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.
But reducing our ability to keep secrets might also reduce the likelihood of counterproductive or aggressive intervention. What we are talking about here is the ability to interfere in the internal affairs of foreign countries and the extent to which secrecy makes us more or less able to do that. The secrecy issue WikiLeaks raises is not about striking the right balance between openness and safety. That is a false debate, because in cases where safety is truly threatened, it’s obvious that openness must be curtailed, as it always has been ever since the First Continental Congress met in secret in 1774. The right debate is between differing definitions of the national interest. Is our national interest better served by engaging in the kinds of interference in foreign countries that secrecy permits, or is it better served by requiring openness that might restrain our ability to interfere?
This is obviously not a question the Obama administration is interested in asking. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the document release "puts people’s lives in danger," which is unfortunately the kind of unimaginative response one has come to expect from foreign policy leaders in both parties. As Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Vietnam War–era Pentagon Papers, told the BBC, "That’s a script they roll out every time there’s a leak of any sort…. Certainly the same charges were made about the Pentagon Papers and turned out to be quite invalid over the years."
One person who eventually agreed with Ellsberg was Erwin Griswold. Griswold, as solicitor general in the Johnson and Nixon administrations, argued before the Supreme Court for suppression of the Pentagon Papers, making many of the same claims the White House makes now about the need for secrecy to protect "national security."
But in 1989 Griswold wrote: "I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication [of the Pentagon Papers]…. There is very rarely any real risk to current national security from the publication of facts relating to transactions in the past, even the fairly recent past. This is the lesson of the Pentagon Papers experience, and it may be relevant now." Indeed, the lesson is relevant, but we seem determined not to learn it, preferring to remain in thrall to the unexamined belief that diplomacy just somehow has to be secret.
The current system feeds this notion by allowing for classification of "foreign government information" or information relating to the "foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States," which basically covers everything a diplomat does. The classification rules were supposed to induce openness by requiring cable authors to choose from a list of justifications in the controlling executive order before classifying a document, but in reality, as I saw during my own Foreign Service postings, everybody chooses reasons 1.4(b) and (d)—foreign government information, and foreign activities of the United States. In fact, nearly all officers simply had those justifications pre-pasted into a cable-writing template on their computers. As everyone can now see, almost all the WikiLeaks cables released so far were classified based on reasons 1.4(b) and (d).
There is not a national security reason to keep secret, as a general rule and for an extended period, the interactions between representatives of the US government and representatives of foreign governments. We claim a national security imperative by arguing that foreign politicians would not talk to us if we did not hide what they said from their own constituents and domestic opponents and the governments of third countries. To state this argument is to expose its anti-democratic essence. But this is what Hillary Clinton means when she praises secrecy for permitting what she calls "honest, private dialogue." She means dialogue among the powerful, safe in the knowledge that they will not be held accountable to their own citizens or legislatures.
One readily understands the desire of foreign—or American—public figures to control, as much as they possibly can, the flow of information concerning their activities and their images. It is much less clear that it is in the American national interest to enable this type of information control, and to prosecute people who try to get around it. On the contrary, the United States could and should use its weight in the world to promote open diplomacy. If we have a mission in international affairs, it should be the encouragement of popular control of government policy, both foreign and domestic, not the management of world affairs behind a veil of secrecy.
We could also protect sources of human rights information with a more narrowly drawn rule that would permit more openness elsewhere. The executive order currently in force does not contain a special justification for classifying information to protect activists, but it could. For instance, there are special justifications for sensitive scientific information and information about weapons of mass destruction.
A more open diplomacy would not mean that transcripts of every meeting would have to be published, or that closed-door negotiations could never take place. There is a sensible middle ground somewhere between the culture of secrecy that dominates now and the kind of indiscriminate dumping that seems to be the goal of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. For example, frank discussions and "honest, private dialogue" go on all the time among political leaders, lobbyists, staffers, experts, lawyers and other citizens on Capitol Hill, and there is a kind of soft confidentiality that covers many of those interactions. But that information can also be exposed legally. The default option should be for the government to conduct its business in foreign affairs according to that same model, enforcing secrecy strictly only in a few very narrow, well-defined areas where it’s absolutely necessary for safety or an individual’s privacy.
The WikiLeaks release of a quarter-million diplomatic cables smacks more of anarchism than public-spirited whistleblowing, but the organization’s frontal assault on the classification system does force us to ask whether diplomacy really requires secrecy, or whether we just think it does because that’s the way it’s always been. If WikiLeaks forces us to have that debate, its actions, paradoxically, might end up making us stronger.