Wikileaks and the cables: what changes, what doesn’t

The release of a quarter of a million American diplomatic cables has generated some fascinating discussions about diplomacy, government, truth and journalism. The ones about journalism have been some of the least important.

That’s because the three Wikileaks releases of huge document caches (Afghanistan and Iraqi warlogs and diplomatic cables) are essentially about a new form of contest between computer hackers and government, in this case the American government. News media are bystanders to the main event. That’s by way of explaining that the questions, anwers and links below here are only partly about journalism.

1. Do the cables change geopolitics? It’s hard to see that any international configuration or balance of power is significantly altered by what has been revealed. Or likely to be.

2. Do they change anything? Definitely. American diplomacy on the ground gets harder, at least for a few months. (See this delightful post on the “Tobermory Effect” from the fine Crooked Timber blog). I drew attention the other day to Marc Lynch’s insight on the longer-term political effect of this in the less democratic regimes of the Middle East. The pendulum effect will now be visible in information-sharing policy inside the US government. The fiascos of failures to share intelligence information in advance of 9/11 probably contributed to more data being available lower down in the system. That might well now reverse (£). If the Wikileaks release pushes the US and other governments to reconsider how they classify documents, that would be a good outcome. The biggest beneficiaries of all are historians, who gain most from being able to use a written record to check against competing versions of the truth.

3. Was the leak wrong? No – and the newspapers which helped to sift and distribute the information were right to do so. On the hygienic effects of disclosure see here.  A crucial distinction between a democracy and an autocracy is that the democracy will allow a reasoned debate under the law over how much damage can be done to a government by embarassing or unwelcome information. This is very well summarised here by the Pentagon Papers veteran Max Frankel quoting the pivotal opinion of a US Supreme Court judge, Justice Potter, who distinguished between something which might be against the national interest and direct, immediate and irreparable harm to the nation.

4. Will this happen more and more? It may do, but don’t hold your breath. In general, more large releases of government data (authorised and unauthorised) are certain and journalism will have to adapt methods used to research the data and ways of presenting it. How many more leaks like this can be expected from the US government is much harder to predict. The alleged leaker has been arrested. The stable door will now be slammed shut and governments will get more sophisticated with new media.  The old-fashioned business of trying to find out what the government has been up to (a.k.a. “journalism”) will have to go on.

5. Will governance change? Yes. Digital communications taken as a whole (internet, email, mobile) are a fundamental change to how we connect and how we know things. Changes that big take time to work through. Governments, consisting as they do of human beings, are like the rest of us in that they are only slowly grasping the scale of what’s happening. (See here and here (£)). The relative ease of copying, replicating and transmitting information is having radical effects on its availability and on the stock of human knowledge. Gradually governments and individuals will have to adjust to a world not of total transparency and openess but to a greater degree of it. That change will be deplored and resisted by many, but it won’t be reversible.

Update 4/12/10: Good wide-angle commentary on the leaks from Paul Kennedy (The Times/£) and Harry Evans (FT).

This blog now goes off the grid for two weeks. Back around December 20th.

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1 comment

  1. I tend to side with the Daily Beast. Aside from the salacious and trivial personal comments about individuals, the leaks showed what an honest, stand-up country the US really is…trying its best to solve serious world problems in a complex world but lacking the individual power to do so and supposed allies lacking the foresight and courage to stand-up and say what they really believe and act on it while expecting the US to do their dirty work for them. This does not make me ashamed of America. It makes me very proud and sad that a lot of that honest effort will be sidlined while these Wiki-clowns celebrate that they have only made this a more dangerous world. I don’t believe they are adding anything positive to the conversation. Their actions lead me to believe they are essentially anarchists who want nothing but chaos in the world for a purpose only they understand.