The more I think about the WikiLeaks episode, the less I know what to say about it. Unfortunately, too much commentary, right and left, has tried to inject certitude where ambivalence should be.
It is not clear whether the WikiLeaks disclosures will damage our national interest. During the few years I spent as a Foreign Service officer, in Jerusalem and Berlin, I produced and read a fair number of classified cables, and I understand the rather obvious point that diplomats might get more—and more sensitive—information when their contacts believe that what they say will remain secret. We have heard endless appeals to "common sense" about the need for secrecy on these grounds.
But common sense also tells us that people are more likely to lie, exaggerate and distort when they know they won’t be held accountable for what they said, and that people like to say what their interlocutors want to hear. The annals of diplomatic communication, indeed of all communication, are filled with evidence of this banal insight, which many people seem to have forgotten in their rush to defend government secrecy.
For example, take a look at the 2006 cable from Embassy Paris (available in French translation on the Le Monde website) in which presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy dangles before the drooling Americans the possibility of French participation in an international force in Iraq should Sarkozy succeed Bush nemesis Jacque Chirac in 2007. Sarkozy never would have made this hint had he not believed the embassy would keep the conversation secret. But he also had to know, as I hope his American contacts did, that he would almost certainly never be able to deliver.
So it is not clear that secrecy favors truth. Sometimes it does; sometimes it does not. In any event, it is not likely that a "chilling effect" from the current leaks will be long lasting; nor will the United States, with the world’s largest military and economy and third-largest population, be shut out of international politics.
Then there is the danger that dissidents or other activists might be unwilling to talk to American officials for fear of retaliation. This danger is real, but easy to exaggerate. Much information on human rights abuses is collected efficaciously by NGOs, which manage to do their work and protect sources where necessary without a secrecy apparatus like that of the US government. The government itself relies extensively on their reports. However, it is still true that only a government can collect information and intervene fast enough to make a difference to those who are threatened.
I participated in several examples of this in Jerusalem, where our ability to get very detailed information (sometimes working with NGO contacts who wanted their association with us kept secret) and then make timely protests to the Israeli government led to tangible benefits for Palestinians threatened with home demolitions or other abuses. (More numerous during my service were the abuses we did not stop.) It was clear in these cases that NGOs, on their own, never could have achieved the outcomes we did because they never could duplicate what embassies already have: an information-gathering network that works seamlessly with state power, has direct access to leaders of other states and doesn’t have to rely on the slow mechanisms of public pressure. Secrecy is one of the state’s tools that can help in some human rights cases, so to the extent that WikiLeaks succeeds in taking that tool away, it will reduce the likelihood of helpful intervention.