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Opinion

How the US government – and you – should assess secrets in the WikiLeaks age

For all the media drooling over WikiLeaks, the most serious implications of the leaked cables aren't on foreign diplomacy but on information security. The post-9/11 information age demands a rethink of how sensitive information is processed – by the government, but also by readers and reporters.

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WikiLeaks documents: five world leaders disparaged by US diplomats

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Demand for context

A third lesson is that while partial revelation of diplomatic reports offers insights, it can also be misleading. For example, WikiLeaks disclosures of some US diplomatic reporting from Tbilisi during the August 2008 Russia-Georgian war might suggest that the embassy too readily accepted Georgian claims that Russia started the war.

In fact, the most sensitive information in quick-moving, high-profile crises tends to be conveyed by secure email, phone conversations, and compartmented messages, such as between the US ambassador and Washington leaders. WikiLeaks neither has access to this more secure information, nor does it provide broader context. For example, prior to the hostilities, Russia engaged in multiple provocations, including conducting a major military exercise and stationing troops just north of Georgia’s border with South Ossetia. The Russians intervened shortly thereafter.

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Another example of disclosures without context comes from a leaked Department of State instruction asking diplomats overseas to gather personal information on key foreigners, such as credit card and frequent flier numbers. Some observers speculate that this crosses a line between diplomacy and spying. Multiple agencies in Washington, however, send overseas posts long wish lists for information. As the WikiLeaks disclosures show well, embassies focus their reporting on key priorities. They largely ignore grab-bag requests. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a new report that promised a much needed streamlining of reporting demands.

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Our responsibility

WikiLeaks has given us more than juicy headlines. It’s shed light on some vital lessons for Washington and the global reading public. In this information age, Washington should reduce risks of future leaks and espionage by restoring the need-to-know security principle but applying it intelligently so that warning and threat information still goes to those who need it.

WikiLeaks 101: Five questions about who did what and when

Security standards must be revisited and reinforced. And without vital context, readers of leaked documents should assess them carefully, along with official statements and actions and other public information.

William Courtney was US ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. Kenneth Yalowitz is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, and was US ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.

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