Spies will spend a lifetime working to uncover a single piece of classified information. Reporters will spend months coaxing sources to reveal a single damning secret document. But that’s not how it works in the online age, where the illusion of anonymity rules and a million documents can be transferred in the time it once took to ride a horse to the telegraph office.
And so we have another WikiLeaks blockbuster, this one a batch of more than a quarter million diplomatic cables, numbering 216 million words that were written between 1966 and February of this year. Of the trove, about 15,000 documents were classified as secret. They reveal nothing totally unexpected, according to the news organizations that have searched the files, but plenty that is newsworthy.
In introducing the package, the WikiLeaks website gets a bit carried away by its own mythologizing. “Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington – the country’s first President – could not tell a lie,” reads the introduction. “If the administrations of his successors lived up to the same principle, today’s document flood would be a mere embarrassment.” This is, of course, balderdash. International diplomacy, much like a civil courtroom, is based on a certain assumption of secrecy. Plaintiffs do not have a right or expectation to know what the defendant says to his attorney, just as one country’s diplomats do not have a right to know the internal machinations of an opposing country’s diplomats. This is true in any adversarial relationship requiring negotiation. No American schoolchild is taught that international diplomacy is without subterfuge or intrigue, or that George Washington would want it transparent.
And the documents that have been discussed so far–by WikiLeaks and a small fleet of news organizations–are not notable for any fibs about the cherry tree, at least not any fibs that the world did not already know to be ruses. (Is it news to anybody that the bombs that fall on suspected Al Qaeda in Yemen are not, as claimed, the result of Yemeni military action?) Rather, they show instead exactly what the U.S. government and its allies do not want its adversaries to see, the internal deliberations and often coarse discussions, that contribute to the current cannon of diplomatic knowledge on issues as sensitive as nuclear weapon and missile development in Iran, the apparent “Ukrainian nurse” mistress of Libya’s strongman and the marriage gifts offered by Chechnya’s strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov.
In these documents, we see hard evidence of what has long been suspected and sometimes documented, but not officially stated: Arab leaders have urged military action against the Iranian nuclear program; the Obama Administration has attempted to ease Chinese concerns about an Iranian fuel cut off; the U.S. military is skeptical of the efficacy of any strike on Iran; senior Afghan officials are elbow deep in corruption; the U.S. has tried to offload Guantanamo detainees on resistant countries; the Chinese government appears to sanction computer hacking; there are concerns about the security of the Pakistani nuclear weapons infrastructure; and dozens of other tidbits from around the globe.
We see diplomats describe Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as “feckless, vain,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as playing “Robin to (Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s) Batman,” and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as “the crazy old man”–observations that, if nothing else, should cheer global confidence in the descriptive powers of the U.S. diplomatic corps. We find out that the U.S. government tries to collect information and spy on certain foreign officials, which is news mainly because these sort of facts should never be provable, even if everyone expects them to be true.
There is, in retrospect, an odd irony to the triumphalism of WikiLeaks, the lucky benefactors of an apparently troubled soldier who liked Lady Gaga. As with previous leaks, the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, has presented his release as a cudgel of truth against the great mendacity of American might. But his weapon is, in fact, far more ambiguous. Unlike a reporter or a spy, he is not after certain information. He is after transforming the idea of information, so that nation-states like the U.S. no longer feel entitled to misrepresent or color their own actions to fulfill their interests. In this quest, he will fail. (The Pentagon, today, explained the steps it was taking to assure such leaks are not possible in the future.) He has succeeded, however, in sorely embarrassing the United States, its leaders, and the leaders of many other nations. He has also succeeded in shedding newsworthy light on a vast array of diplomatic intrigue, much of it complimentary of American efforts, which is fascinating to look at, even if it is pretty much what you expected.
It is far to soon to know how the ripples from this radical experiment in transparency will shape the world to come. But stay online. The answer may be just a click away.