On Sunday, whistle-blowing website Wikileaks began its third major release of documents this year. Although the first two had targeted subject matter — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — the latest (and largest) document dump covers virtually the entire gauntlet of topics that are critical to American national interests.
The leak consists of 251,287 United States embassy cables, ranging from unclassified to secret. The cables reveal a variety of surprising pieces of information, including China’s privately communicated stances on North Korea and Iran, American spats with Russia and Turkey, requests by Arab leaders for intensified U.S. pressure on Iran, and American diplomats’ opinions of world leaders, including Robert Mugabe and Moammar Gadhafi.
Both current and former American officials, most notably Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former president George W. Bush, have condemned the leak as damaging to American interests as well as international order and peace.
They are right to do so. Though not all of the documents have been made public, a cursory scan of them is enough to make clear that they have the potential to stoke tensions and start conflicts around the world. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange seems to believe that these risks are “worth it,” but what is unclear is what exactly he is trying to accomplish by making the cables public.
This wasn’t always the case with Wikileaks. The first two leaks, although roundly condemned by U.S. and other officials for risking the safety of our troops, at least had a clear purpose.
By revealing sometimes-gruesome details about conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Assange was attempting to galvanize opposition to the wars and perhaps help bring them to a close sooner. Although the merits of that decision can certainly be debated, at least it was backed by legitimate, logical reasoning. This is not the case with the decision to publish the diplomatic cables.
On its website, Wikileaks tries to explain its reason for releasing the cables by saying, “The cables show the extent of U.S. spying on its allies and the U.N.; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in ‘client states;’ backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for U.S. corporations; and the measures U.S. diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.
This document release reveals the contradictions between the U.S.’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors — and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what’s going on behind the scenes.”
If citizens want their governments to reflect their wishes — which presumably entails ensuring security and international stability, avoiding wars and creating economic growth — they must allow those governments to operate in some degree of secrecy. This is because the reality of international relations dictates that states take certain unsavory actions because they are the least bad option available.
All of the actions to which Assange objects — spying, tolerating corruption and human rights abuses, creating backroom deals — are sometimes necessary in order to avoid worse situations. It is unlikely that many Americans would object to spying in order to avoid war and minimize casualties if it does occur, maintaining a relationship with a corrupt dictator in order to avoid isolating his country’s people from the world or secretly agreeing to support Yemen’s president in his counterterrorism endeavors.
Moreover, even if one did object to these types of government actions, in reality it is futile to try preventing them in the future by publicizing the fact that they were taken in the past.
Governments are enormous, complex bureaucracies whose protocols are virtually impossible to change significantly even for their leaders, let alone a civilian armed with only limited information about isolated past incidents.
Any effort to markedly change the way states do business — including Assange’s — is doomed to fail. He did, however, succeed in damaging the United States’ attempt to guarantee its citizens safety, create prosperity and ensure international stability.
What is puzzling about this is that, given how obviously futile it is to try to create wholesale change in the international system by releasing a batch of diplomatic documents, Assange must have realized that he would potentially do more harm than good by doing so.
This leads to the conclusion that, unlike in the Iraqi and Afghan cases, Assange did not decide to leak the latest documents because of a deliberate anticipation of their effects.
Perhaps he has become so accustomed to his role as the world’s whistleblower that once he gained access to sensitive information he leaked it out of habit. Maybe he did it for attention, or maybe even out of malice.
Certainly, though, he did not do it out of wisdom.
Daniel Charnoff is a senior majoring in international relations (global business). His column, “Through the Static,” ran Wednesdays.