Pity the U.S. diplomats in the field, whose jobs presumably require that they now compose classified cables reporting back to Washington on local responses to the blunter aspects of their own wikileaked previous cables. The State Department has tried to close the barn door, uncoupling itself from the network that allowed the filching of what WikiLeaks claims is a cache of 251,287 cables from 274 diplomatic missions around the globe — 15,652 of these cables classified as “secret” and 101,748 as “confidential.” But how secure would you feel these days, either confiding in an American diplomat, or being one?
Pity their sources, or at least some of them, who thought they were speaking in confidence and now see their remarks plastered all over the internet. Pity a world in which any information that can be downloaded onto the internet is advertised as serving the high cause of “truth,” no matter who gets hurt.
Not that the wikileaked cables aren’t interesting. They’re fascinating. In the trove released to date, there are cables that deserved to be leaked. They expose a wealth of important information, from the begging and finagling with which the Obama administration has been pursuing an economically disastrous accord on “climate,” to the hypocrisies of Arab rulers who foster mindsets profoundly dangerous to the U.S. and its democratic allies, but plead privately with American officials for the U.S. to save their necks by cutting the head off the Iranian snake. And why, pray tell, has the Obama administration not done more to inform the American public about the specifics of the fears emanating from the Middle East itself regarding Iran, including such wikileaked items as “the Iran-Al-Qaeda connection.”
But that kind of information, yea, even those particular cables, could have been leaked without Assange embarking on the wholesale release of more than a quarter of a million State Department cables. There’s a difference between exposing specific wrongdoing, and exposing almost everything you happen to obtain in a massive download (some names have been crossed out, but not enough to protect various people, from Iran to Venezuela, who did no wrong and are now in harm’s way).
Speaking from some experience as a reporter, I can attest that a leaked document can be the vital item that clinches a story. Leaked documents can play an important part in exposing corruption, malfeasance, and a host of damaging hypocrisies with which people in power exempt themselves from the rigors they impose on others. Back in the days when newsrooms still had typewriters, one of my brilliant and curmudgeonly editors liked to teach all his disciples that one of the staples of the reporter’s trade is the leaked document. But there is a natural vetting that tends to take place before those leaked documents arrive on your desk — or at least, so it’s usually worked until the web brought forth Julian Assange. Secret documents most often leak because someone inside or close to an organization or a government witnesses wrongdoing and becomes so unhappy with the situation that he or she will take the risk of handing over incriminating material to the press — usually with a request that the reporter protect the source. Sometimes they come from competitors of the folks who are misbehaving. There are various ways that documents leak, but the common denominator tends to be that someone is seeking justice for some specific wrong. It is the evidence of wrongdoing that drives the story, and in publishing the leaked document, or at least some of the details within, old-fashioned reporting standards entail making every possible effort to avoid humiliating or otherwise harming the innocent.
This is different. Unless Assange regards it as malfeasance merely to be a U.S. diplomat, then what wrongdoing, exactly, is he seeking to address in embarking on the wholesale dump of thousands upon thousands of confidential U.S. diplomatic cables? For that matter, with Assange’s declared passion for total disclosure, why is WikiLeaks choreographing “Cablegate” as the dance of the seven veils (or the drip of the 251,287 cables, which WikiLeaks proposes to release “in stages over the next few months”)?
Assange’s rationale, as laid out on the (migrating) WikiLeaks site, is: “The subject matter of these cables is of such importance, and the geographical spread so broad, that to do otherwise would not do this material justice.” Come again? This trove of cables is essentially a large database, with complex, interactive parts. If WikiLeaks is determined to put it all out there, then releasing it in stages is manipulation of the first order — a high-stakes tease, while the world wonders for months if, when, or where the next bombshell might land. If the aim is to present to the public a TSA-style strip-search of American diplomacy, and the done deal is, ultimately, to release everything, then candor and fair play would seem to require skipping the publicity striptease and the advance deals with hand-picked news outlets. Just release the entire database. If the aim of putting it all out there is to let people see and decide for themselves what this cable traffic really means, then let them decide with full information available upfront.
But that’s not what this is about. Having declared that all these cables will become public in stages, WikiLeaks is now broadcasting that any definitive move to shut down Cablegate will result in the rest of the trove being leaked all at once. That’s no exercise in service of the public, or of some higher truth. It’s a threat. I see plenty in the U.S. State Department to quarrel with, plenty that should be more fully shared with the public, and plenty that warrants exposing and fixing — but with the kind of care that the better gumshoes of the typewriter age once took to protect the innocent while going after the documents that could nail the guilty. This is nothing like that. Whatever ultimately comes of Cablegate, bulk-dispensing these U.S. documents is a game of power and manipulation. And in those deep waters, WikiLeaks is fishing with dynamite.