In early April, Wikileaks released a gigantic trove of declassified US diplomatic documents that shed light on the diplomatic maneuverings of the United States and other governments in the tumultuous 1970s. The magnitude of this collection was such that the website’s founder Julian Assange referred to it as “the single most significant body of geopolitical material ever published.” These are strong words from the curator of such high-profile leaks as Cablegate (a data dump of some two hundred and fifty thousand classified US diplomatic files) and the 2007 Collateral Murder video, which depicted US forces in Apache Helicopters killing over a dozen people—including two Reuters journalists—in a suburb of Baghdad. Wikileaks has labeled the cache of almost two million diplomatic records the Kissinger Cables. Nearly two hundred thousand of the cables were written between 1973 and 1976, which coincided with Henry Kissinger’s tenure as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor.
Though the Kissinger Cables detail secret diplomatic correspondences between various US embassies, the records have exposed the machinations of foreign governments as well. In the case of Bahrain, where popular protests and repressive regime countermeasures continue, these documents hold information that is both damning and relevant. Specifically, they point to an alternative history of Bahrain and Bahraini-US relations. This history diverges from the mainstream media narrative of the protests in Bahrain, which places responsibility for the current conflict squarely on the shoulders of a murky, long-standing sectarian contempt, and refocuses it in a different arena: that of workers and political opposition groups fighting for a very recognizable, tangible objective—basic civil and political rights and freedoms. The cables also leave us with a more nuanced understanding of US relations with Bahrain, which clearly revolve around strategic (defense) interests.
The Kissinger Cables
Critics have pointed out that despite all the fanfare, none of the documents are, strictly speaking, “new”—they were already accessible in the US National Archives and the whistleblowing website’s previous project, Cablegate. For Assange, however, this criticism misses the point entirely. In a live video feed appearance from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange explained to the press that the National Archive documents were difficult for the general public to access and search. Indeed, this declassified information was effectively “hidden in the borderline between secrecy and complexity.” In the documents’ former life, they existed as raw unorganized PDFs in the National Archive and Records Association’s Central Foreign Policy Files. The spelling of people’s names and country capitals was not standardized, which made it difficult for researchers and journalists to sift through the data and draw connections between cables.
Another reason Assange and his team spent almost a year collating already available documents is the emerging US government trend of re-classifying already declassified information. The CIA and five other government agencies began to retract what they deemed to be sensitive documents from the public eye in 1999, as a way of combating a declassification order issued by former President Bill Clinton a few years earlier. The New York Times uncovered this phenomenon in 2006, and according to Wikileaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson, government agencies continued their efforts at least until 2009. Like George Washington University’s National Security Archive project, Wikileaks seeks to provide an alternate home for these documents, one not subject to the mercurial whims of government agencies or presidential administrations. “You might be tempted to say that the government cannot be trusted with these documents,” Hrafnsson said during a press conference, “so we took the matter into our own hands.”
Bahrain’s History of Protest
Bahrain has witnessed much social unrest over the last two years. During the 2011 Arab uprisings, thousands of protesters took to the streets to demand political reform, equality and civil and political rights. In response, the ruling Bahraini monarchy has detained, tortured, and murdered opposition activists. The regime has also portrayed activists and demonstrators as subversive agents of Iran, intent upon disrupting the regional balance of power. The US government, which houses the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, has been mostly silent on the abuses of the regime, and has continued to support the monarchy with a steady supply of US weapons.
The release of the Kissinger Cables attests that these events have not occurred in a vacuum. Bahrain has a long history of social movements in favor of more democratic representation and civil rights, as documented by Munira A. Fakhro in her article “The Uprising in Bahrain: An Assessment.” In the years following the discovery of oil in Bahrain in 1932, Bahraini workers (Sunni and Shi`i) staged popular protests and demanded a legislative body with an equal number of Sunni and Shi`i members. The monarchy responded by quashing the protests and imprisoning the leaders of the movement.
In the mid-1950s, when nationalist sentiment was sweeping through Egypt and other parts of the Arab world, Sunni and Shi`i opposition leaders formed an executive committee and demanded the right to form unions, professional associations, and an elected parliament. Omar Al-Shehabi noted in his article "Political Movements in Bahrain: Past, Present and Future" that these protests represented “the largest public mass movement in Bahrain’s modern history, before being abruptly cut short again by force.”
The Bahraini regime again put down the protests, and exiled and imprisoned opposition leaders for over a decade. The British, who had maintained a long-standing colonial presence in Bahrain and wielded much power over the ruling Al Khalifa family, backed the monarchy. A Human Rights Watch report entitled “Routine Abuse, Routine Denial” states that in response to these protests, “the government…increased its repressive capabilities by recruiting security personnel from Iraq and elsewhere and setting up a ‘special branch within the police corps specializing in political affairs,’ under the command of a seconded British officer.”
After the unrest of the 1950s, two political movements began to gain popular support: the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN) and the National Liberation Front (NLF). What began as a student and worker strike at the Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO) became known as the uprising of 1965, or the March Intifada. Thousands of protesters demanded the right to form labor unions and the lifting of the state emergency law, which had been in place since 1956. In keeping with historical precedent, the monarchy violently suppressed the protests, and detained and exiled the demonstrators.
For a brief historical moment, though, it appeared that the status quo might shift. After Bahrain gained independence from the British in 1971, the Emir instituted a constitution and a national assembly consisting of appointed and elected representatives for the first time in the country’s history. The Kissinger Cables shed some light on this historical junction, and the events to come.
Soon after Wikileaks released their new database, bloggers and Twitter users like Chan`ad Bahraini and Marc Owen Jones began highlighting relevant US cables and documents written by US diplomats during this incendiary moment in Bahrain’s history. Though these documents represent only a tiny selection of the available records on Bahrain, they offer a fascinating window into the business of managing government secrets, as well as details of a little-known period in US-Bahraini relations. They also provide evidence of a thriving political society populated by leftists and activists of varying ideologies—an important historical detail that is often effaced from media depictions of the uprising in Bahrain, and the Arab uprisings in general.
One cable from this time period helps set the political stage for what is to come. In a document from May 1973, a diplomat writes about the arrest of a member of the Marxist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). This group was born in the late 1960s after the March Intifada, and aimed to overthrow monarchical regimes through armed struggle. It had ties to the Dhofar Liberation Front, a communist group that had attempted to create a separate state in the Dhofar region of South Oman. After a parade of regional players intervened on both sides, the Sultan of Oman put down the rebellion in 1976 with the help of the British. The US embassy cable states that the man was convicted to eight years in prison. “Government hoped severe penalty would be effective warning to other conspirators considering use of violence that government intends to act firmly against them,” the author wrote.
Over a year later, an official document from June 1974 details how Bahraini riot police dispersed eighty strikers at an aluminum factory by firing rubber bullets at them. Thirty-one people were arrested, including a National Assembly member. At the time, the National Assembly was a new institution, consisting of forty (male) members. The Cabinet—a body appointed by the King and made up largely of members of the King’s family—authorized the Minister of the Interior to handle the strike and to “take all necessary steps to enforce law and order.” The author of the cable observed that “the granting of such wide powers to the Minister of the Interior is likely to cause a problem with the National Assembly.” This nascent advisory body would go on to debate the question of establishing a general labor law, revoking the growing US military access to the country, and the continuation of the repressive State Security Law. In response, the Emir dissolved the assembly a little over a year later.
A few months after the Bahrain Aluminum strike, as tensions between the monarchy and the populace increased, a third US State department document describes secret discussions with the Bahraini government about the logistics of continuing to host US naval forces in Bahrain. The US diplomat “stressed…that it would be extremely difficult to go beyond the substance of these draft proposals without inviting public debate on stationing agreement in U.S. Congress and presumably Bahrain’s National Assembly.” A Bahrain government representative “expressed appreciation for U.S. efforts to accommodate GOB [Government of Bahrain] needs, agreed that GOB most anxious to avoid legal debate on agreement.” Later, a Bahraini official indicated that the government wanted to finalize the Middle East Force question soon, since “public questions in Bahrain…will certainly arise by early October.”
This secret discussion reflects the tensions between the Bahraini monarchy and the US government, which was trying to formalize its presence in the country. The United States had a small naval presence in Bahrain dating back to the late 1940s and had slowly expanded its fleet and rented space from the British until they left in 1971. The US fleet then moved into their abandoned naval facilities. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and subsequent oil shocks of the 1970s, the United States sought to further cement its military presence in the region, despite the fact that popular sentiment in Bahrain was against it. In 1975, the People’s Bloc, a group in the National Assembly made up of nationalists and leftists, put forth a bill objecting to the US naval presence in the country. It was ignored.
The problematic question of foreign military presence on the island aside, the rift between the monarchy and the nascent advisory body continued to grow. In November 1976, another cable reveals that a journalist and former secretary of the dissolved National Assembly was stabbed to death. “[Abdullah] Madani was a prominent figure in local political circles, a populist style critic of the government and ruling family,” the author writes. “In pursuit of his anti-government goals, he and his assembly group were often found in tactical alignment with the leftist People’s Bloc in the Assembly. In his youth Madani had leftist leanings which apparently were `cured` by his arrest and interrogation in the early 1960s.”
Later that year, another document describes a discussion reminiscent of recent US-Bahraini weapons deals. During the reported discussion, Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa (the current king, then minister of defense and acting prime minister) expressed his desire for fighter planes and ground to air missiles. Without these, he was afraid that other Gulf nations would want to “fill the vacuum” in terms of Bahrain’s security. All purchases would be less than twenty-five million dollars each year, he suggested to the US diplomat, “so you won’t need to go to the Congress.” Later in the conversation, he added: “But what we need to know now is whether you will give us the export license. If the answer is yes, then no one here can criticize us for allowing the (U.S.S.) LaSalle [a naval vessel] to stay here. We don’t want the (US) navy to go because that would create a vacuum; but we must have something to show for it.” However, even if the United States rejected the request for new planes, Hamad clarified, that would not mean an end to US-Bahraini relations. “We are stuck with each other,” he laughed, “for better or worse.”
It is worth noting that decades later, under the threat of a renewed revolutionary movement, Hamad’s words still ring true. The United States continues to both use Bahrain as the base of its naval activity in the Persian Gulf and sell weapons to the monarchy. The monarchy continues to suppress protests that favor a more democratic, open political system. Little has changed.
One development that has occurred, however, is the increased access to data that contradicts these cloying government narratives. These cables, extracted from “the borderline between secrecy and complexity,” help us rearticulate an understanding of Bahrain’s repressive political environment and early Bahraini-US relations. During his televised press conference to announce the release of the Kissinger Cables, Julian Assange quoted George Orwell, saying “He who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future.” With this latest batch of documents, Wikieaks seems intent on withdrawing that privilege from all the governments in question.
List of Documents:
Bahraini Subversive Given Stiff Sentence (12 May 1973)
Labor Dispute at Aluminum Bahrain (ALBA) (17 June 1974)
Middle East Force Stationing Agreement (25 August 1974)
Murder of Journalist/Politician (21 November 1976)
Shaikh Hamad says Bahrain Wants Fighter Squadron in Exchange for Lasalle staying in Bahrain (19 September 1976)