Forget policy, some of this WikiLeaks stuff is great to read

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 2, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Note to Tatiana Gfoeller, U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan: If you ever tire of the Foreign Service — or get drummed out — there may be a reporting job for you.

Gfoeller, a career diplomat who speaks six languages — seven, if you count English — is the author of a WikiLeak'd diplomatic cable about Britain's Prince Andrew that made headlines in London this week because she said the conversation at a brunch the prince shared with diplomats in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, two years ago "verged on the rude."

Among the prince's targets, Gfoeller reported, were the French, whose penchant for corruption, in the prince's opinion, was nearly as great as the Kyrgyz government's, and the Americans, whose ignorance of geography placed them in a category definitely inferior to his own countrymen.

But it isn't just the prince's indiscretions that make Gfoeller's account so worthy of notice; Andrew isn't a diplomat, after all, and as the second son of Queen Elizabeth II he isn't likely to be King of England, either. Rather, it's the rollicking way Gfoeller tells the tale, filled with verbatim quotes, witty observations and attention to setting the scene.

So detailed is the account that a blogger at a website called Disappeared News suggested that she must have been wearing a wire.

To wit: After one businessman complained to the prince about being "harassed and hounded by Kyrgyz tax authorities," Gfoeller wrote, "The prince reacted with unmitigated patriotic fervor. . . . 'A contract is a contract,' he insisted. 'You have to take the rough with the smooth.' "

After other businessmen complained about having to pay bribes to Kyrgyzstan's president's son, "Prince Andrew took up the topic with gusto . . . 'All of this sounds exactly like France,' " she quoted the prince as saying, noting that "at this point the Duke of York laughed uproariously."

When the brunch already had exceeded its allotted time, "the prince looked like he was just getting started." When the prince slammed British anti-corruption investigators, "his mother's subjects seated around the table roared their approval." When he attacked journalists, "the crowd practically clapped." When he let loose with what Gfoeller called another "zinger," "castigating 'our stupid (sic) British and American governments' " for their lack of planning, "there were calls of 'hear, hear' in the private brunch hall."

Gfoeller's descriptive skills are on display in another WikiLeaks cable, this one recounting a February 2009 meeting with China's ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Zhang Yannian, at which Gfoeller raised allegations that China had tried to scuttle America's lease of a military base that's critical to U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

"After opening pleasantries, the ambassador mentioned that Kyrgyz officials had told her that China had offered a $3 billion financial package to close Manas Air Base and asked for the ambassador's reaction to such an allegation," she wrote, referring to herself and Zhang both as "the ambassador."

"Visibly flustered, Zhang temporarily lost the ability to speak Russian and began spluttering in Chinese to the silent aide diligently taking notes right behind him. Once he recovered the power of Russian speech, he inveighed against such a calumny, claiming that such an idea was impossible."

Gfoeller pressed the point, and the Chinese changed topics: "Zhang snapped that 'releasing 17 from Guantanamo is an unfriendly act toward us,' " she wrote, a reference to 17 ethnic Uighur detainees who the U.S. had decided should be transferred from Guantanamo but not returned to China for fear they'd face political repression.

Eventually, the conversation came back to the base and "a $2 billion plus Russian deal with Kyrgyzstan" that figured in the Kyrgyz government's temporarily canceling the American lease. Zhang suggested that the U.S. "just give" Kyrgyz officials "$150 million per year in cash" and "you will have the base forever."

"Very uncharacteristically, the silent young aide then jumped in," Gfoeller recounted. " 'Or maybe you should give them $5 billion and buy both us and the Russians out.' "

"The aide then withered under the ambassador's horrified stare," she noted.

ESCAPE FROM IRAN

Gfoeller's stories from Kyrgyzstan aren't the only ones worth reading for something other than their world significance.

Another tale that would have gone unremarked without WikiLeaks is the 2009 saga of the horseback escape from Iran to Turkey of then 75-year-old Hossein Ghanbarzadeh Vahedi, a U.S. citizen, dentist and longtime Los Angeles resident whose U.S. passport had been seized when he was visiting relatives in Iran.

Who exactly wrote the story of Vahedi's travels isn't clear, though the decision to classify it "confidential" was made by Doug Silliman, who was the deputy chief of mission, or No. 2, at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. The account is filled with the kind of detail that puts the reader on the scene.

"At his wife's urging to visit his parents' gravesite in Iran, he traveled to Tehran in early May 2008 where he spent four weeks with family and friends without incident," the report recounts. "However, after clearing customs at Tehran airport on June 6, he heard his name called on the public address system with instructions to report to a separate office. At this office (Iranian) authorities confiscated his passport and told him he would not be leaving Iran."

From there the drama begins. Iranian authorities wanted a $150,000 payment. They also wanted Vahedi to force his music promoter sons to stop their representation in America and the Persian Gulf of an Iranian pop duet, Kamran & Hooman, who occasionally make anti-regime comments and whose background singers dressed in ways that offended Iranian authorities.

"He repeatedly told the officials of the Islamic Revolution Court that his children had lived in America all of their lives and as such he exerted no control over their strong, typically American independent behavior," the cable notes.

