PARIS -- Like the season finale of a popular television show, the debate over the leaking of national intelligence has crescendoed into a free-for-all about government secrecy -- which, as the chorus goes, is typically a bad thing.
Somehow, in the rush to condemn wholesale government snooping and defend the citizens' right to privacy, there's a growing sense that it's O.K. for us to get a peek at government secrets -- because, well, they're probably covering something up, or not worth all the fuss, or both.
That, at least, has been a widely held view of the damage caused in 2010 by Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Pfc. Bradley Manning, who, after leaking documents about U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, dumped 1.6 gigabytes of U.S. State Department cable traffic -- or 251,287 diplomatic dispatches, collected from 250 embassies and consulates, dating from 2005 to 2010.
The motive? "Information should be free," the troubled young soldier told a fellow hacker via electronic chat, according to transcripts published in 2011. "It should be in the public domain."
The cables, distributed by WikiLeaks, were then published by major newspapers, including The New York Times, after details deemed damaging to national security or individuals were removed. In a breathless assessment by The Guardian, a British newspaper, the result was "an unprecedented picture of secret diplomacy as conducted by the planet's sole superpower."
Note the emphasis on "secret," suggesting something sinister. How about an exposé about doctors' "secret" consultations with their patients?
Some commentators criticized the harshness of the 35-year prison sentence handed down on Aug. 21 against Private Manning, dismissing the alleged damage caused by the exposure of the diplomatic cables in particular as speculative and ultimately inconsequential. Diplomats, U.S. and others, vehemently disagree. They regard the cables they send back to their governments as private -- yes, secret -- for very good reasons.
"It goes back to the whole point of what diplomats do," said one Western diplomat in a recent interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity, the usual rule for foreign ministries. "We need to be able to speak to people in the most honest way possible."
Those interlocutors can be top officials spelling out their governments' policies; they can be junior officials who -- at some risk to their jobs -- want to register a dissenting view; they can be human rights activists who have reason to fear retaliation from their authoritarian rulers; or they can be informed citizens eager for a no-holds-barred discussion about the mood in their country.
Whoever they are, the diplomat said, these people need to be reassured that their information, analyses or comments will be treated with discretion, particularly when meant to be passed on to decision makers in foreign capitals. Without that kind of discretion -- yes, secrecy -- there can be no trust, he said.
"We are entrusted by our governments to be discreet, not to divulge our sources, to stay informed, for the sake of the security of our countries," said the diplomat. "We are not out there with poison-tipped umbrellas."
Assessing the damage caused by Private Manning and WikiLeaks is hard to do, said Patrick F. Kennedy, the U.S. under secretary of state for management, in testimony at the Manning trial. "It is impossible to know when someone is not sharing information with you."
There have been reported cases of people -- generals in Zimbabwe, a journalist in Ethiopia, for instance -- who have been targeted because of the exposed cables. Contacts in tricky places have become warier, the diplomat said. The fact that newspapers like The New York Times or The Guardian did their best to shield the names of informants is hardly comforting.
"There was a big dump of raw data," said the diplomat. "I can't imagine that certain governments restricted themselves to just reading The New York Times version."
This summer, the Manning case was conflated with the continued pursuit of Edward J. Snowden, wanted by the U.S. government for leaking documents about government surveillance.
The stories are different, but both are essentially about secrets -- when governments are entitled to keep theirs, and when they should be allowed access to ours.
No one disputes the need for whistle-blowers who expose government wrongdoing, abuse or cover-ups. Some of the documents leaked by Private Manning and WikiLeaks about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan revealed important information about innocent deaths, prisoner abuse and civilian death tolls.
But those revelations were needles in the haystack, to borrow the words of U.S. intelligence officials describing why the National Security Agency needs to stock massive amounts of data in order to extract needed intelligence.
Leaked secrets are typically raw and not necessarily true, which often leaves the crucial job of verification and corroboration to journalists. By themselves, indiscriminate data dumps don't always advance the public right to know. That's why some critics have challenged whether today's wholesale leakers can actually be called whistle-blowers.
When Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, he wanted to expose the lies behind a specific policy. Private Manning, who seems to have had little knowledge of the content of the U.S. State Department cables, had a different objective.
During online chats with Adrian Lamo, the fellow hacker who turned her in, Private Manning was both boastful and anxious about the "beautiful and horrifying" havoc that was about to be unleashed.
"It affects everybody on earth," Private Manning said. "Everywhere there's a U.S. post ... there's a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed. It's open diplomacy ... worldwide anarchy in CSV format."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.