In the Arena


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The news that Hillary Clinton has called all our ambassadors back to Washington for a mass meeting at the State Department is further evidence–in part, at least–of the damage that Wikileaks has done to U.S. diplomacy. I know that there have been “official” reports about the damage not being severe, but that’s not what I’ve been hearing from people in the diplomatic community.

The biggest fear is that repressive countries like China, which has undoubtedly hacked into the Wikileaks stash by now, will find and jail people who served as sources for U.S. diplomatic assessments. New York Times editor Bill Keller addressed this in his solid Sunday magazine piece about the weird Mr. Assange; and while Keller made a convincing case that sensitive sources were protected by the newspapers involved, he didn’t–and couldn’t really–address the security of the main Wikileaks stash. There is a very strong possibility that people will be jailed, or worse, as a result of Assange’s irresponsibility; we may not know the fate of such people for months, if ever.

The second problem, more abstract, is the chilling impact that the leaks will have on US diplomatic cable traffic. Yes, it was great fun to learn that Muammar Qaddafi gadded about with a buxom Ukrainian nurse, but if a diplomat knows that her/his reporting may become public, he/she will be less likely to include the candid assessments that are crucial for U.S. negotiators when they’re dealing with foreign leaders. This has undoubtedly hurt our ability to figure out diplomatic strategy over the past few months; I’d be surprised if Clinton isn’t telling the Ambassadors that she wants cables that are as candid as possible at the meeting today.

The notion that foreign leaders might stiff us or react angrily as a result of the leaks–the “damage” denied in the reports cited above–is a real, but lesser problem. On the other hand, you don’t want to take the chance that the mercurial Qaddafi will allow Al Qaeda to stage an operation from his territory just because he’s ticked off at the U.S. diplomat who wrote the Ukranian nurse report.

Assange is an anarchist. His access to secret documents is dangerous, but–sadly–probably not illegal. The alleged leaker, Private Bradley Manning, should be held to account if found guilty and locked away for a very long time–as the victims of these leaks may well be. That doesn’t mean, however, that Manning should be mistreated, or held in solitary, or denied visitors. It means that he should be subject to the full strength of the law.

Happily, the newspapers Assange dealt with (including the Guardian, a former part-time employer of mine) insisted on handling the material with great care. That’s how responsible news outlets–the much-scorned mainstream media–deal with secrets that come into their possession (and those secrets usually come into their/ our hands from patriotic government officials who have a very precise sense of what would be dangerous to the nation’s security, and the security of individual sources, and what would not).

Obviously, there needs to be a major rethinking of what should be secret. A great deal of material is over-classified; certainly, there’s no excuse for holding most cold war era documents away from public view (and fifty years from now, the public should have access to Qaddafi’s health care peculiarities).  And, certainly, there are times when national security is enhanced by leaks (as was the case with the Pentagon Papers). But Assange’s assault–as enlightening (and, let’s face it, hilarious) as some of these cables have been–is a thoughtless action that may have some dire consequences. Secrecy is a national security necessity in many cases; if those who are willing to talk to U.S. diplomats fear that their identities may become public, our national security will suffer.  And innocent people may suffer as well. There simply is no getting around that fact. Julian Assange will have their fate on his conscience, if he has one.