WikiLeaks: A trivial gain, a profound loss

We know more about the world after the WikiLeaks dump. But because trust and confidentiality are essential in diplomacy, we'll soon know less.

REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange listens during a news conference on the Internet release of secret documents about the Iraq War, in London on October 23. Interpol issued a "red notice" on November 30 to assist in the arrest of Assange, founder of the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, who is wanted in Sweden on suspicion of sexual crimes. Assange, a former computer hacker now at the centre of a global controversy after WikiLeaks released a trove of classified US diplomatic cables at the weekend, denies the Swedish allegations.

Everybody knew about the gambling at Rick’s Cafe Americain, which is why Captain Renault in the movie “Casablanca” was so facetiously shocked when he “discovered” it. Because of the publication of thousands of secret State Department cables by WikiLeaks, we now know a lot more about the world than we did a few weeks ago. But the only shock is how much diplomats’ view of the world conforms with what journalists have been writing about and you have been reading about all these years.

WikiLeaks has not stood conventional wisdom on its head. So far, there’s been no evidence that the public was being deceived or defrauded by the US State Department or that democracy was being subverted. We’ve learned some gossipy bits (Muammar Qaddafi has eccentricities? Vladimir Putin is an “alpha dog”? Silvio Berlusconi burns the candle at both ends? Gosh!). We’ve learned what we’d expected (the Saudis are worried about Iran, and even the Chinese see North Korea as a “spoiled child”).

That’s reassuring, in a way. The foreign service of the world’s preeminent superpower has an insider view of the world – and it squares with ours. But that doesn’t justify the damage WikiLeaks has done. Among other things, loss of diplomatic confidentiality almost certainly would have scuttled the early 1990s Oslo talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the Northern Ireland peace accords a few years later, and dozens of ongoing attempts at international peacemaking, where trust is essential.

Imagine you are a diplomat. Wait, I’ll introduce you to one. Meet Gerard Russell. Fluent in Arabic and Dari, Mr. Russell has been in the highest of high-pressure posts in the Middle East during the tumultuous decade we’ve just passed through. He was head of the British political team in Baghdad and then in Afghanistan. He met with important figures, learned secret information, negotiated and advocated for his government, observed and reported back to Whitehall. He is now taking a break at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

“When I was a diplomat, I generally had no problem passing information back and forth with colleagues,” he says. “It was a secure system. You could speak freely.” Which requires trust. His job was to try to “build a picture of the world, the likely consequences of actions, and to understand all the perspectives.” You can’t do that if everything you know is automatically made public.

Journalists try to build a picture of the world as well. Journalists have less high-level access than diplomats but can travel more widely and persuade dissidents, insurgents, and regular people to talk. That, too, takes trust. If a reporter’s notebook got stolen and published, sources would be in danger.

Little wonder that diplomats and journalists often converse. The ground rules are that journalists agree not to expose the diplomats or their sources. Because diplomats are often spinning for their government, journalists must weigh the information they get. Because journalists often have only a partial picture, diplomats have to be careful about what they divulge. In other words, this isn’t a heart-to-heart between pals. But if everyone is reasonably honorable and skeptical, the public gets a fairly accurate view of what’s going on in the world.

In Julian Assange’s universe, that process gets short-circuited. Mr. Assange, the enigmatic man behind WikiLeaks, believes that information exists independently in nature and must be made public. That is a childish and destructive view, and I’m not saying that because I think he is trying to embarrass governments or beat journalists out of their jobs. Information is built by humans, whether they are assembling the periodic table of elements or a book about Kim Jong-il. Assange has forgotten – or never learned – that trust is essential in the assembly.

Because of WikiLeaks, we now know more about the world. Because WikiLeaks shattered trust, diplomacy will become more hidden, and we’ll soon know less. Assange will no doubt be shocked, shocked to discover this.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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