A counter-productive WikiLeak
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
WASHINGTON — Now that WikiLeaks has begun releasing a quarter of a million classified U.S. State Department cables from embassies around the world, a new era is dawning. Political change and reform are inevitable world-wide and at long last, there’s a chance for peace and stability in the Middle East. Really.
This is how Julian Assange, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks, views the effect of the dispatches that lay bare the inner workings of U.S. diplomacy, provide frank and often titillating detail of the shortcomings and foibles of foreign leaders, report on the breath-taking scale of corruption in such places as Afghanistan and Russia, and note that — surprise, surprise — Arab leaders in particular tend to say one thing in public and quite another in private.
“The…media scrutiny and the reaction from government are so tremendous that it actually eclipses our ability to understand it,” Assange said in an interview with Time magazine on day 3 of the data dump, which began on November 28. “I can see that there is a tremendous re-arrangement of viewings about many different countries. And so that will result in a new kind of harmonization … ”
The Frequently Asked Question section of the WikiLeaks website explains why things are looking up for Middle East peace. “These cables, by giving the players an unvarnished description of how they are seen … (provide) common ground on which to effectively negotiate peace and stability.”
The phrase “irrational exuberance” comes to mind, and the suspicion that fame and notoriety have driven the former hacker away from the reality-based community and pointed him towards Utopia. In his version of Utopia, there are no lies, double-talk, secrets, confidential conversations and wheeling-and-dealing. It’s a brave new world with perennially open microphones.
WikiLeak’s original intent, when it was established in 2007, was to leak secret documents for the sake of greater transparency. That has been redefined.
“It’s not our goal to achieve a more transparent society,” he told Time, “it’s our goal to achieve a more just society.” Who could argue with such a lofty goal? And who can explain how a society, let’s say America’s, can become “more just” by exposing that its diplomats manipulate, cajole, and don’t mince words when they report back to Washington how they see their host countries?
Despite Assange’s bombastic predictions, the leak of the embassy messages — 612 published as of December 2, and 250,675 to go — is already proving to be counter-productive. It’s almost certain that there will be less transparency in foreign affairs in future, not more. The document dump will probably cramp efforts to reduce the over-classification of documents, according to Steven Aftergood, a veteran campaigner against excessive government secrecy who has been sharply critical of WikiLeaks.
“It has an anarchist approach,” he said in an interview. “It doesn’t have any well-defined agenda other than foster chaos, suspicion and distrust.”
POLL SHOWS OPPOSITION TO WIKILEAKS
None of the leaked cables was marked Top Secret, a label which would have kept them from the shared network from which they appear to have leaked. The State Department and the Pentagon began sharing the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) after the September 11, 2001, attacks to make it easier to connect the dots the government failed to connect before al-Qaeda struck New York and Washington.
As part of the post-leak security crackdown, the routine of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, the White House set up a commission charged with figuring out new ways to keep classified documents secret. The State Department disconnected itself from SIPRNet, to which around three million users with “secret” clearances have access.
Contrary to Assange’s belief, stated in various interviews, that the American public favours WikiLeaks’ approach to secrecy – in essence, there should be none, ever – a poll released by Zogby Interactive on December 2 showed that 77 percent of some 2,000 surveyed saw WikiLeaks as a national security threat and 63 percent were opposed to U.S. news organizations publishing the documents.
Such views are no doubt shaped by a steady drumbeat of dire warnings from political leaders, administration officials and right-wing talk show hosts that publishing the diplomatic dispatches “could put at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals,” as the U.S. State Department’s legal advisor, Harold Koh, wrote in a letter to WikiLeaks. From the cables so far released, this is as difficult to see as Assange’s “new kind of harmonization.”
Would the lives of American diplomats in Moscow be in danger because one of the cables described Russia as a “virtual mafia state?” Or those in Berlin for portraying Chancellor Angela Merkel as risk-averse and lacking creativity? Or the Paris embassy for describing French President Nicolas Sarkozy as “the emperor with no clothes?”
All very embarrassing, to be sure, both for the subjects and for the authors who thought their dispatches would be safe from public scrutiny until unsealed at the request of historians in 25 years. But life-threatening?
The unintended consequence of the WikiLeaks dump will be self-censorship, smaller distribution lists and higher security classification, all combining for less transparency. And the real secrets will be conveyed the old-fashioned, pre-Internet way — from mouth to ear.
You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com
Photo caption: The homepage of the WikiLeaks.org website is pictured in Beijing December 2, 2010. Amazon.com Inc has stopped hosting WikiLeaks’ website after an inquiry by the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee amid anger about the release of classified U.S. government documents on the site. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic