Last year, early on Christmas Eve morning, representatives from the U.S., United Kingdom, Netherlands, and the European Union arrived for a meeting with Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Appointed prime minister earlier that year as part of a power-sharing agreement after the fraud- and violence-ridden 2008 presidential election, Tsvangirai and his political party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), are considered Zimbabwe’s greatest hopes for unseating the country’s long-time de facto dictator Robert Mugabe and bringing democratic reforms to the country.
The topic of the meeting was the sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by a collection of western countries, including the U.S. and E.U. Tsvangirai told the western officials that, while there had been some progress in the last year, Mugabe and his supporters were dragging their feet on delivering political reforms. To overcome this, he said that the sanctions on Zimbabwe “must be kept in place” to induce Mugabe into giving up some political power. The prime minister openly admitted the incongruity between his private support for the sanctions and his public statements in opposition. If his political adversaries knew Tsvangirai secretly supported the sanctions, deeply unpopular with Zimbabweans, they would have a powerful weapon to attack and discredit the democratic reformer.
Later that day, the U.S. embassy in Zimbabwe dutifully reported the details of the meeting to Washington in a confidential U.S. State Department diplomatic cable. And slightly less than one year later, WikiLeaks released it to the world.
The reaction in Zimbabwe was swift. Zimbabwe’s Mugabe-appointed attorney general announced he was investigating the Prime Minister on treason charges based exclusively on the contents of the leaked cable. While it’s unlikely Tsvangirai could be convicted on the contents of the cable alone, the political damage has already been done. The cable provides Mugabe the opportunity to portray Tsvangirai as an agent of foreign governments working against the people of Zimbabwe. Furthermore, it could provide Mugabe with the pretense to abandon the coalition government that allowed Tsvangirai to become prime minister in 2009.
Oh, wait. That’s not good at all, is it?
Floyd Abrams is worth reading on why Julian Assange is no Daniel Ellsberg (Abrams happens to think well of Ellsberg):
In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg decided to make available to the New York Times (and then to other newspapers) 43 volumes of the Pentagon Papers, the top- secret study prepared for the Department of Defense examining how and why the United States had become embroiled in the Vietnam conflict. But he made another critical decision as well. That was to keep confidential the remaining four volumes of the study describing the diplomatic efforts of the United States to resolve the war.
Not at all coincidentally, those were the volumes that the government most feared would be disclosed. In a secret brief filed with the Supreme Court, the U.S. government described the diplomatic volumes as including information about negotiations secretly conducted on its behalf by foreign nations including Canada, Poland, Italy and Norway. Included as well, according to the government, were “derogatory comments about the perfidiousness of specific persons involved, and statements which might be offensive to nations or governments.”
The diplomatic volumes were not published, even in part, for another dozen years. Mr. Ellsberg later explained his decision to keep them secret, according to Sanford Ungar’s 1972 book “The Papers & The Papers,” by saying, “I didn’t want to get in the way of the diplomacy.”
Julian Assange sure does. Can anyone doubt that he would have made those four volumes public on WikiLeaks regardless of their sensitivity? Or that he would have paid not even the slightest heed to the possibility that they might seriously compromise efforts to bring a speedier end to the war?
Mr. Ellsberg himself has recently denounced the “myth” of the “good” Pentagon Papers as opposed to the “bad” WikiLeaks. But the real myth is that the two disclosures are the same.
The Pentagon Papers revelations dealt with a discrete topic, the ever-increasing level of duplicity of our leaders over a score of years in increasing the nation’s involvement in Vietnam while denying it. It revealed official wrongdoing or, at the least, a pervasive lack of candor by the government to its people.
WikiLeaks is different. It revels in the revelation of “secrets” simply because they are secret. It assaults the very notion of diplomacy that is not presented live on C-Span. It has sometimes served the public by its revelations but it also offers, at considerable potential price, a vast amount of material that discloses no abuses of power at all.