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WikiLeaks vs. U.S. Diplomacy

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
The online release of a quarter of a million classified U.S. diplomatic cables by the WikiLeaks organization has stirred up a world of controversy. Days after the release, with world leaders and U.S. government officials scrambling to exercise damage control, journalists and experts continue to pick over the revelations for the most revealing tidbits about the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

This is no ordinary media firestorm. One of the most striking aspects of this latest WikiLeaks affair is just how genuinely global its impact is. The cables, apparently handed over to WikiLeaks by one or more sources within the U.S. government, come from U.S. diplomats stationed in practically every country of the world. The contents have triggered excited and sometimes angry coverage in countries ranging from Spain to South Korea, Argentina to Iran.

But one of the most intriguing questions thrown up by the fuss involves the extent to which these revelations will rebound upon the United States itself. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a case for the importance of confidential conversations in diplomacy, saying: "Every country, including the United States, must be able to have candid conversations about the people and nations with whom they deal. And every country, including the United States, must be able to have honest, private dialogue about issues of common concern."

Those sentiments are echoed by Thomas Pickering, an ex-diplomat who represented the United States as ambassador to Jordan, Russia, and the United Nations. Speaking to RFE/RL, Pickering says that's why he believes Washington's apparent vulnerability to leaks will damage the United States' credibility.

"My sense is that this badly undermines the credibility of the United States through its apparent inability to maintain secret what has been passed on to it in secret," Pickering says.

Criminal Probe Launched

Such views are based on straightforward assumptions about the need for confidentiality in matters of government. U.S. diplomats, the argument goes, will have a harder time conducting candid discussions if their foreign counterparts have to fear that their conversations will become public. And sources inside foreign governments, or who live in countries where the mere fact of their contacts with U.S. officials would immediately make them suspect, might opt out of sharing information with U.S. diplomats for fear that their identities might be revealed.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced on November 29 that the government was launching a criminal probe into the WikiLeaks website, saying that group's actions "put at risk our national security." Other officials held out the possibility that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could be charged under the terms of a 1917 law that forbids the publication of secret government documents.

Some experts do wonder, though, whether the claims of the damage inflicted upon U.S. diplomacy might be overdone.

Geoffrey Berridge, an emeritus professor of diplomatic history at Britain's Leicester University, says that the aftereffects of the WikiLeaks revelations are likely to be short-term -- "as long as the experience is not repeated." "What will inflict temporary damage on U.S. prestige is the fact it was stupid enough to allow such wide circulation of such material in the electronic age," he says.

Thomas Pickering: "Badly undermines the credibility of the United States"
In their responses to the leaks, U.S. officials have acknowledged that the current scandal is at least partly rooted in the government's own policies. Responding to criticisms after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, the government put measures into place that were designed to facilitate the sharing of information among different government agencies -- since the failure to do so was widely cited as one reason for failing to prevent the catastrophe. It was precisely the lowering of these firewalls between different government bodies that allowed the alleged source or sources of the leaks to access such a wide range of information from within the bureaucracy.

Danger Of 'Compartmentalization'

Now, say experts, the new danger could be a return to pre-9/11 "compartmentalization" and a crippling reluctance to reveal information among different branches of the government. The Department of Defense has already announced that it is implementing a series of measures designed to prevent comparable leaks in the future.

In some quarters, though, it's the damage to U.S. prestige by the scandal that looms largest. "Whoever leaked all those State Department documents to the WikiLeaks website is a traitor and should be executed or put in prison for life," said Bill O'Reilly, a well-known commentator on the private Fox News channel, who, in one of his broadcasts, called Assange a "sleazeball" who "is bent on damaging America. Since he's not a U.S. citizen, it's hard for U.S. authorities to move against him. But we can prosecute those who leak the documents to Assange." "America's Red Face" was the headline on the November 30 edition of the tabloid newspaper "The New York Post."

Needless to say, more radical advocates of freedom of speech contend that these worries are overblown, and they celebrate the exposure of government secrets as healthy testimony to the power of the Internet.

Heather Brooke, writing in the U.K. newspaper "The Guardian" (one of the news organizations that has cooperated with WikiLeaks in publicizing the documents), defends the release as a triumph of transparency. "Ironically, the U.S. State Department has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for technical innovation as a means of bringing democracy to places like Iran and China," she notes. "President Obama has urged repressive regimes to stop censoring the Internet, yet a bill before Congress would allow the attorney general to create a blacklist of websites. Is robust democracy only good when it's not at home?"

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "Every country must be able to have candid conversations about the people and nations with whom they deal."
Still, some wonder whether even the United States -- a society already awash in openness -- has to recognize limits to transparency. Berridge, the diplomatic historian, points out that publicizing the contents of official treaties -- a relatively recent practice that is now widely regarded as a standard of good international behavior -- shouldn't be confused with the principle of discretion required for negotiations, where both sides must thrash out their differences on the path to compromise.

An Inability To Deliver

If one measure of the Obama administration's effectiveness is its ability to make good on its promises, this scandal couldn't come at a worse time.

"The WikiLeaks fiasco crystallizes for Obama a new challenge: restoring the sense that the United States can effectively project its power," writes the newspaper "Politico." "The third tranche of documents from WikiLeaks caps a series of failures whose common theme isn't American arrogance or humility, imperial overreach, or defeatism but a more basic inability to deliver."

Pickering points out that the rest of the world depends -- to an extent other countries don't always fully acknowledge -- on that U.S. ability to deliver. "The U.S., of course, plays an inordinately important leadership role in the world because of its size, its economic and military strength," he says.

Right now, Washington is struggling to juggle the demands of two wars in Asia, to contain Iranian and North Korean nuclear aspirations, to find a way toward Middle East peace. Pickering wonders whether the WikiLeaks scandal won't throw a wrench into the works at just the wrong time.

"All these questions are in one way or another put in some jeopardy by this inability to project diplomacy and conduct diplomacy in the traditional way," he says.

As it continues to unfold, the WikiLeaks story will show whether he's right -- or not.

Christian Caryl is RFE/RL's chief Washington editor