Controversy of Wikileaks comes to WU

Wikileaks was the topic of discussion at a lecture last Wednesday on the Washburn University campus. Professors from several different departments provided an academic perspective on the recent controversy that was triggered after the release of over 250,000 diplomatic cables in November 2010.

New information continues to leak out. Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of Wikileaks, decided to release the information in waves in order to maximize the impact and allow the media time to process the information.

The leaks prompted widespread criticism from governments around the world including the United States. Major news organizations such as the New York Times and the UK Guardian have written extensively about the possible impacts of the releases.

The uprisings currently occurring in the Middle East and Northern Africa may have been caused by the leaks, according to Bassima Schbley, a Washburn associate professor. The information released to the public had a catalyst effect after decades of oppressive governments in countries such as Libya. Cables showed diplomats or world leaders discussing issues unpopular to their civilian populations.

“It really opened a Pandora’s box,” said Schbley. “Wikileaks shows a lot of Arab leaders saying that the United States is our friend as long as we have oil…It opened the eyes to the people.”

The information that came from the cables had widespread effects but the news wasn’t new to academics. There were no exciting revelations but theories on international relations were given supporting evidence, according to Tom Prasch, a Washburn professor of history.

“It’s an amazing resource in which there are no real surprises,” said Prasch. “Mostly what Wikileaks is useful for is providing some sort of backup, or bolstering to what we already know or suspect. Still, it’s an amazing treasure trove of material.”

Effects of the leaks extend beyond the United States and the Middle East. The website lists information sensitive to governments in Germany, China, Australia, Iceland and many others.

Information about Venezuela was uniquely enlightening, according to Kim Morse, professor of history. The cables gave a clear look into the complex political situation between the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and the national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.

“The [PDVSA] budget and the national budget are in many cases one and the same, but it’s a situation where the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing,” said Morse. “You have Chavez saying things about Venezuelan oil and making deals with China or Russia for example, but [PDVSA] isn’t involved in making these policies… These cables confirm our suspicions… China is getting this oil for five dollars a barrel, which is also causing problems for [PDVSA] and Venezuela. There is no money.”

Suspicions about the poor state of the Venezuelan infrastructure have implications for the country’s nuclear ambitions, according to Morse. Cables showed the lack of the technology and equipment to process the oil within their own country, a practice far less complicated than refining nuclear material. This runs contrary to the sabre rattling Chavez engaged in over the years with his threats to the United States.

The talk ended with considerations on the future effects on diplomatic discussions effected by the leaks. Future diplomatic communications are likely to be more tightly controlled which could have negative effects on the ability for frank discussions, according to Prasch.