The WikiLeaks Document Flood – What Do You Think?


Professor John Gershman writes:

The recent WikiLeaks document dump and the associated reporting by several prominent newspapers has made many researchers enthusiastic and has fanned the flames of hyperbole both on the part of WikiLeaks and its detractors. Both sides exaggerate the significance of the leaks, and the hyperbole obscures more significant issues.

The documents cover a period from 1966 to February 2010 from a range of embassies and personnel. The ones involving Iran and the Middle East garner the greatest attention, although most are unsurprising to anyone who follows the region. One less widely reported view is that of former National Security Council staffer Gary Sick, who argues that the documents indicate that the Obama administration has yet to seriously try an engagement strategy with Iran and that Washington has largely resisted the drumbeat for attacking Iran from its allies in the region.

Long-Term Effects

The broader question is whether these kind of leaks lead to longer-term difficulties for the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy. To the extent those policies include the routine use of diplomats as spies, it will be a good thing if the leaks reduce those efforts.

But some ask: Will foreign leaders will be less willing to be forthright in their views and opinions if they think they will appear soon on the internet?

Short answer: probably not. CNN tweets that while calling another government to talk about the leaks, Secretary Clinton was told, “Don’t worry about it, you should see what we say about you.”

Others have asked: Will U.S. diplomatic personnel be less forthright about their own opinions or expressing the views of others in diplomatic cables.

Again: probably not. Perhaps the language will be less colorful.

Will the now ramped-up security measures for these and presumably other types of documents inhibit the kind of information sharing that was pointed to as missing prior to the 9/11 attacks. Short Answer: Possibly — but getting the balance right takes time.

Finally, will the leaks will make some countries whose cooperation with the U.S. is unpopular at home retreat from their collaboration. Short Answer: Possibly in the short-term.

Don’t Buy the Hype

But those may not be the most important dimensions of WikiLeaks’ impact.
“Cablegate” – as the document dump has been dubbed — is in some ways a form of celebrity shock journalism, the equivalent of a s speech by Bono on African poverty monopolizing press attention while the people who have been working in the trenches on these issues for decades get overlooked. Outfits like the National Security Archive, Open the Government, and freedominfo – among many others — slog away on a daily basis, working to hold officials accountable and do the nitty-gritty work required to make the Freedom of Information Act meaningful and governments around the world more open and accountable.

Cablegate has, in fact, sparked a valuable debate on the benefits and limits that transparency can and should play in foreign policy. This kind of debate will only strengthen our democratic institutions as we publicly debate and identify the benefits and risks associated with secrecy. For example, even Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame suggested that some things should remain secret, at least for a period of time. Recent experiences suggest that such a debate is an important and valuable one — and that this is potentially a benefit that far outweighs the short-term risks to the conduct of foreign policy.

What’s your opinion? Comment below.

2 thoughts on “The WikiLeaks Document Flood – What Do You Think?

  1. I agree–most of the information is already out there and whatever was released will at least do no harm. For e.g. the revelation that China is not willing to support North Korea could work in the favor of the South, and may detract the North from more aggression in the short term.

  2. I worry that there is a chance that what wikileaks is doing is actually counter productive to its mission of furthering transparency.
    If I worked in the State Dept., or elsewhere in govt/military/banking, I might be inclined to simply stop putting things down in writing…rely more on face to face or phone conversations, back room deals and the like.
    Likely? I don’t know…

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