way implicated by the release of these cables or were some cables you wrote included in the release?

Robert Hunter: Not as far as I can tell. I think these are more recent and I have been out of government for 12 years. I am sorry about that because I wrote some pretty good cables. It would help me writing my memoirs if they would put them out in the public domain.

In the documents US diplomats describe Germany's foreign minister as vain, arrogant and critical of the US and Chancellor Merkel as risk-averse and rarely creative. What is the fallout likely to be of these assessments of German, but also international leaders for US diplomatic relations?

I think you would have to ask the individual leaders on that. Obviously it doesn't help, but at the same time leaders would be more concerned about the compromising nature of this then about what they say.

I remember when I was in the Carter White House and there was a German chancellor named Schmidt who used to say all kinds of things about the US president. That of course poisoned the relationship because he tended to broadcast it to everybody. But I think these folks are basically grown-ups and they will shrug it off and maybe with a little bit of humor it will give them a little bit of license to say things about our people which of course they do in private all the time and sometimes in public.

What was the most stunning thing in these cables you didn't know before?

I don't think anything actually. As far as I have been able to sift through things in the last few hours one thing is perhaps a little bit more strident commentary by some of the Arab leaders in the Persian Gulf about Iran, but again nothing that one really didn't know before. I guess one has to say that the most important revelation is that there are no revelations here. It shows among other things that the United States does not engage in conspiracies. Maybe we should, but we are very bad at it.

Many of the countries featured in the cables such as Pakistan or Iraq and of course the US have criticized the release as irresponsible. Australia has said it would support US legal action against it. One US congressman went even further demanding that WikiLeaks should be declared a foreign terrorist organization. Do you agree with that assessment?

Of course not. I regret deeply that somebody, obviously some American, has chosen to hand these things over because it does complicate the capacity to have serious conversations with others and affects the integrity of the system.

For example, and here I think is the most serious problem, many foreign leaders will be more reluctant to say things to US diplomats if they worry that these things will show up in public. And as a result the methodology of communication may have to adopt different ways and means in order to minimize the risks. That's the real problem that people will perhaps be less candid in the future and the way of communicating that back to Washington will have to change.

While some of the cables provide some new insights, it appears that most of the assessments don't reveal much news, i.e. that some Arab countries are deeply worried about Iran or that the US is concerned about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal or that corruption is a huge concern in Afghanistan. Is the media hype around this release that was of course created by WikiLeaks, but also by the stern US opposition against it justified in your opinion?

(Laughing) Yes, what a series of revelations. I didn't know any of this. But I think what this does do in a positive sense is it shows that the United States is genuinely trying to act as a leader and trying to protect its security and that of other countries. In that sense I think people will look at it positively.

But the real concern as I said is that it makes it less likely that some leaders will be as candid with some US diplomats or will look for reassurances that the manner in which the classification is done will keep things more or less confidential. But leaders one deals with tend to be grown-ups and very rarely do they say things that they wouldn't as we used to say want to see in the Washington Post.

Should the US have tried to play this down a bit, instead of making this release a really big deal and thereby perhaps even increasing the hype around it?

I think the government has to oppose it and has to make very clear that this kind of thing can cause potential damage. The real issue is less in these cables than in some of the earlier revelations, particularly about places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where people the United States authorities have dealt with may have their lives put at risk by being identified to terrorists who will then target them. Whether that has actually happened, I haven't seen reports on it, but I also wouldn't expect to see reports on it.

And finally, you said that your cables probably wouldn't be included, but what was the juiciest cable that you wrote that should be included in this the leak?

I wrote all kinds of strategy cables which had a lot to do with the restructuring of European security back in the 1990s and now for my memoirs I would have to go over to the State Department and dig through the documents. But if WikiLeaks had access to it, and I am sure it wouldn't because the time it covered, it would just simplify my task.

I am being a little light-hearted about that merely to say that most of that material as we have seen so far is not at all causing any revelations. It may confirm some things people thought. More to the point are the earlier releases that could actually put people's lives at risk. And so far I haven't seen any of these from the media reporting that seem to indicate that.

Interview: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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