The past week has seen much speculation about the significance of Wikileaks’ 250,000 leaked diplomatic cables, most of which are still to come. When Private Bradley Manning shared the secret of his “Lady Gaga” CDRW with a hacker that turned him in to the government, he may have agreed with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on the need for government transparency at any cost. But “at what cost?” has been the damning counter-argument to Wikileaks’ mission by Americans who accuse Assange of endangering US foreign service officers, the armed forces, and the larger mission of US foreign policy, which operates on the assumption of protected secrecy.
Yet, Wikileaks does not represent the watershed revelations that the Pentagon Papers of 1971 did, as some have alleged. When senior state official Daniel Ellsberg’s release of files proving the Nixon administration’s early doubts about the Vietnam War showed on the front page of the New York Times, those secrets reflected deep flaws on the part of US policy makers and deeper fault lines between the public perception of the war and the views of powerful politicians.
Neither does Wikileaks signal the end of government secrecy, or the end of transparency and information sharing, on the opposite end of the spectrum, for that matter. While this diluvian leak may have exposed some embarrassing high level chit-chat and inner State Department thinking, the material and subject matter are not that bad. In fact, they show an adept US foreign service corps and rather sophisticated strategy on the part of those diplomats.
“First, there is little deception,” says Fareed Zakaria.¹ “The WikiLeaks documents…show Washington pursuing privately pretty much the policies it has articulated publicly…And often this foreign policy is concerned with broader regional security, not narrow American interests.” While the US needs secrecy to operate and negotiate successfully, the information leaked is neither incriminating nor jeopardizing the security of our foreign officers.
“If we’re looking for bad government policies,” adds Zakaria, “perhaps the place to look is not in the cables but in the new data-sharing craze. The leaks are, in some ways, an unintended consequence of Washington finally getting its information act together.” So was this the inevitable result of new information sharing technology and database coordination? Probably not: the US has designated 75% more files secret since 1996, while the number of files produced has grown exponentially.² Furthermore, the Obama administration has significantly expanded the number of foreign service officers and embassy personnel, while granting more government employees in the field access to classified documents. The problem is one of labeling and numbers.
After the Pentagon Papers exposed Nixon and Kissinger’s criminal actions hiding the truth of US intervention in Vietnam, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart prophetically said, “When everything is classified, then nothing in classified.”³ Meaning, the sanctity of what is and isn’t “classified” has lost any connection with reality. Nowadays, just about everything is labeled secret, from details of a wedding in Dagestan to murmurs of Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe pondering a purchase of Manchester United.
The State Department has made some progress in assembling information into a linked database that is now accessible to the CIA, FBI, and Defense Department, which formerly blocked communication avenues between those agencies. The new system seems to have a few glitches, but there’s no reason why a field soldier like Private Manning in Iraq should be privy to what China says about North Korea behind closed doors (that Beijing is losing patience with ailing ruler Kim Jong Il’s regime is promising news, by the way). Zakaria again:
If Private Bradley Manning had not gone to WikiLeaks, he would have found some other outlet to disseminate the data. Our anger at WikiLeaks should not obscure the fact that it is Washington’s absurd data-sharing policy that made this possible. That’s the scandal here that needs fixing.
Perhaps it is Julian Assange, ironically, who can best see the real significance of the leaked cables in the midst of the media frenzy surrounding his capture: “The media scrutiny and the reaction from government are so tremendous that it actually eclipses our ability to understand it.” And that’s more important to understand than trumped up rape charges over Assange’s head from Sweden. Let’s take a serious look at this rare glimpse into US foreign policy and the international relations between regional powers like the Middle East and rogue states like Iran.
¹ Fareed Zakaria, “It’s Not So Bad,” in Time, December 13, 2010.
² Massimo Calabresi, “The War on Secrecy,” in , December 13, 2010.