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Secret Cables, the State Department, and the Danger of WikiLeaks

8:00 AM, Nov 29, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Once upon a time I was a member of the policy planning staff at the Department of State, and had a security clearance. It was so long ago that I cannot now recall the level of security my clearance allowed, but it was suitably low. Like most people under such circumstances, I was curious about what would be revealed when I opened my first envelope marked Top Secret: Would I learn that the Czech defense attaché was having a torrid affair with Mary McGrory, or that the Bolivian army was massing on the Peruvian border?

Secret Cables, the State Department, and the Danger of WikiLeaks

Of course, I quickly learned nothing of the sort. Departmental cables were classified largely because diplomats were expressing their opinions: The ambassador in Lagos thought that the Nigerian government would be overthrown, the economic counselor in Mexico City warned that the peso was overvalued. These assertions were not especially controversial in themselves—they might well have been the talk of Lagos and Mexico City—but it would have been embarrassing, provocative, even destructive, if it had become known that the United States government believed such things. That’s why they were classified.

This is not to say that security classification cannot, on occasion, be arbitrary and capricious: Everybody has heard the story about the Pentagon official who read an article in U.S. News & World Report and marked it Top Secret before circulating it among his colleagues. But in the wake of this latest document dump from WikiLeaks, it ought to be understood that security classification is not intended to hide facts from the public, or conceal wrongdoing, but to allow government officials—posted overseas, in the executive branch, on active service—to speak with candor. This applies to diplomats reporting from their posts or lawyers responding to an inquiry from the president.

The greatest danger of episodes like this is not the “damage” that might be done to foreign policy—which is minimal, since everybody knows that friendly governments gossip about one another, have occasional spats, and negotiate on many fronts—but to free and unfettered communication on matters of war and peace, life and death. If an ambassador or military officer knows that his honest answers to questions from superiors will soon be in the public domain, he will begin to furnish dishonest answers—or no answers at all. How any news organization can conclude that this is in the public interest is beyond me.

That is why it is important to regard the actions of people like Julian Assange of WikiLeaks and his informants as dangerous to our democracy. There is a cult of the “whistleblower” in the American media; but whistleblowers have motives, and their motives are often grounded in hostility to American policy, or the national interests of the United States. These are not people to be celebrated or indulged, but to be called to account for their crimes. 

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