When it make public the trove of more than 250,000 US State Department documents, an event that quickly became known as ‘Cablegate,’ WikiLeaks jumped the shark. It went from being a potentially important tool to being an organization that seems to have publicity and anti-Americanism at its primary goals.
When I first heard about the site, I thought its mission sounded useful: to help surface information that exposes corruption, coverups, and rank hypocrisy in high places, and to allow people to electronically drop off such information privately. WikiLeaks seemed well positioned to help with what Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority in the Pentagon Papers case, called a paramount duty of a free press: “to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.”
But Cablegate doesn’t assist in that duty. It just airs lots of US State Department communications that were intended to be private for good reason, and that should be kept private for good reason.
Ambassadors and other diplomats, even if they’re not spies, have long been sending back to their capitals frank assessments of the situation in the country of their posting. The military’s support for the president is wavering. The foreign minister is a drunk. Corruption is rampant, and goes to the top. The prime minister thinks the crown prince is a bit of a dim bulb. The winner of the recent election has only a weak commitment to democracy. The king thinks his neighbor and coreligionist is dangerous and destabilizing. They’re willing to work with us, if we can figure out how.
And capitals have long been asking their diplomats to gather and pass on information. How strong is the governing coalition? Who is this new president? Do her latest public pronouncement really reflect her beliefs and intentions? How sick is the dictator, and who will succeed him when he dies? How influential are the religious leaders, and where are their allegiances?
Some of this is not pretty. Bismarck said that “laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made.” Well, statecraft is exactly like lawmaking in this respect. And we need statecraft just about as much as we need laws.
What we don’t need is a webcam constantly trained on the sausage factory of statecraft. Only a child or a fool would think that we’ll get better outcomes, or improve our standing in the world, if we have no private diplomatic conversations. Instead, we’ll get embarrassed and angry allies, fewer frank conversations, and less reliable information about the state of the world. “Information wants to be free” has become a silly phrase; “All information needs to be free” is a stupid one.
As I read what’s come out of Cablegate so far, I see nothing that rises to the level of the My Lai massacre, the Pentagon Papers, Iran-Contra (all of which came to light in the pre-Web era). I also see nothing that deeply surprises me or makes me ashamed of my country. I just see the routine private business of American statecraft exposed for the world to see. This makes for some great headlines and draws more attention to WikiLeaks, but I can’t see what compelling public interest is being served here. And I find it interesting that the site hasn’t yet put up any other country’s diplomatic cables for the world to peruse. I wonder why not…
So I applaud Amazon for denying WikiLeaks the use of its cloud services to continue its activities. I’m a huge fan of our first amendment, but I (and the courts) don’t believe that it compels a private company to use its resources to support the speech of all comers. Amazon has every right to tell WikiLeaks to take its business elsewhere, and I’m glad to learn that’s what’s happened.
What do you think? Am I missing some important aspect of Cablegate, some aspect that justifies the release to the world of this particular batch of information? And did Amazon do the right thing here? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.