After several months, "Vahedi realized that his situation was not going to change," and he began to plot his escape. "He studied the four most common illegally used routes out of Iran," and rejected the first three as too risky: stowing away aboard a ship headed to the United Arab Emirates, traveling overland to Baluchistan, a vast region that includes parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, or crossing into Iraq with Iranian religious pilgrims in hopes of hooking up with an American military unit.

"That left only the last option," the cable says, "over the mountains on horseback from Urmia to the Turkish border."

The cable recounts his escape in incredible detail. Here's a truncated version: Vahedi spent weeks hiking in the mountains to prepare for what he knew would be a demanding journey. He then used his California driver's license as identification at each of the 20 security stops the bus passed through to his rendezvous in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. After meeting up with his guides, Vahedi, "an inexperienced rider," "lost his concentration and fell off the horse, tumbling into the woods." He suspected that his guides were drug smugglers and searched one of their packs. He found nothing amiss.

Eventually, he crossed into Turkey and was taken to a safe house to rest, then driven to the city of Van, where he caught the 2 a.m. bus to Ankara. "He arrived at the consular section at noon," the cable said.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of this made-for-TV drama. For four days, U.S. and Turkish officials haggled over whether Vahedi, who'd entered Turkey illegally, should be sent back to Iran. Finally, with the intervention of what the cable called "the embassy's front office," Vahedi's deportation to the United States was arranged. U.S. officials stayed with him, however, until he was safely aboard a U.S.-bound airplane.

"Vahedi told (consular officials) he had never done anything illegal in his life and that he was ashamed to be seen in police custody," the cable said. Of note: In addition to a number of interested embassies, the cable was copied to the Washington headquarters of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

LATE NIGHT IN ASTANA

How U.S. Embassy officials came to be in the position to recount some of the stories the cables contain isn't always clear.

For example, a 2008 cable written over the name of John Ordway, the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan — but which the embassy's political-economics chief, Steven Fagin, ordered to be classified "confidential" — recounts the late-night exploits on March 7, 2008, of Karim Masimov, the country's prime minister, whom an "emboff," or embassy official, spotted at Chocolat, "one of Astana's trendiest nightclubs" — Astana being Kazakhstan's capital city.

The time was 11:30 p.m., the cable says, but there's no explanation of why the "emboff" was there (it should be noted that it was a Friday night). The head of the presidential office, the mayor of Astana and "three middle-aged Kazakh women (presumably their wives)" accompanied Masimov.

"Although the club offers a VIP area, Masimov chose to sit at a table in full view of all of the club's patrons," the cable notes. "Emboff lingered close to Masimov's group."

The story continues: "Masimov led his companions onto Chocolat's dance floor soon after their arrival . . . at the time perhaps 50 patrons were dancing. However, Masimov himself chose to dance on an empty stage above the dance floor. His companions quickly tired, but Masimov remained, dancing alone and animatedly on the stage for another 15-20 minutes. At approximately 1:00 a.m., Masimov and his retinue left the club."

No mention of whether the "emboff" left, too.

PANAMA REVISITED

One of the surprises of the latest WikiLeaks document dump is that a few of the cables are quite old and already declassified.

That's the case with a Dec. 13, 1989, cable written over the name of John A. Bushnell, who at the time was the top U.S. diplomat in Panama, where the U.S. was locked in a faceoff with the country's then-dictator, Manuel Antonio Noriega.

The cable, which at one time was marked "secret," is a lengthy but un-newsworthy rumination on what the year 1990 was likely to hold for Noriega and his beleaguered opposition.

What makes it interesting, however, is it was written just seven days before the U.S. landed 20,000 troops in Panama, installed a new government and chased Noriega into the Vatican Embassy before seizing him and sending him to the U.S., where he was tried, convicted and jailed for two decades for drug smuggling. U.S. officials sent him to France this year, where he's charged with murder.

None of which was presaged in Bushnell's cable.

Didn't he know?

"No one knew there would be an invasion seven days before," Bushnell, who's now retired and living in Virginia, said in an interview. "The invasion was Tuesday night. The decision was made on Sunday afternoon."

But, Bushnell recalled, he also was one of the few people in the American government who were aware of Operation Blue Spoon, the name the Americans had given the invasion plans, and when Secretary of State James Baker called him that Sunday to say the order had been given, he simply asked Bushnell whether he knew what Blue Spoon meant.

So why would Bushnell send a cable that seemed to foresee a Noriega future through 1990?

"One of the problems we had was we knew the military and probably the embassy was severely penetrated" by Noriega sympathizers, Bushnell said. "We had to assume that anything unusual we did would be noticed. We just proceeded as if nothing was going to happen."

As for the current WikiLeaks release, Bushnell said he wondered about a computer system that allowed someone to scoop up so much classified information, including ancient cables such as the one sent from the U.S. Embassy in Panama, written more to mislead than to inform.

"In those days we weren't allowed to access other agencies' databases," he said. Now, he added, "Some of these cables will get more exposure over the Internet than they got in real life."

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