Why The Wikileaks Incident Matters

I haven’t read all of the cables and reports that were part of the Wikileaks disclosures — has anyone? — but I don’t think you need to do so to recognize that the disclosures could easily have a devastating impact on the United States and its interests and actions abroad.

Secrecy and discretion are crucial to successful diplomacy.  The United States is a global citizen that has relations with virtually every country in the world, and it needs to have candid and accurate information on which to define and structure those relations.  It’s much easier to negotiate if you know what the other side is really after, and it’s impossible to negotiate if the other side knows your cards.  Furthermore, once confidentiality is breached and confidential sources are revealed it is extraordinarily difficult to rebuild the trust needed to get candid information.  Reporters understand this.  They will go to jail before revealing information about confidential sources because they know that if they disclose a source’s identity they probably won’t have any more confidential sources.

Thanks to the Wikileaks disclosures, the foreign sources who previously provided us with frank assessments of their leaders on promise of confidentiality are not likely to be so frank going forward, if they even talk to us at all.  As a result, in the future the United States probably will be acting on less information than it has had in the past — and in the world of diplomacy, knowledge is power.

Although a lot of attention has been focused on Julian Assange, the creepy Wikileaks founder, I think the real focus should be on how so many confidential diplomatic cables have been compromised.  The United States can’t control the actions of wild cards like Assange, but it can control who gets access to secret communications and therefore is in a position to leak them.  If, as some suspect, a low-level employee is responsible for most or all of the latest leaks, that indicates that the system needs to be radically changed.  Although 9/11 taught us that a free exchange of information among government agencies may be essential to connecting the dots and foiling terrorist plots, that does not mean that every flunky with access to a secure system should be able to read and download every cable being sent using that system.

The State Department security people dropped the ball in this instance, and their failure poses an additional danger.  The Wikileaks incident makes our security seem inept, ineptitude suggests weakness, and weakness invites attack.