“Everywhere there’s a U.S. post, there’s a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed," wrote the suspected source of the newest batch of Wikileaks. “It’s open diplomacy. World-wide anarchy in CSV format. It’s Climategate with a global scope, and breathtaking depth. It’s beautiful, and horrifying.”
Of course, the Climategate to which he refers, a 'scandal' that purported to reveal a global conspiracy to hide the truth about global warming, was a bust -- a third-party investigation exonerated the scientists, and climate science continues to be empirically verified.
Similarly, reading the cables released thus far, it turns out that the U.S. government is doing ... pretty much what newspapers report that it does. As Dan Drezner wisely writes of reports that U.S. diplomats speak diplomatically, "If this kind of official hypocrisy is really the good stuff, then there is no really good stuff." If you needed to read these reports to know that the U.S. turns a blind eye to human-rights abuses in our authoritarian allies, you haven't been paying attention. Julian Assange and his colleagues are remarkably similar to their ideological analogues within government -- they seem to feel that anything with a "secret" label on the top is more important or interesting than anything public. But the real scandal is, as always, what's legal. Nothing I've read about these cables so far is more horrifying than the White House's public position that it can assassinate some U.S. citizens without trial.
The simple fact is that any human interaction requires a modicum of secrecy to work, whether it's a congressional negotiation, a business deal, or keeping things civil at a gathering of family or friends. Removing that veil without accountability, context, or regard for potential outcome doesn't strike me as laudable. I'm very receptive to arguments that the government is too secretive on many topics and that it violates civil liberties; we've certainly seen Wikileaks reveal specific abuses in the past. I'm not, however, receptive to the argument that the government should have no secrecy at all, which the revelation of these cables wholesale seems to take for granted.
So far, we haven't seen any huge, damaging revelations come from the document dump. If that trend continues, the result of this collection of leaks will be a series of small embarrassments. American diplomatic efforts will be weakened across the board, our intelligence work will become less effective, and we'll see more restrictions on classified documents as the government overreacts to the leak and seeks to clamp down. Opponents of intelligence reform who warned that broadening access after 9/11 would lead to trouble will feel vindicated. Kevin Drum piggy-backs on David Frum in observing that the leaks seem to make U.S. military action in Iran more acceptable. Is that an outcome that the Wikileaks team will celebrate?
-- Tim Fernholz
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