Usually, when a WikiLeaks document dump is in the offering, US officials play like it could not possibly matter.
"More of the same," "nothing new," "just a repeat of what everyone was already aware of": these have been the standard lines.
But not this time. Washington is abuzz with Holiday weekend talk about how officials at the White House, the Department of Defense and the State Department are "holding their breath" in troubled anticipation of an imminent release of thousands of classified documents by the controversial website.
WikiLeaks is tweeting that officials in Washington are "hyperventilating again over fears of being held to account."
That’s not hype. They really are worried this time.
Why so? Because this release of documents could pull back the curtain on how the United States practices international diplomacy.
To understand why this matters, consider two related realities:
1. Many, if not all, of the US officials who deal on the international stage tend to like secrecy, as it allows them to play by different rules when dealing with countries that are deemed "allies" or "rogues." In other words, despite the blunt official talk about how the "war of terror" is a universal endeavor, the United States sometimes casts a blind eye toward—or even works with—groups that are identified as practicing terrorism.
2. These powerful players often feel threatened by transparency, as it reveals when they are allow allied states to act like rogue states. This gets especially messy when "friendly" governments are allowed to get away with actions that the US otherwise identifies as being so serious that might justify economic sanctions or even a military response.
Understand these facts and you will understand why official Washington is worried by this particular WikiLeak.
Reportedly, the next leak—which could come this weekend—will include "hundreds of thousands of classified State cables that detail private diplomatic discussions with other governments, potentially compromising discussions with dissidents, and even, reportedly, corruption allegations against foreign governments."
Among other things, international press accounts suggest, the new WikiLeak will include a military report revealing that the US officials were aware that the Turkish government allowed its citizens to aid Al Qaeda in Iraq. An additional document will, according to London’s Al-Hayat newspaper, reveal that the US aided Kurdish separatist rebels whose group, the PKK, is listed by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.
Turkey is a complex country located at a critical crossroads for the United States. It is no secret that U.S. officials have always applied different sets of rules when dealing with it.
The problem is that the public revelation of the differences between US treatment of Turkey and, say, Iran, could be more than embarrassing. It could call into question whether US officials are consistent in their condemnation of terrorism and of countries that condone terrorism.
Of course, that’s not what State Department officials are saying publicly.
They’re talking about protecting diplomatic secrecy.
"When this confidence is betrayed and ends up on the front pages of newspapers or lead stories on television and radio it has an impact," says spokesperson P.J. Crowley. "We decry what has happened. These revelations are harmful to the United States and our interests. They are going to create tension in our relationships between our diplomats and our friends around the world. We wish that this would not happen. But we are, obviously, prepared for the possibility that it will."
What should US citizens make of such revelations?
Don’t expect an outcry. Americans will not be shocked to learn that their government is inconsistent in its relations with other countries.
We don’t yet know what exactly this WikiLeak will reveal.
But these sorts of revelations, which so unsettle official Washington, could well improve the domestic debate.
No one wants to see the world become a more dangerous place; nor is there anyone who wants to play fast and loose with the safety of US troops, diplomats or innocents abroad
With those provisions, however, a case can certainly be made that transparency brings nuance to the discussion of how the United States engages with other countries, and to debates about the standards that are applied with regard to supposedly "terrorist" activity and supposedly "terrorist" groups.
A broader consciousness of these realities could make it tougher for the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department to suggest that the United States faces only black-and-white choices, that this country’s only options are absolutes, and that America cannot possibly negotiate with countries or groups that engage in actions that the US offically condemns.
In other words, this WikiLeak might just make it harder for officials in Washington to "sell" hardline responses, covert actions and military interventions.
Washington insiders might be bothered by that prospect.
But the citizens of the United States can handle diplomatic reality—and transparency.