by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 6, 2010

I have tried to remain relatively sanguine on the impact of the WikiLeaks cable disclosures, but let there be no misunderstanding regarding my belief that a country cannot conduct effective diplomacy if its diplomatic cables are leaked into the open, causing others to believe that any conversations they may have with that country and its representatives will end up becoming public fare.

That’s why it’s infuriating to read David Samuels’s simple, and puerile defense of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Never mind all of the damage that the disclosures can do to worthy projects; Samuels thinks that the leaking is categorically lovely because it gives journalists access to information, and access to information is unequivocally awesome–the interests of the holder of that information in keeping at least some of it confidential just do not need to be considered at all, it seems:

Julian Assange and Pfc Bradley Manning have done a huge public service by making hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. government documents available on Wikileaks — and, predictably, no one is grateful. Manning, a former army intelligence analyst in Iraq, faces up to 52 years in prison. He is currently being held in solitary confinement at a military base in Quantico, Virginia, where he is not allowed to see his parents or other outside visitors.

Samuels is shocked that Manning, who broke laws by accessing and making public documents he had no authorization whatsoever to access and make public, is facing legal jeopardy. I assume that later this week, Samuels will express surprise that water is wet.

Assange, the organizing brain of Wikileaks, enjoys a higher degree of freedom living as a hunted man in England under the close surveillance of domestic and foreign intelligence agencies — but probably not for long. Not since President Richard Nixon directed his minions to go after Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg and New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan – “a vicious antiwar type,” an enraged Nixon called him on the Watergate tapes — has a working journalist and his source been subjected to the kind of official intimidation and threats that have been directed at Assange and Manning by high-ranking members of the Obama Administration.

Published reports suggest that a joint Justice Department-Pentagon team of investigators is exploring the possibility of charging Assange under the Espionage Act, which could lead to decades in jail. “This is not saber-rattling,” said Attorney General Eric Holder, commenting on the possibility that Assange will be prosecuted by the government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Wikileaks disclosures “an attack on the international community” that endangered innocent people. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs suggested in somewhat Orwellian fashion that “such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government.”

It is dispiriting and upsetting for anyone who cares about the American tradition of a free press to see Eric Holder, Hillary Clinton and Robert Gibbs turn into H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichman and John Dean. We can only pray that we won’t soon be hit with secret White House tapes of Obama drinking scotch and slurring his words while calling Assange bad names.

Shorter Samuels: “The United States government has absolutely no moral right whatsoever to enforce laws aimed at ensuring that classified communications within the government remain just that.” In the event that you find that interpretation to be a stretch, feel free to correct me by pointing out where in Samuels’s essay he says that organizations like WikiLeaks ought to observe some limits and respect some forms of privacy classifications when it comes to U.S. government documents.

Or, better yet, don’t bother pointing such a passage out. You won’t find it anywhere in Samuels’s article.

How any work is expected to get done without having sensitive and frank diplomatic communications classified is beyond me. How diplomats are expected to be informative and candid in their communications, while at the same time fearing that their statements–meant to be private–will be revealed to the public, and possibly taken out of context is beyond me. How we are supposed to expect that worthy projects that depend at least in part on secrecy will not be undermined by unauthorized disclosures is beyond me. All of this is beyond Samuels too; he doesn’t bother to explain how we could possibly have a functioning foreign policy apparatus in the event that diplomats are not allowed to have any expectation of privacy whatsoever concerning their communications.

Later on in his essay, Samuels praises WikiLeaks as “a powerful tool that can help reporters circumvent the legal barriers that are making it hard for them to do their job.” Those “legal barriers” are there for a reason, of course; laws allowing for the classification of documents, and secret-keeping within the United States government are necessary for the government to accomplish important tasks. That won’t happen, of course, if everything that is done within the government ends up being disclosed–either by some private in the Army, or by an organization like WikiLeaks, which has effectively engaged in espionage against the United States government. I am all for transparency, and yes, there have certainly been times when the classification of documents has gone too far. But transparency should not mean that government officials must write memos, and engage in communications without any ability to presuppose that their words will remain confidential.

In the event that you are wondering how organizations like WikiLeaks (and people like David Samuels, who egg WikiLeaks on as the organization tries to find new ways to be irresponsible and incendiary) can undermine very worthy diplomatic enterprises, be sure to read this on how State Department efforts to monitor internal political developments in Iran–an entirely salutary development, designed to give the United States government more information, and therefore, more options regarding how best to deal with Iran–have been undermined by the WikiLeaks disclosures. Key passage:

While the Iran Watch stations may have benefited from being in the spotlight, their work also could be imperiled. Even with the names redacted, Iranian intelligence officers may be able to figure out from the leaked cables who the sources were — and they would have no qualms about retaliating against them or their relatives.

Someone make sure that Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and David Samuels read that passage. After all, they don’t deserve to sleep well at night. Their consciences–if they have any–should really start bothering them too much to let them sleep well at night.

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