The latest WikiLeaks document dump by five Western newspapers — this time, victimizing the State Department — will start some uncomfortable conversations among America’s friends. It will also force further evaluation about how we handle our internal business.
The editors at the New York Times and The Guardian make strong arguments about the public’s right to know and the fact that it’s up to governments, not journalists, to safeguard national security secrets. And they’re right. But it’s easier said than done in an age when tens of thousands of pages of documents can be downloaded and transmitted in seconds and mirrored on servers all around the globe in a matter of hours.
Diplomacy Requires Secrecy
UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman observes that "The notion that governments should have no secrets sounds attractive until you run the game back one step: if there can’t be any secrets, then you can’t write down anything you don’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times. " He adds, "The choice is not between a world with secrets and a world in which all the citizens know whatever the government knows. The choice is between a world in which officials can share information and carry out reasoned debates with one another and a world in which nothing can be written down. Really, that’s a not a hard choice."
While much of the reaction in the blogosphere and professional punditry circles is how few real surprises have come from these leaks and the two previous dumps, that rather misses the point. It’s true that we already "know" that Putin’s Russia is less than democratic, that Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy are thought by many of their peers to be pompous jerks, that Hamid Karzai is a loose cannon, the Pakistanis were playing a double game, and that most Arab leaders would welcome Israel or the United States wiping Iran’s nuclear program off the map. But plausible deniability is a crucial aspect of international politics.
My colleague Damon Wilson, who served as Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council prior to taking over the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council, puts it starkly: "Our friends and allies count on us to be able to keep secrets. The truth is that many of our friends take tremendous risks for us. In fact, there are times when leaks about a partner’s cooperation with the U.S. government could literally lead to the downfall of a government. We have a solemn obligation to protect friends who help us. This massive leak undermines the trust and confidence required when our governments must tackle the trickiest of issues."
John Burgess, a retired American foreign service officer, notes, too, that "What a country’s leader or a minister may say in private is often at odds with his public pronouncements. Sometimes this is simple hypocrisy; often, it is that official sounding-out policy options." In addition to throwing a wrench in complicated negotiations, the publication of these secrets may have other effects. Not only will careers be needlessly ruined ("a whole lot of US Foreign Service Officers will find themselves personal non grata") but, more importantly, "frankness is going to take a serious hit, with foreign officials just choosing not to talk to the US with any level of candor. That’s a serious blow to international diplomacy."
John Kornblum, who served as US ambassador to Berlin from 1997 to 2001, takes a more benign view. He tells Spiegel that "Their release could damage important cooperation among governments or in some countries endanger dissidents who have put their trust in the United States." Still, he believes, "After the initial excitement has passed, things will slowly get back to normal. I doubt that there will be many lasting changes to the American role in the world. Other governments will at first be cautious about sharing too much information with the United States. But perhaps reading the released telegrams will also help us all better to understand how difficult and frustrating diplomacy can be, why secrecy is necessary."
Electronic Secret: A Contradiction in Terms
My gut tells me that Burgess is right. Yes, other countries have powerful incentives to deal with the world’s sole remaining superpower. And, certainly, professional diplomats will be able to put aside hurt feelings. The issue isn’t so much pique over these leaks but the chilling effect of leaks to come.
London School of Economics political scientist Chris Brown believes allied governments will be understanding of the policy revelations and privately expressed insults being revealed but "what they will find unforgivable is the fact that the US Government did not protect their own diplomatic correspondence adequately."
Rob Dover of King’s College notes that this is a case of the system not yet having caught up with the reality. "In the good old days, someone nicking 2 millions files would have needed a couple of lorries, and would – therefore – not have made it out of the vault. Now [a rogue operative] can download them onto a memory stick." (It should be noted that both the State and Defense Departments — and one would presume other government agencies — have long since banned thumb drives and similar devices, so that avenue has been closed.)
One natural consequence, then, will to move away from committing sensitive information to digital form. The Guardian‘s Simon Jenkins contends that "No organization can treat digitized communication as confidential. An electronic secret is a contradiction in terms." Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress guesses that, just as secrecy-conscious government officials now eschew emails, we’ll see a return to telephone and face-to-face communication between diplomatic personnel in order to avoid a paper trail.
The upshot of that, though, is ultimately less transparency than the pre-WikiLeaks system. Not only was information gradually declassified and secrets made public under the old rules, but genuine whistle blowers had a means of documenting real abuses.
A Return to Stovepipes
In addition to keeping more secrets off of paper, whether of the traditional or digital variety, another likely policy response to WikiLeaks will be the return of pre-9/11 stovepiping. The fact that so many people have access to so much information — most of it raw and unvetted by experienced hands — never sat well with those charged with keeping secrecy. Security professionals naturally want to keep information as compartmentalized as possible for obvious reasons: The fewer people who know a secret, the more likely it will be kept.
The 9/11 attacks shined a spotlight on the obverse: The fewer people who know information, the harder it is to connect the dots. In the ensuing years, policies were enacted to make sharing information, not only within one’s agency but with other agencies and departments of government, the default position.
My colleague Ross Wilson, formerly US Ambassador to Turkey and now director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, argues that it’s time to move back in the other direction. While it makes sense for managers to have access to verified intelligence pertinent to their work, letting every junior enlisted solider who can pass a routine background check have access to every scrap of information collected poses far more risk than reward.
Clearly, some return to sanity is required. The Information Age requires a degree of speed and flexibility far greater than the days when young lieutenants had to transport SECRET documents around in a briefcase handcuffed to their wrists. But, despite what the movies would have you believe, a security clearance is not supposed to be a library card whereby anyone who possesses one can check out anything they feel like reading. There needs to be a Need To Know connected to projects the person is working on. And some human and electronic supervision that causes red flags to be raised when someone accesses thousands of documents in a single day.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.