WikiLeaks and the virtue of transparency

WikiLeaks’s release of American diplomatic cables “may put lives at risk”. The White House spokesman Robert Gibbs claims that the release may damage the “cause of human rights”. WikiLeaks’s actions are “reckless” and “dangerous”.

Sounds serious. But we’ve heard these claims before.

When each of the Afghan and Iraqi war logs were released earlier this year, US officials lined up to condemn the whistleblowing site in the strongest possible language. The Afghan documents, “put the lives of Americans at risk”, according to the US national security advisor. The Department of Defense said the Iraq files dump “could make our troops even more vulnerable to attack in the future”.

On Sunday night a Republican Senator from South Carolina wildly argued on Fox News that “The people at WikiLeaks could have blood on their hands.”

The operative word in that sentence is “could”.

Having lived with WikiLeaks’s release of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs for months now, Pentagon officials concede there is no evidence that a single person has lost their life as a result. Not one.

And when requested in the lead up to the latest release, the State Department refused to guide WikiLeaks as to which documents should be redacted to protect against “significant risk of harm”.

Instead they insisted the site delete all the documents and forget it ever happened – something the messianic and volatile WikiLeaks head Julian Assange was quite unlikely to do.

Crazy-brave, with all those lives at stake. But more likely just a bad bluff. Major government departments aren’t good at poker.

The passionate assertions that national security will be compromised, that lives will be lost, that the cause of human rights will be set back: shameless, unadulterated hyperbole, by a government not even sure what’s about to be released. Transparent attempts to dissuade WikiLeaks from revealing uncomfortable material.

To take a random example out of the 243 documents released so far, it mustn’t be nice to have it publicly known US diplomats think Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer is “unpredictable” and has only “shallow foreign policy expertise”.

The full diplomatic archive of a quarter of a million documents will be released in dribs and drabs over the coming months.

Some of what we’ve seen is little more than banal gossip. Nobody needed leaked diplomatic communication to realise, say, Dmitry Medvedev “plays Robin to Putin’s Batman” as one cable put it, although it’s great fun to see it in an official document. Or that Kim Jong-Il is a “flabby old man”. That Silvio Berlusconi is “vain” with a “penchant for partying hard”. It will shock the international community to learn Hamid Karzai is “extremely weak”.

One overwhelming impression from the cables which have been released: professional diplomats are unimpressed by the politicians they’re compelled to work with. If only we could see their pens turned against their US political masters.

Other cables are more important, but still only embellish what we know already.

For instance: the US government has been trying to convince other countries to resettle its Guantanamo Bay detainees for years. But thanks to WikiLeaks we now know how desperate those US negotiators sound: officials tried to convince Belgium accepting prisoners would be “a low-cost way for Belgium to attain prominence in Europe”.

This is not materially new information. But it is more revealing than the sterile reports we’re familiar with.

After all, it is one thing to know the world’s superpower is negotiating to resettle detainees. It’s quite another to learn that the superpower sounds like an anxious salesman as it tries to do so. Or like a shonky political party treasurer selling tables to a fundraiser: Slovenia was told resettling a detainee would earn Slovenian leaders an audience with Barack Obama.

These cables further underline how the original decision to set up Guantanamo Bay dropped the US into a complicated long-term legal bind from which it is still struggling to extricate itself. It’s not revelatory. But the desperation is very, very revealing.

So too is the deep mistrust within the Middle East towards Iran.

Arab leaders in the region endlessly crow about Israel, but in private it is Iran they worry about. The cables vividly show that the leadership of Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Oman and Bahrain are all deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear program. Saudi Arabia has been urging a US attack on Iran.

Analysts have been saying this for years, of course. But the unadorned cables make their points starkly and unambiguously.

Julian Assange is anti-war. But when the world reads the Egyptian president telling the US ambassador to only enter dialogue with Iran “so long as the [US] does not believe a word [the Iranians] say”, the case for dealing with Iran as soon as possible is strengthened, not weakened.

The documents are unlikely to damage America’s global reputation.

While foreign governments will kick up a fuss about what they read, they know how diplomacy works. They’re worried they could be the victims of the next WikiLeaks release.

Neither are they likely to be of great interest to foreign intelligence services. At a minimum, 3 million American soldiers and officials have access to the cables and the clearance to read them. That’s the security problem, not WikiLeaks. Let’s assume much of these cables have leaked before, just less publicly.

In the past, the US government itself made use of WikiLeaks to expose corruption and mismanagement in the United Nations. One of George Bush’s senior officials said in July, “Transparency and accountability in government and international institutions is a best practice and of great importance and WikiLeaks previously has been a force for good in the area.”

It must be harder to see the virtue of transparency when you’re the target.

Chris Berg is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs. Follow him