Commentary: WikiLeaks and the price of secrecy

The Miami HeraldDecember 9, 2010 

Suddenly, foreign news is back. In the past week or so, the long lamented decline in smart, well-sourced, insightful and provocative coverage of international affairs has done a 180. Overnight, the media are brimming with stories about global politics:

Do Arab leaders privately share Israel's fears of Iran?

Is Ahmadinejad making nice to Hugo Chávez in hopes of finding uranium in Venezuela for Iran's nuclear program?

Has the United States pressured Spain to derail an investigation into the Army's 2003 killing of a Spanish newsman in Baghdad?

Might China prefer a Korea reunified under Seoul to the uncertainties of a volatile North Korea in perpetual collapse?

Stories like these have dominated the news worldwide thanks to a global network of previously unpublished scribes -- well-placed, trained observers, often with a great eye for the telling detail and a flair for colorful expression.

They're not journalists, they're U.S. diplomats, and their work wouldn't have spilled out of their secret dispatches to the home office if it hadn't been leaked -- more than 251,000 cables -- to an international whistle-blowing conspiracy called Wikileaks, and from there to five of the world's top news organizations: The New York Times, The Guardian of London, Germany's Der Spiegel, Le Monde in Paris and El Pais in Madrid.

Much of the attention in this country has gone not to the substance of the cables, but to the scale of the security breach the leak represents, and the problems that might pose to the U.S. capacity to continue to conduct its affairs in the duplicitous way that real statesmanship supposedly requires.

Republican leaders are calling for the head of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and the Obama administration, ever hopeful of appeasing its partisan adversaries, is looking into prosecution. For its part, the Beltway media commentariat has been wringing its hands over whether diplomats will ever feel free to speak ``candidly'' again. They ignore the reality that this candor guides only what diplomats whisper to one another; what's then said to the public is whatever soothing falsehoods expediency demands.

To be sure, a good many of the disclosures quite rightly have made officials squirm. Learning that U.S. envoys regard Italian president Berlusconi as ``Putin's ambassador in Europe'' and suspect the two of them of corrupt business dealings is certainly awkward. Accusing the brother of Pakistan's opposition leader of tipping off the terrorists who murdered 163 people in the 2008 Mumbai attacks is hardly diplomatic. Exposing heavy-handed U.S. efforts to corrupt Spain's judiciary or bribe countries into accepting Guantánamo prisoners doesn't do any favors to this country's image.

So? Is that all so bad? Is there anything that has been published that you believe you're not entitled to know? Indeed, is this perhaps a good thing? Has this regime of galloping secrecy served anybody well?

Isn't it possible that if Wikileaks had been around in 2002 to expose internal U.S. doubts about Saddam Hussein's make-believe weapons there wouldn't have been an Iraq war -- and if Wikileaks had published those classified warnings about al Qaeda in 2001 a comatose White House might have been jolted awake and there never would have been a 9/11?

And who's to say even the current disclosures are doing real harm?

Paradoxically, when Iran's usually demented president Ahmadinejad denounces Wikileaks as a U.S. tool, he has a point of sorts. The document dump has had the unexpected consequence of positioning official U.S. perspectives, insights, priorities and observations at the top of the news agendas of the most influential media. Everybody is reading about and reacting to what Washington's operatives said this, and how U.S. envoys viewed that. The surging coverage of international affairs, which Wikileaks triggered, has a story line that was made in the USA.

Julian Assange claims a commitment to transparency and is reviled as a traitor. Nearly a century ago, before ``transparency'' was applied to anything but windows, the language of those who sought to reform diplomacy was different. Then the dream was for ``open covenants, openly arrived at,'' and it was the first of the 19 Points championed by another noted traitor, Woodrow Wilson, who blamed secret diplomacy for triggering the worst war in human history.

Exposure may be awkward, but secrecy too has its costs.

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