On April 5, 2008, a small coterie of Republican senators and diplomats— John Barrasso, Saxby Chambliss, Mitch McConnell, and James Risch, among others—held a quiet meeting with then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the Heliopolis Palace in Cairo.
The setting was regal. Designed in the early twentieth century by a Belgian architect, the one-time luxury hotel had been remade as Mubarak's home and workplace in the 1980s. Blending Arabic, European, and Persian architectural styles, the complex embodied purposefully Egypt's place at the crossroads of the pan-Islamic and pan-European worlds.
The conversation slid naturally to current events as the group settled down to talk.
After a brief back-and-forth about Israel, Mubarak turned to Iraq. "My dear friends," he began, "democracy in Iraq equals killing. The nature of those people is completely different. They are tough and bloody, and they need a very tough leader. They will not be submissive to a democratic leader."
Stability required an authoritarian fist.
"As I told Secretary of Defense Gates last year," Mubarak continued, "the only solution [to America's desire to leave Iraq] is to strengthen the military and security forces, arm and train them, wait for the emergence of some generals, don't oppose them, then stay in your camps in the desert and don't interfere. The military will control Iraq like the ayatollahs control Iran."
Twenty-eight years in power, and Mubarak's worldview amounted to a simple adage: never "mix democracy and tribalism."
The transcript drips with irony when read from the present.
It was sent to the Department of State by U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey on April 8, 2008. It allegedly comes to us via Private First Class Bradley Manning, who sits now in a U.S. military prison, awaiting trial for passing along 251,287 such cables—only 2,000 of which are available online currently—to the media organization known as WikiLeaks.
Manning's fate and the imbroglio surrounding Julian Assange, the controversial figure who shared the cables with the world, has faded somewhat from the headlines in recent months. Yet the WikiLeaks communiqués reveal much about America's role in today's world.
In the words of author Timothy Garton Ash, the documents are a "historian's dream" and a "diplomat's nightmare"—a spigot of information from the contact points of American power, where powerbrokers and diplomats go daily through the motions of statecraft.
Leaks, Yesterday and Today
In the United States, politicians have hyperventilated over the WikiLeaks story since it broke in 2010.
Despite the fact that most foreign leaders quickly dismissed the material as blasé, American leaders have framed Assange and Manning as unambiguous enemies of the international community.
Internal dissent—voiced notably by (now former) State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who criticized the U.S. government's imprisonment of Manning—has been cast as inexcusable and irresponsible.
But the American ship-of-state has long been a leaky boat.
George Washington reprimanded Alexander Hamilton for passing material to the British during the 1794 Jay Treaty negotiations, and James Madison castigated his secretary of state for giving administration secrets to members of the opposing Federalist Party.
There has been no shortage of leak-related precedents since then.
In 1848, as the United States' war with Mexico drew to a close, Senate investigators placed a journalist under house arrest for the first time because he refused to disclose how he obtained details about the not-yet-complete peace treaty.
At the height of the First World War, lawmakers considered making it illegal to leak state information to the public, but changed their minds because of first amendment concerns, opting instead for legislation that criminalized the act of relaying defense secrets to the enemy during wartime.