“Eagle Guardian” and the Strange Case of the Leak Without Legs (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 8

US soldiers and Patriot battery in the Polish town of Morag. (AFP/Getty Images).

For more than a month the media was full of accounts of the latest revelations from WikiLeaks broadcasting US diplomatic cables to the world. The international speculation about the ramifications of the world reading US classified diplomatic traffic gave birth to a media frenzy and speculation about the long-term implications of the publication of these sensitive materials. On the one hand, the very scale of the potential disclosures (over 251,000 dispatches), the global cast of the initial releases, and their rapid dissemination across global media confirmed that we are, indeed, living in the information age, which will redefine intelligence, diplomacy, and public policy. What once required access to highly secured files by covert means, now has become a matter of mass information dumps. Penetration of such files in the past were the best kept secrets of the craft  intelligence and could go unacknowledged  for decades, as was the case of the Ultra Secret after World War II  (www.cablegate.wikileaks.org, November 28, 2010).

Today, the very seed of information and the broad dissemination of classified materials have made possible disclosure on the cheap by a disgruntled soldier, an Internet entrepreneur, and a willing global mass media. Pavel Felgenhauer, one of the first Russian analysts to comment on the WikiLeaks disclosures published in The Guardian correctly identified the source as “a scandal site” and noted that it had not yet revealed any super secrets to shock the world. From a Russian perspective Felgenhauer called the media event “black days” for politicians and a “golden age” for diplomats. The politicians that he had in mind were those in Russia about which there were unflattering references, notably Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, but also including corrupt bureaucrats and leaders tied to organized crime. The golden age for diplomats Felgenhauer speculated would result from the wider reading of their dispatches, which often seem to fall on deft ears in Washington. The political leadership in Washington, according to Felgenhauer, was showing real signs of panic over the disclosures and had serious fears about the level of trust that foreign leaders would have in talking to their US counterparts. Felgenhauer did not point to any particular issue that would trouble US-Russian relations (Novaya Gazeta, December 6, 2010).

US commentators were quick to compare the publication of these state secrets to the case of the Pentagon Papers, collected by Daniel Ellsberg and leaked to The New York Times in 1971. In that case the issue of the leak was directly connected to one overriding policy issue, the Vietnam War, and was seen by both the Nixon administration and the media as a test of the government’s right to prior censorship in the name of national security. Certainly, WikiLeaks sought to make a connection to the Nixon era by calling its publication “Cablegate,” a reference to the Watergate break-in and subsequent White House cover-up. The term, “Cablegate” was used in conjunction with WikiLeaks’ guidance to any potential researcher on how to use the collection (www.cablegate.wikileaks.org, November 28, 2010).  

No such single issue drove the publication of this collection of the classified materials from the US State Department. Their dissemination seemed aimed at the broadest embarrassment of the US government and its diplomacy. WikiLeaks’ justification was that public knowledge would lead to better policy, but seemed unconcerned about the consequences of such leaks on the character of relations among the states affected, especially US relations with other states around the world.  The US Ambassador in Moscow, John Beyrle, in an interview on the leaks condemned them as criminal: “This was a crime. Confidential information was stolen from the US government and then published.”  Beyrle went on to state that the US government intended to take actions to prevent such leaks in the future. The Ambassador stressed that the revelations had not damaged the “reset” policy of the Obama administration towards Russia, which would continue (The Moscow Times, December 8).

The test of the Ambassador’s assessment of the impact of the leaks on current US policy towards Russia would be the impact of particular leaks on specific policy areas. And, of all the areas of US-Russian relations that could be affected by these leaks, one seems worthy of in depth consideration  because of its consequences not only on US-Russian relations, but also NATO-Russia relations: the revelation that in January 2010 NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral James Stavridis, had approved the extension of contingency plans for the defense of Poland to include the three Baltic Republics and that this would involve the deployment of nine NATO divisions, including units from the United States, Britain, Germany, and Poland in the event of a Russian attack. The secret contingency plans bore the name “Eagle Guardian” and were proposed by Admiral Stavridis, and approved by NATO members under a “silence procedure” without public debate or discussion in order not to further complicate NATO’s relations with Russia. The Russian foreign ministry and mass media quickly latched on to “Eagle-Guardian.”

Just as the US diplomats had feared in their cables on “Eagle-Guardian” the leak raised questions about the general direction of US-Russian and NATO-Russian relations. On December 8, Elena Chernenko spoke of the WikiLeaks revelations on Eagle Guardian and noted that the first NATO exercises in support of the Eagle Guardian contingency plans was approved at the NATO summit in Lisbon in November 2010 at the very same time that NATO Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, declared that the Alliance did not consider Russia to be a threat to NATO’s security. Chernenko emphasized that NATO membership for the Baltic republics of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania in 2004 had explicitly extended to those states Article Five guarantees under the NATO Charter, and that contingency defense plans were an expected part of membership. But no action had taken place because of opposition from Berlin, which viewed the development of such plans as a major complication in NATO-Russian relations. Berlin did not change its attitude until October 2008 in the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia War of August 2008 (Kommersant, December 8).

Chernenko concluded her piece on Eagle Guardian with an extended quote from Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, the former director of external affairs in the Russian defense ministry and a long-time opponent of improved NATO-Russian relations and a skeptic about NATO’s evolution into an instrument of collective security in Europe: “What else did you expect? You are not admitted to a military union like to a hobby club, where it is possible to sing and dance. Guarantees of defense from external threats are given there and the relevant obligations of cooperation are taken. If NATO did not have such plans it would have been disbanded a long time ago” (Kommersant, December 8).