What WikiLeaks' Syria emails really mean

WikiLeaks' release of 2.4 million Syrian government emails says less about Middle East politics and more about WikiLeaks itself

While Julian Assange hides in a broom closet in Ecuador's London embassy, no doubt desperately craving a Foster's Lager and a vegemite sandwich, the whistle-blowing site he helped make infamous appears to be soldiering on without him.

On Thursday, WikiLeaks revealed it has received a cache of 2.4 million "embarrassing" emails related to the Syrian government and said it plans to release them in batches over the next few months, along with the help of a half-dozen or so cooperating news agencies.

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The latest release, though, was a little less than exciting: Just 25 emails having to do with a business deal involving the sale of radio communications equipment between the Syrian government and Selex, an Italian firm that also sells to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Embarrassing? Maybe. But unless viewing parts lists or spreadsheet invoices gets your blood pressure rising, the first word that comes to mind is "boring." Yes, major multinational corporations supporting repressive regimes is nothing to condone, but it's not exactly news. Companies like Microsoft and Cisco have been helping China censor the Internet for years, to cite just one example.

Generally speaking, if you're trying to say, "Hey, we're still relevant even if our founder and leading spokesperson is a bit of an asshat," you generally want to lead with your best. If this is the most shocking revelation lurking in the Let's Just Go Ahead and Call It SyriaGate email, I'm going back to waiting for the Summer Olympics to start.

The more interesting aspects of this story to me have less to do with the content of the emails (so far) and more with what this says about WikiLeaks. A few quick observations:

  • WikiLeaks doesn't need Julian Assange. The release of the email cache was announced in a 12-minute news conference hosted by Sarah Harrison, who has been described as an "assistant to Assange," whatever that means. While it's possible Assange is still pulling the strings from a payphone inside the Ecuadorian embassy, it's not his style to give up the spotlight so easily. He'd invite the news cameras in or try to do it via Webcam.

    I suspect either a) the Ecuadorians nixed Assange's desire to Webcast from inside their diplomatic territory, or b) the rest of WikiLeaks is saying to Julian, "Hasta la vista and be sure to wear plenty of SPF 500 bug repellent when you go strolling through the rain forest."
  • The mainstream U.S. and U.K. press are sour on WikiLeaks. Remember, when Assange got hold of those 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, he had the New York Times and the UK's Guardian doing the journalistic heavy lifting. This time the list of media partners is -- well, "obscure" would be one word for it. The only name anyone on this side of the pond would recognize was the Associated Press -- and the AP's name was later removed, which suggests it was just as surprised to hear about this as the rest of us.
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