A counter-productive WikiLeak

December 3, 2010


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.”


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


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On the contrary, Assange may be a weak vessel but he is doing the global public a service. Quixotic perhaps but hardly irrational. Wikileaks has done in a few weeks what big media with big management has failed to do in 8 years: Intimately exposed the bull in a china shop approach of pro-Israel politicians in Washington and there are many. Politicians are a mixed bag and the good ones naturally resent being put under a public microscope but that comes with the territory. Wikileaks has increased the public skepticism of Authority in the form of kings and governments. As Tom Paine might have said that is never a bad thing. As far as effect, information is more subtle and less immediate than artillery but the effect is nevertheless real. If these leaks prevent yet another Rumsfeld from floating a “shock and awe” bombardment to an unquestioning media they will be well worth all the fuss. Judging from the furious response of politicians, Wikileaks is highly effective. I had previously not paid much attention to it but now that governments are trying to muzzle Wikileaks I have sent in my donation on grounds of the common good.

Posted by middleterm | Report as abusive

Wikileaks has served its purpose already, that is, to show the extent of corruption, lies, illegal and in human action and male chest beating that goes on in the name of government. I hope that this serves as an impetus for people to take action and demand action as our world evermore quickly plunges into destruction. These are the end times, this is another wake up call.

Posted by mrobson43 | Report as abusive

Too early to judge, I’d say.
Of course, the U.S. States Department must downplay the effect of the leak, and suggests it’s counter-productive.
That’s the only thing they can do to deter more leaks and turn supporters Wikileaks away.

What really happens behind close doors is a completely different kettle of fish.

One likely consequence is that politicians have become acutely cognizant of a higher possibility of any secret being exposed and distributed to the masses with unprecedented ease. As a result, and inevitably, more politicians will speak and bargain with constant awareness that their words and actions may be widely published, regardless how careful they are.

Hopefully, this will force politicians to conduct their affairs with a higher level of integrity than ever before in history. At some level, that is bound to result.

Posted by Janeallen | Report as abusive

Utter rubbish, Bernd.

You elide or deny critical points about the current extent of government secrecy as reported in the referenced Time article.

You significantly misrepresent Assange’s views which are consistent in the public record, inaccurately accusing him of seeking utopia (how dare he), but then quoting him as saying, “It’s our goal to achieve a more just society,” which you then go on to characterize as “bombastic prediction.”

You indulge in the idiotic cliche of suggesting that the leaks are too dangerous for the light of day while simultaneously containing nothing more than banal gossip, when in fact they reveal matters of grave public interest. One of several collateral benefits of these leaks is to demonstrate which old media journalists remain true to their craft.

You cite an online Zogby poll, using careful language to avoid directly stating, but clearly implying, that such a poll is scientific and genuinely represents U.S. opinion.

Your worst and most general error lies in seeking to blame Wikileaks for the potential actions of others. By doing so you only call your own ethical standards into question.

Posted by Mark888 | Report as abusive

If Wikileaks is responsible for having classified information to the degree of being a traitor what about the international press and Reuters? Are they traitors too? They not only possess the material but they publicized it too. What about you and me who talk to third parties about it? Stop this nonsense. The State Department is at fault as they could prevent their cables to be stored in raw without scrabling them.
Zachary Pavlides

Posted by ZacharyPavlides | Report as abusive

This article seems so full of propoganda about what “might” happen as a result of leaking the information. It seems as though the author might be a bit biased and taking the side of the government. Hmmmm…isn’t that the type of reporting that lost the media respect to begin with? Shouldn’t you just present the facts instead of writing your obvious opinion that Assange is doing more harm than good? How would you know what’s going to happen? Your government blinders are on Bernd. Not a surprise since most of what you write is so biased anyway. You as a “responsible” media entity should be ashamed of yourself because it is reporters like you who give the “news” a slanted view. Just the facts please.

