About Wikileaks . . .
Posted by Michael Cohen
I had vowed not to write too much on the Wikileaks yesterday, but in rather predictable fashion Glenn Greenwald has roused me into action. He writes:
Beyond specific disclosures, WikiLeaks' true crime here is to strike a major blow against the U.S. Government's authority generally and secrecy powers in particular; how one views the American Government's behavior in the world is likely to determine one's reaction to WikiLeaks (i.e., is it a good thing or a bad thing when America's attempted power projection in the world is subverted and its ability to act in the dark undermined?).
In an odd way I agree with this sentiment. After all, one can only make this argument if they view the US role in the world in a uniformly negative light (which appears to be the case with Greenwald)! Of course, the very notion that one can sum up US actions in the world in such a binary manner as being either good or bad is a tad simplistic. For example, I am generally pretty skeptical of US military intervention around the world and yet I think Wikileaks has done terrible damage to US national security. I wonder how that fits in Greenwald's black and white narrative of the world.
To be sure the anger about the erosion of our privacy rights is not an insignificant consideration and I have no doubt that it is driving Wikileaks behavior - and underpins the arguments of its supporters. And in defense of Greenwald he has been an important and often vital voice in raising attention to these issues. But his privacy concerns, writ large, are simply misapplied to this leak.
Anyone who has worked in international affairs would understand (and this goes for Americans and non-Americans) secrecy is an essential element of diplomatic relations. Henry Farrell makes the smart point here that effective diplomacy actually relies on a healthy level of hypocrisy. The simple reality is that effective diplomacy and effective counter-terrorism often must work in the dark. To suggest otherwise demonstrates a shocking lack of understanding about how diplomats actually operate.
First of all, we rely on our diplomats to offer candid, unvarnished and secret assessments of foreign leaders - and now Wikileaks has splashed those assessments across the Internet for all the world to see. Now, for example, Turkey's leaders can read first-hand the analysis of our diplomats in Ankara about them (by the way if anyone believes that the Turkish government hasn't done similar assessments of US leaders they're crazy). How does that help anyone and how that does strike a blow "against the U.S. Government's authority generally and secrecy powers in particular"?
Short answer: it doesn't. All that's happened here is that it will now be more difficult for US diplomats to do their job; it will fray relations with a key Middle East ally and ironically it will probably lead to more not less secrecy, because diplomats will be more fearful of putting their thoughts down in cables that can then be leaked to the New York Times (a point made well here by Charles Hill).
Or how about this story, now on the front page of the New York Times:
Since 2007, the United States has mounted a highly secret effort, so far unsuccessful, to remove from a Pakistani research reactor highly enriched uranium that American officials fear could be diverted for use in an illicit nuclear device. In May 2009, Ambassador Anne W. Patterson reported that Pakistan was refusing to schedule a visit by American technical experts because, as a Pakistani official said, “if the local media got word of the fuel removal, ‘they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons,’ he argued.”
Well now that Pakistan's media has a hold of this story how successful do you think the US will be in securing this highly enriched uranium? All that has happened here is that US diplomats in Pakistan will now find it that much more difficult to do their jobs and will likely be blocked in their efforts to secure materials that could potentially be diverted into a makeshift nuclear weapon. In the end, isn't the sort of thing that we want our diplomats to be doing?
There is a reason these deliberations were kept secret - and it's not because the US government desires lying to the American people; it's actually to protect the Pakistani government and make some sort diplomatic arrangement possible.
Again, too much secrecy in government can clearly have dangerous consequences (See: Bush Administration 2001-2009) and there is a vital role not only for journalists, but also for whistleblowers in leaking information of illegality or mistruths by public officials. But what Wikileaks has done is something altogether different; they have basically rejected the notion that governments can EVER operate in secret. They have rejected the notion that US actions on the global stage are legitimate or serve a global public interest. They reflect a view of American power that is nearly uniformly negative and adversarial.
And in the end they have fundamentally undermined US national security and effective US diplomacy (in just one other example, leaked cables may be used as the final weapon for Republican Senators to justify their vote against the New START treaty). So I suppose Greenwald's argument that these leaks will weaken US authority and secrecy in particular is basically correct.
What is wrong is the misguided belief that this is a good thing.