WikiLeaks communications dump: embarrassing uncomfortable, but, we hope, not irreparable by Marjorie Arons-Barron
The following entry is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.
The news that WikiLeaks is making public over 250,000 secret State Department communications is shocking. But, while many of the diplomats who wrote (or were written about in) the messages may be angry, embarrassed or having to do damage control with their colleagues and others here and abroad, we all have a better understanding of how U.S. diplomacy is conducted in very challenging times.
The potential outcomes are mixed. What was particularly fascinating in the New York Times analysis was a look into some of the deals the Obama Administration has to make in its efforts to reduce the Iranian nuclear capability, a threat of equal concern to others but which nations like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and others are loath to express publicly. The question now is whether and to what extent the Saudis now have to become more hostile publicly and privately to ward off criticism in the Arab world that it is too close to the United States. (The Saudis, for their part, were willing to guarantee oil to China if, in supporting Iranian sanctions, Iran cut off oil to China.)
The Times laid out its rationale for publishing the State Department communiqués. The paper said it withholds information that would expose confidential sources to reprisals or that would reveal operational intelligence that could benefit our adversaries. The Times, which gave the White House an opportunity to redact still further the material it was going to publish, says it would not hold back material simply because it would embarrass officials here or there.
But in what category do we put the revelation that President Ali Abdullah Saleh took the responsibility for strikes on Al Qaeda strongholds in Yemen even when it was the United States who had carried out the attacks? And how will making that public affect our skittish allies in that country, or others? Sometimes simple embarrassment does have far-reaching policy implications.
The arrogance of WikiLeaks is breathtaking. Does the public have a right to know everything? All too often governments keep secret information years beyond any reasonable national security defense. Timing is important. Does the public have a right to know the disclosures now, when it can affect the course of events, or later, when it is history? And how do we discern what down the road we will wish we had known contemporaneously to avert disaster or improve the prospects for conflict resolution.
Jonathan Schneer, in his tome The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, lays out the details of the duplicity of the shifting alliances leading up to the 1917 British declaration that the Jews had a right to a homeland in Palestine. Along the way, the British had been negotiating with the Zionists, the French (who laid claim to Syria), the Arabs (whom the British were encourage to revolt against the Turks in a larger effort to break up the Ottoman Empire) and the Turks themselves (whom the British were trying to break out of their alliance with Germany during WWI.) Simultaneously, then, the British were promising certain land to the Jews, the Arabs, the French, and reassuring the Turks that their flag would fly over Palestine. Would knowing that this was going on at that time have provided greater clarity in the enduring Arab-Israeli conflict? Perhaps. Certainly people today are still paying the price of the now-century-old pattern of diplomatic deception.
What unsavory deals, ripe with unintended consequences, are being made today, albeit with righteous intentions?
The State Department bears some of the blame for this controversy. Now, belatedly, it is reportedly limiting the ability of its computer messages to be downloaded to a portable device and is reducing the number of employees with access to the thousands of messages. A little like locking the stable door after the horse is gone.
But what should the media do when institutional barriers to diplomatic secrecy are breached and newspaper or electronic media receive sensitive information? Even media critic Dan Kennedy in his MediaNation blog reflects the ambivalence that both journalists and the general public rightly feel about this WikiLeaks event. This is not an easy call. It’s one thing to understand the implications of that secrecy after the fact; it’s another to alter the course of events, for good or for bad, by knowing the information up front.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
2 Responses to WikiLeaks communications dump: embarrassing uncomfortable, but, we hope, not irreparable by Marjorie Arons-Barron
Marjorie, thanks for bringing up all those points. I agree that there will be mixed results — the many negatives are obvious, but I kind of like the way some countries’ behavior is being “outed.” Still, in many parts of the world, the belief that the CIA is all-knowing and all-controlling dies hard. Many will just call this whole thing a hoax.
Here are three quick thoughts:
(1) What does this say about racial profiling? One of the worst national security incidents in our history, and the culprit was a young white male with blue eyes, fair complexion, and an all-American name.
(2) Does this finally help quash any of the ridiculous conspiracy theories about our government? As Richard “Against All Enemies” Clarke quipped, “We’re neither competent enough or good enough at keeping secrets to pull that stuff off.”
(3) Could this be a harbinger of changes to come with the way we view privacy? Manning’s generation is the first to completely “come up” on the Internet, with all juvenile mishaps there for anyone to view forever. Will society eventually migrate towards a decreased or nearly eliminated concept of privacy in ALL realms?
I must take exception to this:
“But in what category do we put the revelation that President Ali Abdullah Saleh took the responsibility for strikes on Al Qaeda strongholds in Yemen even when it was the United States who had carried out the attacks? And how will making that public affect our skittish allies in that country, or others? Sometimes simple embarrassment does have far-reaching policy implications.
“The arrogance of WikiLeaks is breathtaking.”
The Yemeni government should feel skittish. It is allowing itself to be bought off in exchange for allowing the US free reign over its skies using armed predator drones to blow Yemenis and even US citizens to smithereens. (See here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/2439305.stm). I might also mention the fact that no serious person honestly thought the Yemenis themselves were conducting such operations. It was the worst kept secret in the Mid East behind Israel’s nukes.
And what “arrogance” is WikiLeaks displaying? They received official government documents–some confidential or classified, and some not–and posted them for all to see. Sometimes I feel like I’m part of a microscopic minority that truly believes the public has a right to know how our government is acting in our name and using our tax dollars. This WOULD NOT include the right to know, say, troop movements in Afghanistan–and there’s none of that in WIkiLeaks–but rather the mechanics of military and diplomatic bureaucracy. And if there’s a leak showing that US helicopter pilots gunned down journalists and other civilians in Iraq (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1263822/WikiLeaks-video-Reuters-journalists-civilians-gunned-US-pilots.html), well, we have a right know that too. Or if the the government understated the number of dead Iraqi civilians during the war (http://www.alternet.org/world/148622/wikileaks_docs_underestimate_iraqi_dead/), we should know that also.
So excuse me if I don’t toe the Obama administration’s line about the need for secrecy and confidentiality. The mainstream media’s reaction to this whole affair shows just how servile it is to the Establishment.
I highly recommend Glenn Greenwald’s take on these disclosures and their critics: