A “historian’s dream” and a “diplomat’s nightmare.” British historian and columnist Timothy Garton Ash succinctly framed the duality inherent in the latest data dump of over 250,000 classified American diplomatic cables. WikiLeaks, an organization dedicated to exposing official secrets, announced it will release them in stages over the coming months. The first week saw the publication of 800-plus documents. At this rate, it will take over five years before we have them all.
We’ve seen but a very small fraction of the State Department’s confidential communications, yet a great debate is raging between those who condemn WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, for destroying the trust and credibility of the foreign service to America’s peril, and others, such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who believe the exposure may be embarrassing and awkward, but not significant, because very little has been published that wasn’t either known or assumed before.
The cables’ contents range from the almost trivial (candid and unflattering characterizations of foreign leaders) to the worrisome, confirming our suspicions (the colossal extent of Afghan corruption), to the downright alarming: China, contrary to expectation, may not have enough clout in North Korea to tamp down its nuclear aspirations.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was attempting to soothe ruffled feathers and repair some of the damage done by the leaks, a foreign counterpart told her not to worry: “you should see what we say about you.” The cables described Libyan Leader Muammar al-Qadhafi as acrophobic and dependent, German chancellor Angela Merkel as “risk averse and rarely creative” but also undisputed leader of Europe, French president Nicolas Sarkozy as “brilliant, impatient, undiplomatic, hard to predict, charming, innovative, and summit-prone.”
The administration, however, deems the leaks serious enough to scramble the diplomatic corps, high-ranking military, and intelligence agents with assignments in different embassies, assuming their safety may be at risk and their missions compromised. It’s clear that American diplomacy has suffered a substantial blow.
Yet advocates of transparency criticize the U.S. government for trying to suppress information that’s already out there, because there’s no way to put the genie back in the bottle. The government is exerting pressure on the American business world to inhibit publication. So far, the documents are no longer hosted by Amazon’s server; PayPal will no longer relay donations to WikiLeaks; Tableau, whose software creates graphics from data, has yanked its charts and analytics from the WikiLeaks Cablegate page; and the domain wikileaks.org no longer exists. The government has also forbidden federal employees to access the data (as if they didn’t have their own computers at home).
This heavy-handedness is very troubling. How much difference is there between the American reaction—the attempts to suppress information about the workings of the government from its citizens—and China’s Great Firewall, which prevents the Chinese from reading documents that have the potential to expose abuse, lies and corruption in their government?
This is not to say that a degree of confidentiality isn’t essential to conduct business or diplomacy. George Packer argues that a veil of secrecy is necessary in all sensitive transactions, not only in the State Department but for “[l]awyers, judges, doctors, shrinks, accountants, investigators, and—not least—journalists” to do even the most basic tasks. People often say things in confidence that they would never admit publicly. Is it right to lay bare these communications and so intensify the mistrust and disdain of America in places like Turkey and Yemen? To jeopardize the restoration of American standing among our allies after former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s “old Europe” insults? To imperil the fruition of painstaking diplomacy?
Arthur Brisbane, Public Editor of the New York Times, defends his paper’s decision to publish the cables—with names of informants and other information that could result in real harm, not just embarrassment—redacted. Americans have a right to be informed by responsible journalists who “ferret out and publish information — most especially information that government, business and other power centers prefer to conceal,” he argues. Brisbane reminds his readers that government secrecy, which proliferated in the Bush administration, has continued to mushroom unchecked under President Obama.
The intent of the leakers of the cables seems to be primarily to embarrass the U.S. while inflicting collateral damage along the way. We don’t yet know what the remaining huge cache of cables will reveal. In whose interest is it to expose so much confidential material? Given that China has launched several successful hacking attacks on the U.S. government and private businesses, and that the cables reveal its determination and ability to hack into Google’s servers in China, it isn’t idle speculation to theorize that the Chinese may have had a hand in this, and may even have planted an inflammatory false document or two among the many genuine ones.
Despite the blows dealt to the U.S. and the inevitable setbacks in international cooperation, the argument that these cables may actually enhance the world’s perception of Americans and their foreign policy is increasingly being made. What the cables reveal, writes Leslie Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is
A United States seriously and professionally trying to solve the most dangerous problems in a frighteningly complicated world, yet lacking the power to dictate solutions. U.S. policymakers and diplomats are shown, quite accurately, doing what they are supposed to do: ferreting out critical information from foreign leaders, searching for paths to common action, and struggling with the right amount of pressure to apply on allies and adversaries. And in most cases, the villain is not Washington, but foreign leaders escaping common action with cowardice and hypocrisy.
Washington, however, will have to come to terms with the new reality of the modern information age: leaks are unavoidable, and they can’t be efficiently plugged. Nor should they be by a society that values its freedom.