Local (Wiki)Leaks

Finding local angles in the secret cables

Like any digital-age enterprise reporter, I scan certain online databases as a matter of daily routine: local campaign-finance and lobbyist disclosures, hazardous spill alerts, and federal court filings. My new favorite? WikiLeaks’s diplomatic-cable dump.

On November 28, 2010, WikiLeaks began publishing the largest secret document leak in history—251,287 US State Department cables in a slow, even trickle. The event birthed whole galaxies of news stories, and with the larger media outlets in perpetual orbit around Planet Assange,
the global press is left to comb through the rest. I say global rather than foreign press or international press because ultimately it’s up to local reporters, domestically and abroad, to identify the relevance of each cable and chase down the leads they offer. The cable dump has been mostly treated as an international story, but I find it offers intriguing local stories for me and my alt-weekly paper, the San Diego CityBeat. Here’s a sampling:

• After a cable revealed details of the extravagant wedding of the son of a Dagestani politician, Russian reporters questioned the senator about the cable’s claim that he owned multiple homes and luxury cars around the world, including in San Diego. He denied it. Yet, with a little legwork I discovered that not only did he own stakes in four properties here (plus a Rolls-Royce), but also that his business partners were oil-executive cronies, including a local financier currently on the lam and facing tax-evasion charges.

• Many of the cables include accounts of private discussions between foreign leaders and congressional delegations. Locally, cables indicated that Representative Darrell Issa lobbied in Finland on behalf of pharmaceutical and nuclear-energy interests, two industries that have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his election campaigns in northern San Diego County. The cables also illustrated the Lebanese-American congressman’s commitment to his roots: in most meetings with Middle Eastern leaders, Issa spoke up for Lebanon, particularly with regard to the nation’s conflicts with Syria and Israel.

• A dark and in-depth cable about corruption, abject poverty, and near anarchy in southern Italy included details of how the US consulate was promoting a San Diego energy company’s plan to help solve the region’s trash and energy crises by turning garbage into natural gas. What was especially interesting: Italian officials indicated it would be nearly impossible to do business in the region without “paying extortion or collaborating with the ’Ndrangheta,” one of Europe’s largest crime syndicates.

• San Diego frequently appears in cables about cartel violence and drug trafficking. One memo indicated that county residents were the prime suspects in a shooting attack on a Tijuana peace activist. Another cable revealed a cartel plot to assassinate dea agents; one of the plotters was an allegedly corrupt Mexican police officer who received sniper training from the San Diego County Sheriff’s office.

I’ve produced eight stories using twelve of the sixteen thousand cables published so far. At that rate, to quote some back-of-the-envelope algebra, I may write more than 120 pieces before the cache is depleted. Of course, WikiLeaks could be releasing the best ones first, saving the inconsequential for the end—I’ll still be checking every day.

It helps that San Diego is both a port city and a border city. But, with a quarter-million cables to sift through, reporters deep in the heartland could use sites like cablesearch.org and cablegatesearch.net to find local threads that connect to a web of international intrigue. The think-globally-report-locally paradigm has become as simple as doing a keyword search every morning over coffee.

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Dave Maass is a staff writer for the San Diego CityBeat.