Posted by MarkoGA | Report as abusive

@MarkoGA. Re facts vs opinion, there is a line above the column which appears to have escaped your attention:

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Posted by BDebusmann | Report as abusive

The problem with Assanage is that he seems opposed to power without accountability but this is exactly what his organization practices. It’s also difficult not to detect a touch of megalomania and a large doseo of arrogance in his public statements. The following exchange from a live Q&A with The Guardian speaks for itself:

I am a former British diplomat. In the course of my former duties I helped to coordinate multilateral action against a brutal regime in the Balkans, impose sanctions on a renegade state threatening ethnic cleansing, and negotiate a debt relief programme for an impoverished nation. None of this would have been possible without the security and secrecy of diplomatic correspondence, and the protection of that correspondence from publication under the laws of the UK and many other liberal and democratic states. An embassy which cannot securely offer advice or pass messages back to London is an embassy which cannot operate. Diplomacy cannot operate without discretion and the
protection of sources. This applies to the UK and the UN as much as the US.
In publishing this massive volume of correspondence, Wikileaks is not highlighting specific cases of wrongdoing but undermining the entire process of diplomacy. If you can publish US cables then you can publish UK telegrams and UN emails.
My question to you is: why should we not hold you personally responsible when next an international crisis goes unresolved because diplomats cannot function.

Julian Assange:
If you trim the vast editorial letter to the singular question actually asked, I would be happy to give it my attention.

Posted by Komment | Report as abusive

Although there is more to be released, it comes down to the fact that the communiques were not labeled top secret, and the people involved should have been more discreet if it was considered, but not labled, as such.

Diplomats are not spies and if there is communication that has to take place it should be done diplomatically, not sounding like a conversation over a beer. Information should have been relayed, gleaned and labeled accordingly if they were to be kept for significant purpose.

While I agree Assange is one of those men that defy an absolute description ( Narcissist, Arrogant Sociopath, Delusional Madman, etc. do come to mind) there is no doubting that some Government shakeup can be a good thing and Wikileaks is making waves that SHOULD rock the Government. Maybe people will be chosen for Diplomatic skill.

Some of the statements show the Diplomats were ill equipped to do their job if all they could come up with in descriptions were slurs … the likes of the Batman and Robin comment. It’s too early to say what good will come, but given the material so far, it just seems to reiterate what we in the West already knew.

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

Bernd, you elide or deny critical points about the current extent of government secrecy as reported in the Time article that you referenced.

You significantly misrepresent Assange’s views which are consistent in the public record, inaccurately accusing him of seeking utopia (how dare he), but then quoting him as saying, “It’s our goal to achieve a more just society,” which you then go on to characterize as “bombastic prediction.”

You indulge in the silly cliche of suggesting that the leaks are too dangerous for the light of day yet contain nothing more than banal gossip, when in fact they reveal matters of grave public interest. One of several collateral benefits of these leaks is to demonstrate which old media journalists remain true to their craft.

You cite an online Zogby poll and imply that such a poll genuinely represents U.S. opinion. The methodology of these “interactive” polls is not scientific.

Your worst and most general error lies in seeking to blame Wikileaks for the potential actions of others. By doing so you only call your own ethical standards into question.

This above point also addresses the question of the diplomat repeated here in comments. The purpose of a Q&A is to ask honest questions, not share your own views for which there are other available forums. Julian was pointing that out, if rather tersely.

Bernd, those of us taking you to task on this editorial recognize that it is only your opinion. There is, however, a large difference between an informed opinion and the sort you have laid claim to here. The facts that should guide your views are widely available.

Posted by Mark888 | Report as abusive

MarkoGA: “Shouldn’t you just present the facts instead of writing your obvious opinion that Assange is doing more harm than good?”

Mark, perhaps you should read the article and the title of the article before you criticize it? look on your task bar for the document title, it says “A counter-productive Wikileak: Analysis & Opinion”.

