Leaking for Leaking’s Sake


Published December 01, 2010, issue of December 10, 2010.
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The cascade of diplomatic cables unleashed by WikiLeaks and published by some of the world’s most respected news organizations has left us ambivalent and uncomfortable — as Jews, as journalists, as citizens.

It’s impossible to say whether the predictions of the most dire consequences of this enormous dump of scattered information will come true, whether lives indeed will be lost, careers shattered and the “world order” maintained by patient diplomacy cracked. Some have appreciated one comforting aspect of these revelations: They show the skill and strength of the U.S. diplomatic corps, and the absence, so far, of any glaring malfeasance.

But while the indiscriminate release of years of private conversations, reports and insights may be a historian’s dream, we have deep concerns about the effect on the trusting relationships so essential in the diplomatic world. Successful diplomacy, remember, can be an antidote to armed conflict; it produces alliances and treaties, regulates tensions, tames the rough edges of national hubris. Just as most of us would likely change our behavior if our private, unedited e-mails were strewn across the world’s front pages, diplomats will surely be forced to do the same. And for what?

If these documents revealed horrific crimes, lies of consequence or abuses of power, then the damage to privacy would be outweighed by the public good of exposure. That was the justification for publication of the Pentagon Papers nearly four decades ago; this latest WikiLeaks release so far does not meet that standard. Piercing government secrecy is a journalist’s goal, but that goal requires a broader civic purpose to prevent it from descending into destructive nihilism.

The initial cables were also greeted with triumphal justification in Israel, serving as confirmation that many Arab leaders, too, recognized the serious threat posed by Iran and were eager to see its nuclear ambitions thwarted. But, as our Gal Beckerman reports on our front page this week, this also is a mixed blessing of yet uncertain consequence. The WikiLeaks revelation of this heretofore “open secret” could spur a strong alliance between Israel and the Sunni Arab nations deeply concerned about Iranian hegemony. Or it may have the opposite effect, of chilling talk and forcing Arab leaders into a defensive posture to contain domestic resentment that could, at least in the short term, harm the prospect of a coordinated response.

That’s the ultimate problem with spilling secrets: Information has its own power, difficult to monitor and control. A free society depends on the free flow of information, of course, and citizens deserve every tool to be able to hold their governments accountable. But privacy and promises still must count for something in this world, if trust and mutual respect are ever to govern the relationships of peoples and nations.

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