Why Julian Assange would target Henry Kissinger
- 12 April 2013
- From the section Magazine
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has released a database of diplomatic records by Henry Kissinger, who ran American foreign policy under two presidents. Why does the former diplomat interest liberals like Assange?
Late 2011 - dressed in a starched shirt and cufflinks, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is discussing foreign policy at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
"I'm sort of amazed at the developing nostalgia for the Cold War," he says. People in the audience laugh - and afterwards listen quietly as he describes issues he faced during the nuclear age.
Kissinger does not always get such a warm reception. Indeed, he is despised in other places - so much so that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has decided to shine a spotlight on him.
Assange has compiled a database of State Department cables that Kissinger signed during the 1970s, the period of uncertainty that he describes during his talk in Washington.
The documents were not classified and had been available in national archives, which is where Wikileaks researchers obtained them.
The database, known as the Public Library of US Diplomacy, has been organised in a user-friendly way. It is designed so that ordinary people - not only historians and specialists - can easily go through the documents.
Or as Assange explains in a press release: "The US administration cannot be trusted to maintain the history of its interactions with the world."
The statement is vintage Assange - full of swagger and bombast, replete with the rhetoric of public service.
Six years after Wikileaks was founded, Assange and his organisation are under pressure. He worked on the database at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he is now living.
He has not been charged with a crime, but two women say he committed sexual offences, which he denies, and Swedish officials want to question him. Meanwhile Wikileaks has experienced well-publicised financial difficulties.
Kissinger may help. Not by donating money - that seems unlikely. But by giving Assange a way to generate publicity.
Richard Nixon said that Kissinger was "the mystery man of the age" after his first visit to China in 1971. During his trip, Kissinger met secretly with Premier Zhou Enlai and paved the way for better relations between the US and China.
Yet Kissinger has also been accused of dreadful acts - and has loomed large in the minds of some liberals for decades. This may be the reason that Assange decided to make him the focus of his new project.
"It's like, 'I'll play the Kissinger card, and all the liberals will be on my side,'" says David Greenberg, the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image.
Indeed, liberal critics deplore what Kissinger has done. They point out that after the US secretly bombed Cambodia in 1970, Kissinger tried to control leaks of information about government activities by setting up wiretaps at the homes of journalists.
Critics also say Kissinger encouraged the overthrow of Socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, in 1973. Kissinger has said the US did not orchestrate the coup in Chile. Nevertheless, people are still arguing over what happened that year. At the very least, Kissinger's comments about Chile were inflammatory.
''I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people," he said. Kissinger's biographer Walter Isaacson says that he was joking - sort of.
Christopher Hitchens, the journalist who died in 2011, did not take his remarks lightly, calling Kissinger a "war criminal".
Hitchens was Kissinger's most vociferous critic - but was certainly not the only one.
Because of his role in the wiretapping of Americans and his comments about Chile, among other things, Kissinger has been the subject of intense scrutiny over the years.
He has been criticised by everyone from the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, who is now heading up Assange's legal team, to Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, who reviewed Kissinger's book On China, to Monty Python's ode to his "Machiavellian schemes".
Kissinger has apologised. "It is something if circumstances were repeated I would not do again," he wrote.
Yet he has also has vociferously denied some of the personal accusations against him. When journalist Seymour Hersh said he had engaged in underhanded political tactics during the 1968 presidential campaign, for instance, Kissinger said that Hersh was telling "slimy lies".
Historians say Kissinger is a divisive figure because of his role in foreign policy - and also because of his personality.
"There's that Dr Strangelove side of him. He had this kind of cold-blooded, calculating approach to war and peace," says Greenberg. "He has all this intelligence but without the ethics or moral undergirding.
"He likes this cloak-and-dagger role," Greenberg adds. "There is a delicious irony to having his own secrets exposed."
Kissinger would "sanitise" officials accounts of meetings, says Princeton University's Gary Bass, author of a forthcoming book called The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide.
"He would tell his note-takers to leave out something, so we don't have a complete record."
Yet how many secrets will be revealed in the Wikileaks database is unclear.
Archivists say that the cache is not a big deal. They have already seen the documents, which are collected at a website housed by a research group, National Security Archive, in Washington.
Thomas Blanton, director of the archive, says the material has been mined. "We've probably done a thousand searches."
Still, Assange has made a lot more people aware of the documents through his media campaign. Equally important, Wikileaks researchers have organised the material - there are more than 1.7 million diplomatic records - in an easy-to-search database.
"If you have a lot of eyes looking at this stuff, you may turn things up that scholars miss," says Bass. "We're fallible."
Journalists have used the database to write stories about Indian politics, British leaders and other subjects.
A February 1975 cable, for instance, says the new British Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher "has a quick, if not profound, mind, and works hard to master the most complicated brief".
The author of an October 1973 cable says that Washington Post reporters are planning to report allegations that Watergate burglar Howard Hunt and others plotted to assassinate the Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos.
The newspaper article is a follow-up to a Newsweek piece about an alleged assassination plot. The author of the cable urges an ambassador to "speak personally with Torrijos" since he "has in the past had difficulty believing the USG [US government] denials".
During the 1970s, Kissinger was understandably guarded about his activities. Since then, though, he has spoken with relish about the role he once played on the world stage.
At the Atlantic Council in Washington, he describes a job that forces one to "mix the world of power and the world of morality". In this kind of position, he says, one needs to know "how to distinguish the important from the urgent".
In the movies, officials facing national security crises are always on the phone and shuffling papers. In real life, says Kissinger, the moment is "extremely quiet, profoundly quiet".
Kissinger's first-hand experiences of those pivotal moments during the Cold War make him an object of fascination for people across the political spectrum.
Many will be looking closely at his writings in the Public Library of US Diplomacy - and what they find may influence how he is portrayed in the future.