The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Leaking Credibility

When Divulging Secrets Devolves into Merely Tattling

People have labeled the recent divulgence of more than a quarter million classified U.S. State Department documents by the website WikiLeaks in terms ranging from criminal, bordering on cyber-terrorism, to another triumph by the free press. We tend to think about leaks as dangerous portents requiring rapid plumbing to protect ourselves from a damaging deluge. In the case of information, however, there is considerable debate whether the cataract is actually safer out in the open rather than behind safe and solid but opaque walls.

Kevin Marsh, an editor at the BBC, makes the classic case for the usefulness of leaks. “They can be irritating and embarrassing for those in positions of power . . . Leaks are a constant reminder to those we allow to govern us that we want to know what they’re really doing in our name [and] not just what they choose to tell us.”
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
(insert) and his creation

To this end, I am skeptical when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declares the revelations from WikiLeaks “tear at the fabric of responsible government.” Likewise for statements by the White House that WikiLeaks “has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of individuals,” such as diplomats and intelligence professionals, as well as endangering the lives of people who live under “oppressive regimes.”

WikiLeaks undoubtedly broke the law by obtaining these documents. However, there is something bizarre about disparaging the candid dissemination of information as contradictory to “promoting democracy and open government.” At the same time, I am equally dubious when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims his intent was providing evidence of serious “human rights abuse and other criminal behavior” by the U.S. government. I somewhat agree with a statement by the website that these document expose the “hypocrisy and venality” of U.S. diplomats.

Yet while embarrassment to power is a common aspect of leaks, it should be an incidental by-product and not their primary purpose. The motivation behind leaks is to introduce hitherto unknown facts that might sway public understanding/opinion about a situation as well as the response to it by authorities. In this case, WikiLeaks has confused salaciousness with salience.

The problem is not that the target was diplomatic rather than military secrets. As David Brooks of the New York Times points out, “The fact that we live our lives amid order and not chaos is the great achievement of civilization . . . This order is tenuously maintained by brave soldiers but also by talkative leaders and diplomats . . . We depend on those human conversations for the limited order we enjoy every day.”

Certainly, this cache of secrets contains some legitimately interesting, albeit not particularly surprising, factual revelations. Perhaps the most widely quoted is urgings from the Arab world – Saudi Arabian King Abdullah as well as officials in Jordan and Bahrain – to stop Iran's nuclear program by any means, including military attack by the United States.

However, the bulk of the documents appear to consist of blunt, unflattering subjective characterizations of foreign leaders by U.S. diplomats. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev “plays Robin” to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s “Batman.” Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called “feckless, vain and ineffective as a modern European leader.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy deemed “thin-skinned and authoritarian.” Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai dismissed as “an extremely weak man who did not listen to facts” and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as a “crazy old man.”

And, hey! What about the “voluptuous blonde” Ukrainian woman who travels everywhere with Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi and introduced as his (wink, wink) “nurse.” Did we stumble upon the National Enquirer website by mistake? This is not your father’s Pentagon Papers; it’s more like the Playboy from under your teenage son’s mattress.

There are some positives from perusing all this Foggy Bottom gossip. An editorial in the New York Times goes mining for cloud silver and concludes, “What struck us, and reassured us, about the latest trove of classified documents released by WikiLeaks was the absence of any real skullduggery . . . much of the Obama Administration’s diplomatic wheeling and dealing is appropriate and, at times, downright skillful.”

Slate magazine’s Fred Kaplan agrees, “Within the narrowing realm in which the United States (or any country) can influence others in the post-Cold War world, the Obama Administration has been playing the game fairly well.” If nothing else, the sometimes inspired, albeit catty, wording of the dispatches caused Dana Milbank of the Washington Post to wryly observe, “On the bright side, the leaks have shown the world that somewhere within the U.S. diplomatic corps lurks literary genius.”

On the not-so-bright side, Milbank’s colleague Anne Applebaum frets that forcing hyper-transparency on private government communiqu├ęs will come at the price of less honest, more taciturn government officials. “Diplomatic cables will presumably now go the way of snail mail. Oral communication will replace writing, as even off-the-record chats now have to take place outdoors, in the presence of heavy traffic, just in case anyone is listening.”

Conservative commentator Marc Thiessen of the American Enterprise Institute believes that even if foreign leaders and diplomats forgive our snide remarks, America may lose prestige, even appearing “powerless,” because of our inability/unwillingness to stop the leaks or punish the perpetrators.

If Assange and WikiLeaks was out to uncover diplomats performing illegal activities or even performing diplomacy badly, this leak might be worth the (temporary) pain and embarrassment. However, Assange’s target appears to be diplomacy itself. Being polite to people with whom our nation disagrees or even despises might be hypocritical but, as Brooks notes, it provides a civil means of settling difference compared to perpetual enmity and warfare.

Now we know that diplomats can be just as snarky as the rest of us when talking behind the backs of the people with whom they often deal face to face. The question is what we gained from it and the answer, from my perspective, appears to be not much.

WikiLeaks is a paradox that has the potential to be genuinely beneficial even as it remains officially illegal and potentially dangerous – sort of the medicinal marijuana of journalism. In this case, however, it is suffering from a contact high. Assange may like to believe he is telling Truth to Power but his latest effort has devolved from divulging secrets to simple tattling, in which the tattler enjoys a completely selfish feeling of faux power by his or her ability to cause discomfort to others.

He may consider his latest batch of secrets worthwhile and significant but the only thing Assange and his website have leaked lately is credibility. That is one of the bad kinds of leaks.