So yeah Opinion stated as Opinion, and posted in the “Analysis & Opinion” part of the site is just and fare. Throwing around unwarranted criticism isnt.

Would you like fries with that? Thank you please drive through.

Posted by Dan_K_66_PGH | Report as abusive

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” –John F. Kennedy

How things have changed

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive

Sinbad1: Nice words but one wonders how the Cuban missile crisis would have gone in Assange’s world without secrecy.

Posted by Komment | Report as abusive

Now every action by any freedom fighter/terrorist/unabomber can be blamed on Assange and wikileaks and every repressive law and new invasion deemed “necessary for national security” Neat. Roll on the new Iranian,Korean and Indonesian Wars. Roll on the mid east mini nukes. Buy War Tools/ Killing Machines shares now.

Posted by phrage | Report as abusive

Simple. If the US and Soviet people had not been totally deceived by their governments about the consequences and costs of nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms race, there would never have been a cuban missile crisis.

Posted by lockedin | Report as abusive

While I am overwhelmingly in favor of reduced secrecy and increased transparency, and approve of the release of most of the information WikiLeaks has previously provided, I remain utterly opposed to ANY single man or small group possessing utterly unanswerable and unappealable power. The power to release or withhold secret information at their own personal whim is no trifling thing!

Deciding which classified information should be released and which should not is far beyond the knowledge — and more importantly the wisdom — possessed by WikiLeaks. Hell, in the past — and very likely now still with 250,000 of them needing to be reviewed with extreme care — they’ve dumped documents they haven’t even read, let alone properly evaluated.

This dump has been referred to as mere “high-level gossip” after only about 600 or so have been seen by the press. But only a fool can be certain that the remaining 249,400 contain only such relatively benign material. It would take an enormous contingent of thousands of scholars to evaluate so much information; The WikiLeaks Oligarchy simply cannot perform due diligence on such a library’s worth of classified information.

The extraordinary naiveté of all the adulation of the Assange/WikiLeaks Oligarchy shocks me, as it should shock any advocate of democracy and an open society. No rational person can oppose unelected, dictatorial power and at the very same time defend or applaud this informational oligarchy. However popular, an autocrat whose acts you approve of is no less an autocrat for that!

Posted by Spection | Report as abusive

More transparency has always led to better and more responsive government. To claim the opposite, some form of exceptionalism must be demonstrated. Bernd presents no evidence whatsoever of this excpetionalism. Why suddenly would freedom of the press lead to less responsive government?

The problem is, it will lead to more responsive and honest government. That is exactly what those in power do NOT want.
Obama, pretending to be ‘green’ while all the time sabotaging the any real attempts at green solutions through the tactics around the Copenhagen Accords, which were not accords at all but manufactured lies.

Clinton, pretending to be for peace, while bombing families in Yemen.

Wikileaks needs to be supported more. I am very proud to have donated twice to wikileaks.

The propaganda machine is spewing so many lies, and very few counter the lie machine, it is no surprise the American public may be temporarily lead astray–but they will come around.

Check out Glenn Greenwald’s blog–one of the very few that have not entered the reality distortion field those in power have created around wikileaks.

Posted by eee_eff | Report as abusive

There are clear points here which people may argue but cannot be denied.

* he did not originally source the information. that is solely the responsibility of the people responsible for its keeping and the leaker
* the release of information directly from wikileaks is paralleled by the release from reputed and beyond reproach news organisations, therefore any legal attack should be targeted at them as well even if it is doomed to fail
* the diplomatic problems are caused by the gap between the publicised aims and rhetoric from a government and their real ambitions. this is there problem, not the person who points it out
* NOBODY, including Julian Assange wants to see anybody hurt over these cables. No way you can spin it, is he responsible for putting Australian, American, British, etc troops in harms way. That is entirely the decision of the government.
* Make a reasonable argument about what has transpired, please do, but don’t make assumptions and wild accusations of what might be. The fact is that people have been tortured, money has been wasted, and people have turned a blind eye to what has happened. I am more disgusted in my government for sending our troops into the situation than someone who has the courage to stand up to bullys. Shame on all these large companies folding to hidden pressure.

