The release of thousands of State Department documents by whistle-blower WikiLeaks sheds some light on U.S. foreign policy, but has provided few truly startling revelations.
It was fascinating, for example, to learn that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged Washington to “cut off the head of the snake” (Iran) to prevent the saber-rattling nation from developing nuclear weapons. To its credit, the Obama administration has focused instead on hardball diplomacy and resisted such entreaties to use military force against Iran. But the common purpose of Arab states and Israel to work against Iran’s nuclear ambitions had been reported for years. It is not breaking news.
Similarly, many Americans already thought that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was at least half a bubble off level before WikiLeaks revealed that he “relies heavily” on a buxom Ukrainian nurse, fears staying on upper floors, and loves flamenco dancing.
This was the third document dump by WikiLeaks and its Australian founder, Julian Assange. Four months ago, WikiLeaks disseminated more than 75,000 stolen classified government documents concerning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In October, the organization disclosed another 390,000 documents about Iraq. This time, WikiLeaks is releasing more than 250,000 diplomatic cables, about half of which were classified. Although government officials want to keep this information secret, its publication by the New York Times and other news outlets does give the public valuable insight into U.S. alliances and policies.
Government alone doesn’t get to decide what information is safe for public consumption in this country. Too often, government officials hide documents simply to save themselves from embarrassment. That said, President Obama should be embarrassed. In the digital age, when uploading thousands of documents is all too easy, his administration apparently allowed one disgruntled Army private with a flash drive and a compact disc to download classified information.
Some of these documents could compromise the identities of U.S. agents and informants in the field. The New York Times said it consulted with the government and scrubbed this type of sensitive information prior to publication, but other media outlets may not be so careful. Attorney General Eric Holder said he will conduct a criminal investigation to punish those responsible. Of greater concern is making sure such lax data security is improved, so it isn’t exploited by avowed enemies of the United States.
It’s not clear how this breach will affect U.S. diplomacy. Our allies are driven by self-interest, so they’re not likely to dwell on hurt feelings. If they needed us before, they need us still. One unfortunate result of these leaks could be to discourage U.S. diplomats from writing brutally honest cables, if they fear their words will end up on the Internet. That could harm the ability of diplomats in far-flung locations to convey important information to one other.
There will always be a tension between the public’s right to know and the government’s desire to conceal. National security concerns notwithstanding, the public is entitled to a full understanding of how and why its representatives form policies that affect us all.