The Upside of Wikileaks

Today’s New York Times has an article that points up a positive aspect of Wikileaks… the opportunity for the public to appreciate the cogent analysis and creative writing of the U.S. Foreign Service. But perhaps the future impact of the leaks will go well beyond a new respect for under-appreciated diplomats.

Reading these leaked reports gives me the impression of a world-wide fraternity, as if the diplomatic world was the venue for a global high stakes invitation-only poker game. Wikileaks has meant that one of the players (or was it the dealer?) has just dropped his cards on the table and also opened the blinds to the outside. From the outside looking in, it seems that everyone in the room is talking and joking with each other, posturing as they play their hand. The overall impression of the world of the decision makers is one of competitive fraternity, not a world of irreconcilable uncommunicative factions, as the media or ideological purists might portray it, but a world of players in a shared social space. Contemplating the existence of that common space, I find hope for potential solutions to the world’s “intractable” problems.

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3 Responses to The Upside of Wikileaks

  1. Jack says:

    You make a good case for diplomacy, Hugh, but I don’t find the argument in favor of Wikileaks convincing. The Chinese are much less likely to approve a united Korea now that it is public knowledge that some officials might have been thinking of it. Frankness of discussion depends on confidence in the confidentiality of the conversation.

    Yes, diplomacy will go on, but for a time U.S. diplomacy will be handicapped in some situations. For example, the public knwledge (not just a suspicion) that many Arab states are encouraging us to attack the nuclear sites in Iran will make it harder to resist the Israeli demands.

    When I was ambassador, some of my most important messages could have produced a successful coup against Gorbachev if they had leaked. Of course, I had sense enough not to put them in a message without severe limitations on distribution, and in those days nobody outside the Ops Center in the State Department could retrieve highly classified messages on their computer.

    One should not, of course, assume that everything has leaked. So far, the Wikileaks “dump” contains no highly sensitive “codeword” material. Therefore, the sort of comment that I found Thursday in the New York Times regarding reporting from Embassy Tbilisi is out of place. The author observed that the embassy seemed to have no independent source of information but was wholly dependent on the Georgian government for its information. Maybe so, maybe not-one would have to be sure that one has all the reporting to make a judgment like that.

    Of course, the Embassy Tbilisi should have reported what Georgian officials, especially the president and senior officials said. The messages should be classified, but not given extra protection. They know what they are telling us, after all. If the embassy had information that contradicted what government officials were saying, they would have given it a higher classification and probably limited distribution. So we don’t really know whether what one reads in Wikileaks is the whole story or not.

    The upshot of all this is likely to be: (1) current diplomats will find that some of their sources will be less frank until they are assured that their interlocutor can protect them; (2) reporting officers will shy away (for a time) from colorful language and sharp characterizations, with the result that their messages will have fewer readers; (3) the most important decisions and most sensitive communications will not be put in writing at all, but handled orally; and (4) agencies will, once again, stop sharing really sensitive information with other agencies. None of this is particularly helpful for successful diplomacy, but the more resourceful diplomats will find ways to protect their sources.

    The case for publishing the Pentagon Papers was that the government was deliberately misleading the public about conditions in Vietnam. This time, however, the leaked document demonstrate that the government is doing exactly what it claims to be doing. Making confidential records public prematurely is a bad for diplomacy as invasions of a person’s privacy would be to personal relationships.

  2. Brian Runyon says:

    I see no upside to Wikileaks, though it does interest me to find out what American diplomats think of other world leaders. I see a serious breech in security at computers in government buildings, and some people who want to embarrass certain officials by making them look bad.

  3. Jack says:

    It makes diplomacy more difficult. However, we should realize that the effect will be to restrict distribution of diplomatic reports. Apparently, Wikileaks did not get any of the most sensitive material. But the leaks could be very dangerous to dissidents and other activists who talk to American diplomats.

    When I was on duty in the Soviet Union, I would never name a non-official source in a report. I would use a different name and probably change the place and date (making clear I was doing so) to get across a given point. I did not want to risk a leak–or Soviet interception–that would harm my source. Since I protected my contacts, they became more and more trusting and more and more candid.

    I have to question the professional competence of diplomats who put in a cable with only a security classification potentially damaging information, such as government approval of U.S. military action against terroists in their country. Such information should be given very restricted circulation, and there are ways to do this. Undoubtedly Wikileaks will make diplomats more cautious, and also I am sure that the State Department won’t be turning over hundreds of thousands of diplomatic messages to the Department of Defense (or any other department) when they have no real need for all this. The relevant information can be conveyed to the right persons, who need to know it, under more restrictive circumstances.

    So, the Wikileaks “revelations” so far will hamper our diplomacy in some contries temporarily, but also will serve as a wake-up call to tighten up treatment of really sensitive information. I’ll bet that the most sensitive things we might be telling the Egyptians these days are not being reported in telegrams, but by secure (encrypted) voice.

    When I was in the White House, we would share sensitive letters from the president to foreign leaders, usually drafted in the State Department, with the Secretary of Defense, but with the caveat that no copies should be made and only a small number of senior officials with an interest in the issue be allow to see the single copy. We had no leaks.

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