WASHINGTON — Federica Ferrari Bravo’s story of meeting American diplomats in Rome seven years ago hardly reads like a James Bond spy novel or a Cold War tale of a brave informant sharing secrets to help the United States.
So it came as a something of a surprise to her to hear that in one of the 250,000-odd State Department cables released by WikiLeaks, she was deemed a source so sensitive U.S. officials were advised not to repeat her name.
“I don’t think I said anything that would put me at risk,” Ferrari Bravo said.
The Italian diplomat’s episode, along with similar stories from several other foreign lawmakers, diplomats and activists cited in the U.S. cables as sources to “strictly protect,” raises doubts about the scope of the danger posed by WikiLeaks’ disclosures and the Obama administration’s angry claims going back more than a year that the anti-secrecy website’s revelations are threatening lives around the world. U.S. examples have been strictly theoretical.
The question of whether the dire warnings are warranted or overblown became more acute with the recent release all of the 251,287 diplomatic memos WikiLeaks held. Tens of thousands of confidential exchanges were dumped, emptying a trove of documents that had been released piecemeal since last year and initially with the cooperation of a select group of newspapers and magazines that blacked out some names and information before publishing the documents.
The latest cables were published in full, without the redaction of any names. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland branded the action “irresponsible, reckless and frankly dangerous,” and the U.S. says the release exposes the names of hundreds of sensitive sources.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has blamed Britain’s Guardian newspaper for publishing a secret encryption code, allowing intelligence agencies worldwide to access the cables and forcing WikiLeaks to provide the people affected the same information.
But an Associated Press review of the sources found several of them comfortable with their names in the open and no one fearing death. Others are already dead, their names cited as sensitive in the context of long-resolved conflicts or situations. Some have publicly written or testified at hearings about the supposedly confidential information they provided the U.S. government.
The Associated Press survey is selective and incomplete, as it focused on those sources the State Department seemed to categorize as most risky. The AP did not attempt to contact every named source in the new trove. It’s generally up to the embassies themselves to decide which identities require heightened vigilance, officials say.
Hadzira Hamzic, a 73-year-old Bosnian refugee, wasn’t bothered about being identified as one of thousands of victims from the Balkan wars of the 1990s. “I never hid that,” she told the AP. “It is always hard when I have to tell about how I had been raped, but that is part of what happened and I have to talk about it.”
In Asia, former Malaysian diplomat Shazryl Eskay Abdullah was shocked an “unofficial lunch meeting” he had several years ago with a U.S. official meant his name ended up on a formal report. But he said his role in southern Thailand peace talks was well known. “I don’t see why anyone would come after me,” Shazryl told the AP.
Ferrari Bravo’s subject matter was also by no means mundane. A veteran of her nation’s embassy in Tehran, Ferrari Bravo worked at the time on the Italian Foreign Ministry’s Iran desk and discussed with the U.S. her government’s view of the Iranian nuclear standoff. She urged continued dialogue.
“There is nothing that we said that was not known to our bosses, to our ministers, to our heads of state,” she said. On having her identity protected, she said: “We didn’t ask. There is nothing to protect.”
U.S. officials say they have two criteria for sensitive sources. The first deals with people in totalitarian societies or failed states who could be imprisoned or killed, or perhaps denied housing, schooling, food or other services if exposed as having helped the United States. The State Department has also sought to censor names of people who might lose their jobs or suffer major embarrassment even in friendly countries, if they were seen offering the U.S. candid insights or restricted information.
One such case involved the dismissal in December of a top aide to German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle after he provided details on coalition talks and debates over issues such as U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe.
Still, the total damage appears limited and the State Department has steadfastly refused to describe any situation in which they’ve felt a source’s life was in danger. They say a handful of people had to be relocated away from danger but won’t provide any details on those few cases.
Units throughout the department have been scouring the documents since last year to find examples where sources are exposed and inform them that they may be “outed.” Some, such as Hamzic, Sharzyl and Ferrari Bravo, say they were never contacted. Presumably, endangered individuals would have been prioritized.
Clearly, sensitivities depend on context. Revelations that may cause personal or political discomfort for a U.S. embassy contact in Western Europe may be life-threatening for an informant in an undemocratic nation. In the cables, they may both be “strictly protected” sources, highlighting relative danger levels in different places.
In Vietnam, the U.S. seemed to be dealing with sources whose names demanded vigilance: the wife of a dissident sentenced to five years in prison; a Buddhist leader condemning the arrest of a fellow priest; a dissident who says people “held his family hostage” until he renounced his activism; a Christian preacher complaining of police pressure on him to renounce his faith; another who speaks of a colleague forcibly sent to a mental institute.
A Syrian human rights activist warned the U.S. of a looming crackdown on anti-regime activists as far back as 2009. If the activist wasn’t threatened by the disclosure last year, he may be now that the country is in the throes of a brutal five-month security crackdown.
And in Mexico, the term “strictly protect” appeared to be attached to interlocutors indiscriminately, even when officials offered only flattering assessments of their government or said little that wasn’t common knowledge. It perhaps makes more sense in the context of a country where organized crime networks have essentially fought an insurgency against the government, where allowing a valued source’s name to get out could affect that person’s safety.
Assange, an Australian, has defended his actions by saying no one has died as a result of WikiLeaks.
Current and former American officials say that argument misses the point.
Making people think twice before providing the U.S. with information — or simply refuse ever again to help — hurts the good causes of human rights and democracy that American officials are promoting, they argue.
Take Arnold Sundquist, a Swede whose life isn’t in danger. He provided the U.S. Embassy with sensitive details on an Iranian attempt to buy helicopters and said he was unhappy that his actions were now public. Last year, Swedish media with access to the WikiLeaks trove reported on the incident but didn’t mention him by name.
“It is what it is,” he said. “I can’t do anything about it.”
But will he, or others in a similar situation, be as ready to help American authorities again?
Venezuelan journalist Nelson Bocaranda thinks not. His identity was exposed in a document describing how he told the U.S. ambassador in 2009 that according to one of his sources, Colombian rebel leaders had visited Caracas for secret meetings with senior Venezuelan government officials. Bocaranda published the account in one of his newspaper columns.
“I feel betrayed by WikiLeaks,” Bocaranda told the AP on Friday. But he said that as a journalist it’s natural for him to talk with diplomats from various countries. “I think the ones who have been betrayed basically are the American diplomats,” he said.
“It’s going to be more difficult for them because I think no one is going to want to talk for fear of coming out in print with their name,” he said, adding that would apply those who might otherwise supply sensitive information.
He said he doesn’t feel his work or personal security face additional threats as a result of his name being exposed but said he suspects President Hugo Chavez’s government could try to “cast doubts on me, to say that I am a member of the CIA.”
Bocaranda said that he has nothing to hide and that the information he publishes in his newspaper columns and on the Internet is public. “I don’t think my sources are going to shut me out,” he said.
Other governments have echoed the U.S. criticism of WikiLeaks, saying it jeopardizes invaluable diplomacy — the exchanges that aim to promote understanding, avoid war and improve global security.
The anger from Assange’s home nation, Australia, was prompted not by the release of sources, but of 23 Australians who had been in contact with a Yemen-based al-Qaida offshoot and were being monitored. Still, a government statement couldn’t point to a direct threat from the disclosure, only a potential danger.
“The large-scale distribution of hundreds of thousands of classified United States government documents is reckless, irresponsible and potentially dangerous,” Australian Attorney-General Robert McClelland said.