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Tuesday 24 April 2018

Derek Mooney: My fears after private chat with US official was put on Wikileaks

Have you seen today's Belfast Telegraph?" Curiously, I hadn't. While it is a good newspaper, it does not really sell so well in my neck of the woods in Dublin. Frankly, they might as well have asked me if I had seen that day's Kathmandu Courier

The question had arrived in the form of a text message from a friend in Belfast last December. Apparently my name had been mentioned in an article that morning.

The article was based on a document revealed via Wikileaks. The headline read: 'Fianna Fail chiefs eyed all-Ireland election bid' and referred to a briefing note sent back home in February 2005 by the then US Ambassador to Ireland, James C Kenny.

It contained several references to observations made by me in January/February 2005 on the attractiveness of Fianna Fail contesting elections in Northern Ireland and on the SDLP's declining fortunes and prospects.

Back then I was the fairly new special adviser/programme manager to the Minister for Defence. Now I was an ex-adviser who was frantically wracking his brain trying to recall precisely what I had said six years before.

Irony

The Belfast Telegraph piece didn't quote me directly, rather it quoted the Embassy cable's reports of my conversation and my views.

From the article I could see that all it contained was confined to political comments of the Northern situation and the SDLP's declining electoral fortunes.

But was there more? While I was fairly sure that my remarks at the time were confined to Northern Ireland matters, I needed to see the full cable to be certain.

I hadn't allowed for Sod's Law though.

As each minute passed my need to find it increased; but my ability to find it decreased. Various cyber attacks and difficulties with site hosts at the start of December had forced the Wikileaks site to change its .org address. Search engines were pointing me to where the site had been, not to where it was now.

After about 30 or 40 minutes I eventually located it and the particular cable mentioning me. The more I read, the more I recalled of the casual conversation over a cup of coffee with a US Embassy official.

It is a not too comfortable feeling to read comments you made almost six years ago in a private environment repeated back to you, and the rest of the world -- well those parts that read the Belfast Telegraph.

Some of my friends in the SDLP were certainly none too pleased to see that back then I had thought that they were unlikely to regain the electoral ground they were losing. In 2004, they lost their European Parliament seat to Sinn Fein.

To be fair, while the Belfast Telegraph understandably picked on the Fianna Fail SDLP content, the ambassador's February 2005 note was focused on the wider political situation in the aftermath of the Northern Bank robbery and the implications of the provos' statements at the time.

My remarks appeared at the end of the cable and were, as I had thought, just confined to that one particular matter.

While the Americans have been understandably infuriated at the leaking of so many hundreds of thousands of its confidential briefings, the irony is that these leaked cables and notes show how surprisingly straight-talking US Embassy officials are.

You would expect these notes to be couched in diplomatic double-speak but find them remarkably honest and direct.

While I may be a bit embarrassed to see what I said six years ago splashed across the internet, I cannot fault the manner in which my comments were recorded.

But there are still some important concerns. Would I, or the official reporting my comments, have been so candid and clear in expressing ourselves if we knew they would appear online and in print some years later?

I doubt it.

The test should not be how this will come across when it appears in print five or 10 years hence, but rather was it an informed and sincerely held view at that time.

Though many of the leaked documents have been innocuous, the indiscriminate leaking of several hundred thousand classified documents potentially puts people at risk in many of the world's trouble spots.

As the UK's Freedom of Information commissioner said last December there is a difference between freedom of information and a free for all.

Vulnerable

While Wikileaks has redacted much of the information to protect individuals -- though not me -- the fact that there are so many documents to examine risks something slipping through.

The one person who will not slip through this, however, is the 23-year-old, vulnerable American soldier accused of being the source of all this material: Bradley Manning.

While I write this piece and light heartedly reflect on my mild embarrassment he remains locked up without trial at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

He has spent 53 weeks in prison. If convicted he faces 53 years more of the same.

Up to April he spent almost 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in a windowless cell, with few personal possessions and under constant watch. Maybe others can see the sense of this: I cannot.

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