Turtle Bay

When Washington stood shoulder-to-shoulder with WikiLeaks

When Washington stood shoulder-to-shoulder with WikiLeaks

The Obama administration has condemned WikLeaks’ decision to publish more than 91,000 U.S. military documents related to the war in Afghanistan, saying the disclosures undercut American security and endanger the lives of U.S. troops and informants. It neglected to mention that when it comes to the release of sensitive U.N. documents, Washington and WikiLeaks have been allies.

For five years, the U.S. government and WikiLeaks have each posted several hundred internal U.N. documents, including scores of confidential investigation reports on corruption, mismanagement and sexual misconduct by U.N. staff and peacekeepers at headquarters and in the field. The leaked reports have discussed highly sensitive U.N. anti-corruption probes from Haiti to Congo, and detailed audits of U.N. procedures for purchasing everything from jet fuel to office equipment.

To be clear, the U.N. documents do not disclose war-time military and intelligence secrets, but they do contain lots of raw, unsubstantiated rumors and, allegations whose publication have the power to expose wrongdoing but also to damage reputations. They also show that the interests of Washington policymakers and WikiLeaks sleuths are sometimes more closely aligned than you’d think following days of White House denunciations.

The U.S. government led the way in disclosing internal U.N. audits and investigations reports back in 2006, a year before WikiLeaks went online in January 2007. President George W. Bush‘s ambassador for management and reform, Mark Wallace, at the request of former U.S. ambassador John Bolton, posted hundreds of reports from the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services on corruption and mismanagement in U.N. peacekeeping missions and other U.N. operations. Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has followed suit, posting a large trove of audits from 2009 and 2010, including examinations of logistic operations for U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sudan and the financial controls for the renovation of U.N. headquarters.

"Transparency and accountability in government and international institutions is a best practice and of great importance and WikiLeaks previously has been a force for good in the area," Wallace told Turtle Bay. "Certainly there is a distinction between transparency and accountability in public institutions and secret military information, where people’s lives are at risk."

In January 2009, WikiLeaks announced the release of more than 600 U.N. documents, touting the disclosure as a major event. In fact, most of the reports were already publicly available on the U.S. website, and some had been reported in the press. For instance, WikiLeaks claimed that it was the first source to publish an internal report on corruption in the U.N. peacekeeping operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Two years earlier, I had published a story in the Washington Post on the Congo report, based on a leaked copy I had obtained, though I had not been authorized by the source to post the entire report. But the U.S. government subsequently posted a redacted version of the full report on its own website, well before WikiLeaks did so.

Following its creation in 1994, the U.N.’s internal oversight office had rarely released copies of its internal audits and investigations, arguing that it needed to maintain strict confidentiality to do its work effectively. The investigation into the U.N. Oil-for-Food program in Iraq, headed by former Fed chairman and Obama advisor Paul Volcker, forced the U.N. to release its internal audits for the first time.

The move led the U.N. General Assembly to pass a landmark resolution in February 2005 requiring the U.N. secretariat to provide copies of internal U.N. reports to representatives of the U.N.’s 192 member states. Inga-Britt Ahlenius, the outgoing head of the Office for Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), initially opposed the release of the documents. But she later embraced the policy, and now says she favors the U.S. decision to post the documents. But she said the decision generated intensive unease within the U.N. leadership.

"I believe it is fair to say that — with a few exceptions — the secretariat has not been enthusiastic," Ahlenius wrote in her end-of-mission-report, which was leaked to Turtle Bay. She wrote that the top U.N. brass have voiced "sharp criticism" of the "negative consequences" the disclosure had on the United Nations. "OIOS reports in our opinion should be made publicly available. The U.N. is a publicly funded organization: it should provide the stakeholders — the member states, and ultimately the citizens and taxpayers of the world — access to OIOS reports."

The decision to release the U.N. documents has been welcomed by reporters and accountability advocates, who say it will contribute to greater oversight of the U.N.’s administration.  "It exposes this kind of institutional hypocrisy: When leaks are in our interests, we’re for them, and when they are not, we’re against them," said the Government Accountability Projects’ international reform director, Bea Edwards.

Edwards, whose organization represents U.N. whistleblowers, said, "there is a habit [among U.N. officials] to release documents here and there when it serves someone’s purpose politically." Edwards said she recognizes that the U.S. and WikiLeaks have an obligation to redact the names of individuals named in reports to ensure that witnesses don’t face retaliation and that a target of an investigation is granted due process protections. "The best approach is that there be an orderly and sincere effort at transparent disclosure."

The U.N. declined a request to comment on the release of the OIOS documents. But a senior U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, defended the need for a certain degree of confidentiality in managing a complex diplomatic institution like the United Nations, where foreign governments expect that they can engage in confidential discussions on a broad range of delicate international issues. "There is a time for transparency and there is a time for secrecy," he said. 

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