Almost 30 years ago, a British diplomat asked me to lunch in Beirut.
Despite rumours to the contrary, she told me on the phone, she was not a spy but a mere attaché, wanting only to chat about the future of Lebanon. These were kidnapping days in the Lebanese capital, when to be seen with the wrong luncheon companion could finish in a basement in south Beirut. I trusted this woman. I was wrong. She arrived with two armed British bodyguards who sat at the next table. Within minutes of sitting down at a fish restaurant in the cliff-top Raouche district, she started plying me with questions about Hezbollah's armaments in southern Lebanon. I stood up and walked out. Hezbollah had two men at another neighbouring table. They called on me next morning. No problem, they said, they saw me walk out. But watch out.
Ever since this woman lied to me – more than two years later, her relative told me she was frightened by her line of work as an intelligence agent – I have avoided Western embassies throughout the world. With the exception of Irish, Swedish and Norwegian diplomats whom I know, you will find me at no Western missions anywhere. And I have never been kidnapped. But about the same time as this deceit was practised on me by the British embassy, the Iranians published in book form their massive, incredible volumes of US secret files from the American embassy in Iran. Students had spent years since the 1979 Islamic revolution painstakingly sticking together the shredded diplomatic cables to Washington from the US mission in Tehran. The Americans seized every copy taken to the US – these were the glorious pre-internet days of paper – but I bought the set and still have the lot in Beirut.
And, lo and behold, one of them is attaché Bruce Laingen's conclusion (13 August 1979) that "the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism … The practical effect of it is an almost total Persian preoccupation with self and leaves little room for understanding points of view other than one's own". I read that and reported it to The Times almost 30 years ago. And then up pops the very same cable on WikiLeaks, breathlessly highlighted by The New York Times and its dwarf the International Herald Tribune, as if this is an extraordinary scoop. There is – as usual – no human memory at The New York Times. Sorry, the Iranians got there first. And this week, aware that the documents may contain the names of hapless journalists who blurted out their knowledge to the "defence" attachés of Western embassies in the Middle East, I was happy to know I absolutely could not be among them.
It was fascinating, though, to watch Hillary Clinton initially denouncing the WikiLeaks flood as an "attack on the international community". She twice warned journalists that they might also find their names in the embassy cables – so no more bleating about freedom of the press when WikiLeaks might betray the warriors of the media. It was even more intriguing to watch the effect. No sooner had La Clinton refused to confirm that the 250,000 perfectly genuine documents were real – she called them "alleged documents" – than the BBC lady piped up with a question, also referring to the "alleged documents"; as if the story the BBC had been leading with on the hour, every hour, for the past 24 hours might be a hoax. Al-Jazeera, alas, caught the same bug later.
The problem, of course, is that it is not a hoax. And the pompous way in which La Clinton felt it necessary to explain to us the difference between embassy cables (which have a certain relationship to reality, if not always very literate) and the policy papers that emerge from her own diminished office told us almost as much as the WikiLeaks horde. For this lady, who could not write her own autobiography, ordered – and still I have to shake my head to believe this – her flunkies to spy on the United Nations.
That La Clinton should want her State Department slaves to play secret agents on the poor old UN donkey – the beast that forever clip-clops on stage to mop up America's failed policies in the Middle East, this decrepit skyscraper on the East River packed with enough asbestos to kill a nation of peacekeepers, this bureaucratic shambles with its pathetic Secretary-General whose English is still in need of vast improvement – shows what an utterly worthless institution the US State Department has become.
They were supposed to spy on the encryption details of delegates, credit card transactions, even frequent flyer cards. But who would want to read the nonsense that the UN's overpaid staff write, or how much they spend on lunch at Nobu's with the Nicaraguan consul, or who paid for whose mistress to fly to Havana on the shavings of his UN flights?
A long time ago, Air France agreed to hand over its frequent flyer details to American spooks – so why do they want this stuff all over again? And why spy on the UN when they are the most leak-prone organisation on the globe? I once received so many identical copies of confidential "sit-rep" reports from UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon – retired Irish Lieutenant-General William Callaghan is my witness – that I had to plead with UN soldiers not to send me so many.
But let's stay in the Middle East. We now know that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "hates Hamas and considers them the same as Egypt's own Muslim Brotherhood, which he sees as his own most dangerous political threat". Well, blow me down. Having watched Uncle Hosni's National Democratic Party hoodlums biffing the Brotherhood two weeks ago – not to mention the one-dollar-a-day cops throwing a thousand of its members into clink – this doesn't come as much of a surprise. And no wonder, by the way, that the post-election loyalist Egyptian press was trumpeting how the NDP has "saved the nation" with its massive victory (all this, of course, before a single election result was announced).
When Mubarak hears the name of his presidential opponent Ayman Nour – a perfectly charming man whom I met in Beirut just before the election – he claims, according to the WikiLeaks cable, to "feel sick". Which is just how Nour felt when Mubarak banged him up in the Tora prison complex after the 2005 election. We are still waiting, naturally, to see what US diplomatic reports really said about the ghastly Yasser Arafat and – more importantly – the Israeli colonial government in the West Bank. But fear not, any truth contained therein will not be reflected in those haughty "policy" papers churned out by La Clinton and her predecessors. More and more, WikiLeaks is exposing the hopeless nature of US foreign policy and that of its supposed "allies". Attack on the international community indeed!