The buzz started around eleven on Wednesday night, when hundreds of journalists were summoned to a mysterious press conference, to be held in twelve hours, at the Frontline Club in London. No further information was given except the promise that, "WikiLeaks will be announcing its latest release of information."
The Frontline is owned by Vaughan Smith, a former news cameraman, who is one of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's most loyal backers. Assange spent months on his estate in Norfolk last year while under house-arrest, pending his extradition over allegations of sexual assault to Sweden.
Since the website published 250,000 U.S. State Department cables in November 2010, revealing the inner briefings of American diplomats and accounts of their meetings from around the world, WikiLeaks has failed to create a repeat sensation. The best they could come up with was a collection of emails between the employees of "global intelligence" company Stratfor, which despite the hype, was of little real significance. Over the past year, nearly all the media reports on WikiLeaks dealt with Assange's personal battle against extradition and the acrimonious departure of many of WikiLeaks key members.
The announcement this morning that WikiLeaks is planning to release over the next few weeks 2.4 million Syrian emails, purported to be from senior Syrian figures, government ministries and companies, is a last-gasp attempt by the website to remain relevant. Assange himself could not attend the press conference – he is currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, begging for political asylum and refusing to give himself up to the police for extradition procedures. Instead of him, a WikiLeaks spokeswoman read out a laconic statement.
So what is in the Syrian emails? No-one can say for sure yet, reading 2.4 million, many of them in Arabic and Russian, are way beyond WikiLeaks' limited resources. The media organizations which have partnered with the website aren't capable of absorbing such a huge quantity of information either. So far only 27 emails have been released, 0.001 percent of the entire load. These emails give details on the cooperation between the Syrian regime and Selex Elsag, a subsidiary of Italian mega-corporation Finmeccanica. Selex Elsag which specializes in communications systems sold in 2008 its Tetra system to the Syrian government via a Greek company. Since the original contract was signed, Selex Elsag officials and engineers have been travelling regularly to Syria to oversee the installation of the system and its operation throughout the company. The emails seem to prove that the relationship continued well into this year, at least until February, when Syria was already deep into the bloodbath of its revolution. The Syrian government last year was seeking additional Tetra terminals, including for use on its helicopters and adding to the system encryption capabilities. It is not clear whether Selex Elsag, which seemed eager to continue its relationship with the regime in Damascus, received the necessary permits from the Italian government to go ahead with this deal.
This story is obviously very embarrassing for Finmeccanica, that could have been acting in contravention of European Union embargos on the sale of "dual-use" equipment to Syria, though this is not the first case in which Western companies have been accused of such deals. Two American firms, Netapp and Blue Coat Systems, were accused last year of selling surveillance programs and tracking systems to Syria that could have helped the government in tracking down opposition members. The trove of emails could reveal other Western governments selling sensitive equipment to the Assad regime, perhaps with government complicity.
That still waits to be seen though. For now, there are other questions regarding the Syria Files. For a start, where are they from and who can vouch for their veracity? Unlike the State Department files which were almost certainly stolen and leaked by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, currently on trial in the U.S., the size and range of the Syrian emails indicates that they originated from a security breach in one of the Syrian internet servers. But if that is where they came from, the emails could also be from Syrian dissidents and ordinary civilians and may contain details that could put them in danger as targets for Assad's security services. WikiLeaks has in the past published unredacted cables, putting sources at risk. With such a large number of emails beginning to circulate, it is almost certain that innocent senders will be affected.
The choice of media partners by WikiLeaks is also worrying. Among them is the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar which openly identifies with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. If they have access to the emails, prior to their publication, it can be assumed that the security services in Damascus will also have advance knowledge.
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