Monday, November 29, 2010

WikiLeaks communications dump: embarrassing, uncomfortable, but, we hope, not irreparable

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 communiqu├ęs.  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.

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