July 25, 2019
In a fresh nadir of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and one of its most important allies, the UK ambassador to Washington DC found himself resigning his position earlier this month, following the leaks of his confidential cables to London about the current American president, Donald Trump. A good deal of analysis has circulated around what this means for British diplomats, and the security of their correspondence. These are important issues—but there is one that seems to have been overlooked in the media furore around this. And that relates to the safety of those who are not in the British Foreign Office at all—but, rather, those who volunteer their expertise as sources on the ground in countries where British diplomats operate. The leaks, arguably, mean far more to them, than to probably any British diplomat worldwide – because for those local sources, it could very well mean the difference between life and death, freedom or imprisonment.
Sir Kim Darroch, by all accounts, is an excellent diplomat, and carried out his duties with distinction. Those who leaked his cables ought to be arrested immediately and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. They have wreaked untold damage not simply on British diplomacy in the United States, where an insecure executive is easily offended – but also to the ability of British diplomats to do their jobs. Going forward, a lot of British diplomats are no doubt going to be far more careful about what they send back to London, just in case the newspapers get a hold of it, and leak the information. But let us be clear—what happened to Sir Kim, while terrible, means the shortening of his stationing in DC by a few months. If he retires from the Foreign Office, he is frankly going to do so with a great deal of respect—rightly—from his colleagues and his nation.
But there are times when leaks of diplomatic communication are far more dangerous. In particular, those whom diplomats speak to outside their own ranks; people who do not enjoy the protection or shelter of embassies and governments, and are often living countries run by authoritarian or dictatorial regimes; and
As an academic and analyst, I travel to authoritarian countries a great deal for my research. Very often, I speak to diplomats in various embassies, not least of my own United Kingdom. I do so always under the presumption that my conversations are off-record – or, I should say, I always did so. I’m not sure I can do that anymore. My risk analysis in that regard has changed. And yet, my risks are very different than many others whom embassies speak to. I’m a British national, associated with two well-connected think-tanks in Washington DC and London. I’m not immune to getting into trouble, but I am less at risk than, for example, native rights defenders in such authoritarian states.
Rights defenders do not usually have foreign embassies who’ll intervene on their behalf if they are harassed, threatened or arrested. When these defenders speak to our diplomats overseas, they already have great risks to consider. They take them, bravely, to bear witness—but they do not expect that their analysis will be leaked as a result of lack of security in communication. After the leaks of Sir Kim’s communication, they may have to reconsider that.
And it isn’t as though prior to this event, such rights defenders had nothing to worry about. In one such country, I know of a European embassy that held a confidential session with a local analyst to discuss the economy of an authoritarian regime. Without consulting with that analyst first, the embassy invited an advisor to the president of that regime, to participate in the discussion—as though this would be completely normal and acceptable, in terms of risks to the analyst. When the analyst raised concerns, they were told, “Don’t worry—if you get into any trouble, let us know, and we’ll sort it out for you.” Because, of course, European embassies really have a wonderful track record of managing to intervene successfully in such cases—not.
The civil service of our own Foreign Office is more often than not a great example of diplomatic expertise. Sometimes, like all services, it fails – and especially when there is a lack of proper political leadership at the top. In this case, our new prime minister, Boris Johnson, failed Sir Tim quite dramatically, by not coming out against the attacks of Donald Trump on our ambassador to the United States. In so doing, however, he not only let down our ambassador and the Foreign Office. He—and everyone who either failed to stand by Sir Kim, let alone those who carried out the leaks – let down those who take great risks in talking to our diplomats and briefing them. It’s how our diplomats are able to do their jobs – but our local experts will no longer treat such conversations in the same way as they used to. Nor, alas, should they.