SINGAPORE – The latest information dump from WikiLeaks offers fascinating insights into the workings of the US State Department that will keep foreign policy wonks and conspiracy theorists busy for months. Much of what has been reported is not “news” in the traditional sense, of course, but a series of embarrassing gaffes: truths that were never meant to be said aloud.
Underlying these various, and often banal, tidbits of information – it should be no surprise that Americans found Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi “vain,” or regarded Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as a “crazy old man” – is the larger question of whether governments should be able to keep secrets.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange argues that the answer is no, and that greater transparency “creates a better society for all people.” This raises the question of why governments keep secrets at all, and whether those reasons are justified.
The task of keeping a state’s secrets frequently falls to its intelligence services, which tend to focus on the protection of three types of information.
The first type is their own sources and methods, which need to be safeguarded if they are to remain effective when gathering data. When the Washington Times reported in 1998 that the National Security Agency was able to monitor Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone, for example, he stopped using it.
Second, the identities and activities of a service’s operational staff should be withheld, so that they can do their jobs and to ensure their safety. Following WikiLeaks’ release in July of tens of thousands of documents on the Afghan war, a Taliban spokesman told British journalists that the group was “studying the report” with a view to identifying and punishing anyone found to have collaborated with US forces.
Third, information provided in confidence by foreign governments or intelligence services must be closely held to avoid embarrassing the provider of the information and thereby reducing the likelihood that information will be shared in future. A lasting consequence of the most recent leak is circumspection when sharing intelligence with the United States.
In reality, of course, governments typically attempt to keep much more than this secret. Avoiding embarrassment may at times be in the national interest, but it can also protect the careers of politicians and bureaucrats. In other circumstances, it may be prudent to avoid revealing how much – or how little – is known about a given situation.
WikiLeaks sees itself as part of the tradition in which the media hold governments accountable for abuse. The role of the Fourth Estate was particularly important during the administration of President George W Bush. Revelations of torture, extraordinary rendition, and warrantless electronic surveillance all depended on investigative journalism of a kind that is now threatened by budget cuts and the media’s relentless focus on whatever is current – often at the expense of what is genuinely newsworthy.
But, whereas true investigative journalism depends on quality, WikiLeaks distinguishes itself by quantity. The sheer volume of the data being dumped on the Internet makes it impossible for thorough analysis or, indeed, for thorough examination of potentially damaging information.
The threshold for exposure is no longer wrongdoing of the scale that coined the term “Watergate” and all the subsequent “-gates.” Instead, government officials are being warned that every document may potentially be leaked and published worldwide by a disgruntled junior officer.
The consequence is unlikely to be transparency. Perversely, it will lead to greater secrecy. The message that is almost certainly going through every major power is: be careful what you commit to writing.
In place of candid assessments and provocative analysis, many important decisions will now be based on oral briefings and meetings that are not recorded in minutes. Decision-makers will be wary of openness even with their closest staff.
These changes are likely to outlast US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s embarrassment. Such self-censorship will lead to worse decisions and less accountability for the decisions that are made. It seems a high price to pay for gossip.
Simon Chesterman is Vice Dean and Professor of Law at the National University of Singapore, and Global Professor and Director of the New York University School of Law Singapore Programme.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2010.