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Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010


Governments shouldn't overreact

Controversy surrounding WikiLeaks focuses on three issues: the motives and behavior of Mr. Julian Assange, the man behind the website; the damage done to U.S. diplomatic interests and the embarrassment to foreign leaders; and the prospects for securing information in a wired world. A close examination suggests that the real threat posed by WikiLeaks is not what it does, but what governments may do in reaction to it.

WikiLeaks was launched in 2006 as a website devoted to "exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East" and "unethical behavior" by governments and corporations. Within a year, over 1 million documents were uploaded to it for publication. It did not make headlines, however: In December 2009, the website temporarily shut down because of a lack of funds. Three months later, it resumed operations saying its minimum fundraising goal had been reached.

WikiLeaks gained worldwide attention in April 2010 when it posted classified video of a 2007 U.S. military helicopter airstrike in Baghdad in which journalists and civilians were killed. Three months later, the release of 92,000 documents related to the U.S. war in Afghanistan from 2004-2009 generated more controversy. The latest document dump consists of over 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables and has provided fodder for offense and fascination for almost every nation and its leaders.

There are reports that the U.S. is worried about who can gain access to nuclear materials in Pakistan and that most Arab nations can rival Israel when it comes to suspicions of Iran.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are close friends and confidants. Al-Qaida still gets considerable support from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. has pressed China to do more to cut off North Korea's weapons trade, to cull some headlines from the mass.

Nearly 5,700 documents were exchanged between the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and Washington. One cable identifies vulnerable locations that could affect national security, such as ports in Japan or landing points for submarine cables. Another notes that Mr. Yukiya Amano, the current director general of the International Atomic Energy Association, assured the U.S. that he would always take Washington's side on key decisions, from high-level appointments to dealing with Iran. Another details the U.S. push to get Japan to lift its ban on arms exports.

There is little in the cables that anyone who pays attention to the news would not have already known or suspected. (In the last two dumps, WikiLeaks has worked with major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel, to try to ensure that information that might harm individuals has been redacted.) The facts may be embarrassing — the leader of Yemen telling Gen. David Petraeus that the former lies to the world about who is responsible for the missile strikes against terrorists on his soil — but that big story is no secret.

The leaks add sizzle to or confirm what has already been in the headlines. They do not add much to our understanding of the news. They are diplomatic reports from the field and provide no insight into how foreign policy is made. They do show that the U.S. has perceptive and energetic diplomats, working hard to deal with international problems. There is no indication of deception — unlike the Pentagon Papers, to which the leaks have been (wrongly) compared.

There will be repercussions, of course. Diplomats will have to be transferred as their views and assessments will be plain to the people they talked to and relationships will be damaged. Those diplomats may be more reluctant to put details in future cables for precisely that reason. But the business of diplomacy will continue and governments will continue to work together to deal with international problems. They have no choice.

The real danger is overreacting to the leaks. The rationale behind WikiLeaks is salutary: Sunshine is the best disinfectant. As The New York Times explained in an editorial accompanying the latest batch of documents, publication of "the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy."

Bureaucracies exist to control information. Sometimes real secrets are involved; in many cases, classification is designed to avoid embarrassment. As was made clear by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, compartmentalization can undermine security as much as protect it. A U.S. Army private is suspected of providing the files to WikiLeaks, his access made possible by a government network designed to facilitate information sharing among agencies in the aftermath of those attacks. (More than half a million people use that system.) He had been arrested and held for the earlier document release.

The U.S. has laws to punish leakers, but going after organizations that publish such information would be a dangerous step that could limit the public's right to be informed, the foundation of democracy. Leaks are inevitable.

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