On WikiLeaks, and the Release of Diplomatic Cables

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on November 28, 2010

Blake Hounshell’s sentiments, as excerpted below, are my own:

. . . I must confess that, like plenty of other editors, I can’t wait to read this batch of documents. Unlike with the last two dumps, which consisted mainly of raw reports from the field about events that had already been widely reported, it seems there are genuine revelations this time around. Already, news outlets are reporting that we can expect unvarnished American views of the shortcomings of British leaders, critical comments about Nelson Mandela, remarks about Islam that may come across poorly, allegations of corruption among Russian politicians, and so on. For news junkies like me, it promises to be good reading. I know I’m going to be up late tonight.

As a general precedent, though, it’s troubling. U.S. diplomats should be able to share their assessments candidly with the folks back in Washington without fear of waking up and finding their cables splashed across the front page of the New York Times. People who take great risks to share sensitive information with embassy officials won’t come forward if they worry that the Kremlin, or the Mugabe regime, is going to punish them for their candor. And sometimes too much media attention can get in the way of quiet progress, as in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Hounshell quotes Steven Aftergood as describing the leak of the diplomatic cables as “information vandalism.” Quite so, and let it be noted that in the long run, this leak will do nothing to make governments and corporations more ethical. Eventually, all that governmental and corporate actors will do in response to WikiLeaks’s latest effort to embarrass is to try undertake the same activities as before, while at the same time refraining from putting thoughts down in print so that they won’t be embarrassed by the likes of WikiLeaks in the future. However, the ability of governmental and corporate actors to issue frank and informative writings will be chilled, as will their ability to collect, analyze, and act on valuable and important intelligence stemming from those writings, which means that future governmental and corporate activities will be undertaken with less information and analysis to back them up. And this, of course, means that governmental and corporate actors will fail more often, costing valuable resources, undermining worthy diplomatic goals, and even leading to the loss of innocent lives. To the likes of Julian Assange, this matters little, since, as Hounshell notes, Assange is convinced “that everything the U.S. government does is inherently nefarious.” But as wiser, saner heads know, this attitude–like so many that Assange harbors–is utterly simplistic in its outlook.

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