WikiLeaks is one of those stories where the passions of the moment blind us to the more important lessons.
Ever since the New York Times and the Guardian began to publish the secret State Department and Pentagon documents, obtained by the WikiLeaks website, the conversation has focused on how embarrassing this is for the U.S. government and others around the world; whether WikiLeaks’ erratic founder, Julian Assange, should be put on a terrorist list and prosecuted; and did the news media, especially the Times, act responsibly in publishing the material?
All miss the mark.
To be sure, there are embarrassing revelations in the thousands of cables, often raw files. Arab governments are urging the U.S. to strike Iran; the U.S. and South Korea are gaming China’s reaction to a collapse of North Korea; the portraits of heads of state aren’t flattering.
This no doubt will complicate some relations as well as American diplomacy for a while. Despots likely will go out of their way to distance themselves publicly.
Still, rather than exposing ineptitude, the secret documents actually reflect well on U.S. policy and diplomacy. Pressure to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons isn’t effective if China, which gets much of its oil from that country, is opposed. U.S. efforts to cut a deal with the Saudis, who fear Iran, to possibly supply more oil to China are shrewd.
Most of the cables, along with the good gossip, reflect similar professionalism, probably to the consternation of the WikiLeaks crowd.
Take a moment to think over the sensitive U.S. diplomatic and military documents that could have been revealed over the past half-century. There would have been reports of attempted assassinations, bribes and the procurement of prostitutes for foreign leaders, or the illegal use of torture.
This isn’t to suggest that the motives of WikiLeaks and its shadowy, publicity-seeking founder, Assange, were noble. He acknowledges the purpose was to humiliate the U.S. government.
Yet beyond the predictable reactions both inside and outside the administration, the reality was best captured by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who suggested that while the cables were “awkward” and “embarrassing,” the consequences for U.S. foreign policy are “fairly modest.”
No Pentagon Papers
The analogy to the famous 1971 Pentagon Papers, which exposed the internal deliberations of Vietnam War decision- making, is absurd. Those documents chronicled years of deliberate lies and misrepresentations that caused a debacle resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. There’s nothing remotely comparable in the WikiLeaks.
Moreover, the “transparency is always good” defense is flawed, too. The result, short-term at least, will be to discourage candor in cables, just as the immediate aftermath of kiss-and-tell books is to discourage dialogue.
The cries to lynch Assange -- Mike Huckabee, a Republican presidential hopeful, wants him executed; others want to lock him up at Guantanamo Bay -- are also overreactions. His actions may be offensive; it’s not clear they’re prosecutable under the almost century-old Espionage Act.
The result of any effort to do that probably would be further embarrassment and the elevation of an undeserving martyr. It’s better to leave Assange to the mercy of the Swedes, who have issued a warrant for his arrest for alleged sex crimes.
Facing potential legal obstacles, some politicians now say the law ought to be written to make it easier to go after such people. Any time American politicians start mucking around with the First Amendment to curry public favor, there is cause for concern.
Another canard is the charge by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and others that the Times acted irresponsibly, if not unpatriotically, in publishing these stories. The paper got the information, not from WikiLeaks, which objected to its earlier coverage of their activities, but from the Guardian, which wanted to share the disclosures with America’s most prestigious newspaper.
And the Times seems to have carefully and responsibly analyzed what should and shouldn’t be published and provided a constructive context for the stories.
Also dubious are attacks blaming the Obama administration. The former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin blasted the administration for its “incompetent” handling of the leaks, suggesting this never would have happened if she had been president. Assange and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela demanded the resignation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Credible observers praised Clinton for her sensible private and public reaction to the leaks; experts such as Jim Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a cybersecurity expert and former State Department official, say the Obama administration actually has been more aggressive than its predecessor on these sorts of security issues.
There are lessons to be learned. The original source apparently was an Army private, one of about 1 million people with “top secret” security clearance in America. (The material in the latest WikiLeaks dump was rated at the lower “secret” level, and was accessible to about 3 million people.) That process plainly has to be reviewed. John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a public-policy organization focused on national security, says, “If you can get a credit card, you can get a ‘secret’ clearance.”
‘Manage the Risk’
Further, as Lewis says: “After 9/11, we realized that information sharing was important, that having pieces in different databases had drawbacks. We fixed that, but not the technologies and controls that manage the risk of greater access.”
The danger now is an overreaction to the leaks that will stifle the sharing of information with other countries and between U.S. security agencies.
Even if all the right things are done -- such as creating new controls and clearances -- preserving an open society in the Internet age means that governments, corporations and individuals will periodically have to deal with these cyber intrusions. Some may be more damaging than the WikiLeaks incidents.
In recent days, Assange has said he may consider similar strikes against countries such as China and Russia. If so, there won’t be debates there about whether to prosecute or not; he wouldn’t be around.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)