Posted by breaker | Report as abusive

Spection is right that power to release should not be concentrated into one individuals hands, Just as power to hide should not be simply the perogative of vested interests.

You have one, now you have the other.

A sane person does not feel it is correct to torture another. A fearful person believes it is ok in some circumstances. A non-participant will allow it if they feel that it is mostly theoretical, maybe the guy deserved it, it will never have any consequence on my life, there is something else on television.

You can be sane, and ignorant at the same time. You can make a reasonable argument and be ignorant at the same time, but if you have the information, and you choose to ignore it, you are no longer ignorant, you are a participant.

I choose not to be part of a group that torture. Not to be part of a group that makes decisions based on economic benefit over social and long term benefit.

You need to separate Julian Assange and the release of these communications from the actual acts they represent. The people described in many of these communications have actually killed people. Julian Assange was only the person who allowed you to know about it.

Why is he punished more fully?

Posted by breaker | Report as abusive

It is true that these disclosures will force governments to be more careful about information security. They will find, as private industry already has, that it’s very difficult and expensive to maintain secrets, and step one is separating what really matters from, well, stuff like these cables. Secrecy is a huge cost centre, and the benefits need a business case to make maintaining any secret worthwhile.

I don’t know whether our elected representatives in the West are really smart enough yet to see the implication – that most information is published ’round about the time it’s gathered and the real liability is in NOT promulgating the medium-sensitivity stuff – but it’s an inevitable eventuality. Obviously, that means messages will be ever more massaged, but that’s a soup pot we’ve been knee-deep in for decades. As ever, seek multiple sources.

Wikileaks is in no way unique or special – it’s simply a demonstration of how information works in a globally networked world. It was always going to happen. But I do quite like the hourglass logo.

Posted by something | Report as abusive

@BDebusmann “Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.”
I was referring to the fact that your opinions are syndicated to ignorant and lazy Americans who believe your slanted views and believe the things you say as fact. Perhaps your opinions then should be based on fact since it is your responsibility as a journalist is of some importance.

“So yeah Opinion stated as Opinion, and posted in the “Analysis & Opinion” part of the site is just and fare. Throwing around unwarranted criticism isnt.”

Really? Because I thought that was the purpose of Analysis and Opinion, to be able to express your opinion. Just as Bernd has thrown around his opinion you too have thrown around yours and me too, mine! Wow! Crazy how opposing points of view are able to still be printed!.
You should just watch your mouth is all and perhaps stop telling others how to comment. Perhaps you too should demand that writers use facts as their basis for supposition when they obviously write to so many people. There is a responsibility here that you are missing Dan. Do you think that Bernd should have free reign to write whatever he wants as fact? Because I would consider this to be yelling “fire!” in an a crowded theater and that my friend, is where the right to free speech stops.

Bernd, stop giving us your opinion based on non-facts and supposition is all I’m saying. Because your responsibility as a writer a large group of people is to be accurate. If not, then just go work at Fox.

No one is saying that you shouldn’t have editorials and opinions. I’m simply saying that maybe when so many people read your column that you should take it upon yourself to be more responsible with the facts. That is all.

Death to Republicans.

Posted by MarkoGA | Report as abusive

My most sincere apologies for the slight threat when I said “You should just watch your mouth is all and perhaps stop telling others how to comment.”

The sentence was not supposed to make the final cut to comment and was not intended to be inflammatory.

I do stand by the belief that Bernd should use facts as his basis for opinion however I respect other’s opinions as well (which is what separates me from the GOP’s beliefs. :) )

Posted by MarkoGA | Report as abusive

Why is Hillary Still in Power? That is all I have to say bout that.

Posted by tomtomtom | Report as abusive

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