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Deadly Gossip

The culture of leaking grows to ominous proportions.

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By LEE SMITH
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Former U.S. government officials are divided over how long the damage will last. “All of the [governments] will say that WikiLeaks is not important,” says Ambassador Eric Edelman, envoy to Turkey in 2003-05. “They will put it behind them for a simple reason that they would be loath to admit, which is that we are still the world’s remaining superpower, and they will work with us.” Individuals, though, says Edelman, will probably not soon forget. “It is hard to imagine any senior government official anywhere in the world, human rights activist, private citizen, military officer, academic, or anyone else who might be a well-informed source having any faith that a confidential discussion they have won’t be showing up in the New York Times within a few months.”

If there is any upside to what Edelman calls a dark day for American statesmanship, it’s that the cables show Foreign Service officers for the most part to be honest, buoyant, and clear-eyed observers of the Middle East. It is peculiar then that rather than commend U.S. diplomats for doing their jobs, the president and his secretary of state have extended their apologies to world leaders, including Turkey’s. After Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to “crush” the American diplomats who dared to raise critical issues, the administration was silent. 

That American diplomats in the Middle East relay their findings back to Washington faithfully and accurately may come as a surprise to those who primarily think of the State Department as a pro-Arab government bureaucracy famous for its ambivalence toward Israel. But regardless of State’s political inclinations, good accurate reports are Foggy Bottom’s meat and potatoes, says Elliott Abrams, who worked at State during the Reagan administration. “One of the things you learn at the State Department is reporting,” says Abrams. “It is absolutely essential, probably the single skill that is most rigorously taught there.”

However, one former official in the George W. Bush White House who requested anonymity maintains that much of the State Department’s reporting is considerably less accurate than what has been released to date. “We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg of some 200,000 cables,” he explains. Some are likely to show a different side of the Foreign Service, one that uses the information it controls to win Washington policy fights. “Journalists will elicit quotes from sources to get the story they want,” says the former official. “And some Foreign Service officers do the same thing, with the difference being that with journalism there is a certain limit to how far you can play with reality. That problem is multiplied many times with classified documents.”

The WikiLeaks episode then might best be understood in a broader context, encompassing the media as well as a foreign policy establishment in which leaking has become an accepted, even encouraged, method of arguing one’s case. Leaking by the foreign policy bureaucracies to undermine Bush administration policy was epidemic over the course of his two terms. During that time, leaking to the national press became commonplace, and because so many had a stake in fighting Bush—from his own secretary of state to the New York Times—it offended the sensibilities of very few. Indeed, after Bush’s reelection in 2004, W. Patrick Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official said of the CIA, “Of course they were leaking. They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They’d say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won’t reelect this man.’ ”

The WikiLeaks dump is ultimately more than an escalation of this trend, however. The massive size and indiscriminateness of the cable dump bespeaks not a fight over a specific policy, but a shapeless outpouring of anti-American animus. It is no use trying to understand Assange or Manning’s exact motives, just as attempts to interpret Osama bin Laden’s precise goals on 9/11 seldom repay the effort. What they have done is an act of cyberterrorism that will aid those waging war against U.S. citizens, interests, and allies. If the Obama administration has failed to respond commensurately, it is only partly because the president and his attorney general are still trying to convince themselves, and the American public, that our wars should be left largely to the police and civilian trials. It is also because for too long now our press corps and policymakers have collaborated in a naïve and foolish game that, as we have seen, and will unfortunately continue to see, gets people killed, including American citizens. Our allies in the Middle East will only be the first to pay the price.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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