Paul Pillar

Leaky Titillation

The latest wholesale dump of classified documents by WikiLeaks ought to put to rest any notion that some worthwhile purpose is being served by such theft. With the previous dump, which focused on military operations, some tried to find a kind of perverse nobility in the dumping by pointing to this or that incident that might have been a previously unpublicized abuse by armed forces—although that clearly was not the purpose of those doing the leaking, because it doesn't explain why tens of thousands of other documents were leaked as well. With the current batch of diplomatic reporting, there do not seem to be even any of that kind of nugget. Whatever inner ego-driven purposes this exercise serves for the leaker and the dumper, they had no idea whether there is even any possibility of good that would offset some of the extensive harm from the disclosure. Being clueless in this regard, WikiLeaks was clever enough to hit on the tactic of enticing several news organizations to devote countless man-hours to examining, and subsequently publicizing, the purloined documents by giving them exclusive advance access.

With the selected press outlets contributing that labor, there are bound to be a few things out of a quarter of a million cables that can generate headlines. And there are bound to be some things that people pushing a particular agenda can seize upon—although given that much of what is seized is a random report of someone else's musing or second-hand interpretation, the resulting picture is almost sure to be misleading. One story line that has emerged, for example, is that Arab leaders in the Persian Gulf are hot to sock it to the Iranian nuclear program. In fact, the Gulf Arabs indeed voice concerns about that program, but they are not lobbying for anyone to go to war—as the leaked cables that report first-hand comments indicate. (One comment that may seem to indicate otherwise is from a Saudi ambassador commenting second-hand on metaphorical comments he attributes to Saudi King Abdallah. A more reliable indication of Saudi leadership attitudes were the remarks in Washington earlier this month of Prince Turki al-Faisal, who said flatly that a military strike against Iran would be calamitous. It is highly unlikely that Turki would make such a strong public statement if it clashed with the king's views, public or private.)

While no purpose is being served in the interests of the republic, or of good policy-making, or of educating the populace, we are entertained by these disclosures. The frank and sometimes colorful descriptions of foreign leaders and the other subjects of diplomatic reporting that was never intended for public consumption titillate us. We get the same charge out of it as one of those gaffes by an American politician who makes a comment in front of a microphone he did not realize was on.

I have described previously the many ways that such compromises of classified material harm the national interest. The same observations apply to the current release. Maybe it would be desirable if diplomacy were solely a matter of open covenants openly arrived at, but diplomacy isn't that. If U.S. diplomats are going to have their mail opened like this, it only places U.S. diplomacy at a disadvantage. And the indirect costs of such disclosures, including alterations in how our own officials talk to Washington as well as how foreign counterparts talk to us, is substantial, even if it is not directly and specifically identifiable.

Some have invoked once again the idea that too much government information and material is classified. Maybe it is. But unless one rejects altogether the principle that there are good and important reasons for some material to remain classified—unless one argues, that is, that the more stuff that gets disclosed, the better—then overclassification is not the issue. The issue instead is who gets to decide what should be publicly disclosed and what should not, and what criteria are applied to such decisions. With any leak, it is the leaker who has arrogated that decision for himself or herself. With the WikiLeaks material, it appears a 22-year-old Army private may have been the decision-maker. I submit that this is an awfully lousy way to make such decisions on behalf of the United States. I'll take the Freedom of Information Act any day. And if that's not good enough and we really thought release of something like a quarter of a million U.S. diplomatic cables was a good idea, how about, say, an act of Congress?

We should grow up and, instead of being collectively titillated by morsels such as Muammar Qadhafi's relationship with a voluptuous blonde nurse, we should ignore such leaks except to demand that our leaders explain what is being done to prevent such mishandling of government information and to punish appropriately those who have mishandled it.