Plug the WikiLeaks

They've caused horrendous damage, but there is a way to stop them

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There is an infantry saying to the effect that your view of something depends on which trench you are standing in.

When it comes to WikiLeaks, I have worked at some length in both the U.S. diplomatic service and in journalism. I was a foreign service officer for 35 years, rising to ambassador to three countries and becoming thoroughly familiar with the confidential communications that WikiLeaks is passing out to the world by the hundreds of thousands. I went directly from that career to writing editorials and a column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade, which I have done for nine years now.

As a journalist I am an enthusiastic advocate of the argument that the American people should know as much as possible about what is done in their name by U.S. government representatives, and the thinking behind those actions. In that capacity I was quite happy to see WikiLeaks get internal U.S. government communications and pass them to news media in the name of transparency.

Some even argue that WikiLeaks is some kind of clean, honest broker and that it does not have an anti-American axe to grind. But I will be prepared to believe that when I see them dump half a million or so internal Chinese government communications on the market.

I don't flinch from the perception that a lot of people overseas hate the United States for its misbegotten, misguided, prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the stomping around it does in regard to countries such as Iran and Cuba. But spare me for now the claims that WikiLeakers are neutral. Pretty is as pretty does.

Another reason it is good to see WikiLeaks spill the beans, though, is because American officials have an unfortunate tendency to over-classify materials, thus generating tons of paper and electronic communications that have to be protected and devaluing the classification process. If Gen. David H. Petraeus's cook puts out a written menu every day, you can be sure it is classified.

On the other side of the fence, the damage that WikiLeaks has done is horrendous, inestimable and far from having an end in sight.

The damage is twofold. Foreign leaders who might have believed that the confidential views they expressed to American diplomats would go pretty much exclusively to senior U.S. leaders to aid their decision-making now face the possibility that what they say will end up accessible to everyone in the world, including -- most importantly to them -- to their own countries' populations. They talk to us on that basis. Or, they did, anyway.

Since I, as a State Department officer, couldn't offer cash for information, my argument to foreign leaders always was, it is to your advantage to talk with me so that Washington can get a private, candid version of your views, as opposed to simply speculating on what those views are. It worked (I think) with people like the presidents of Lebanon, Zaire/the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, armed militia leaders in Somalia and opposition leaders in Libya, South Africa, Bulgaria and elsewhere.

The other severe damage from WikiLeaks' leaks is that American ambassadors and other envoys will now think twice before providing to Washington candid assessments of issues and people, which strikes at the core of their duties overseas. State Department officers, like everyone else, are ambitious and conscious of how what they send to Washington will play there. They nonetheless also consider it their responsibility to provide Washington a valid range of options when a decision is approaching.

It is the nature of the beast that some of what they report is not ready for prime time. If their recommendations do not include "outside the box" thoughts and are instead tailored to what they think their lords and masters want to hear, they ought to quit. The WikiLeaks-revealed documents show that some of our ambassadors tell it like it is, swim against the tide and force Washington officials to think and defend their arguments.

Ambassadors now would have to be stupid not to take into account the possibility that what they say to Washington could end up in the hands of a private in Iraq, thence to WikiLeaks and the world.

The big loser if senior foreign officials stop confiding in American representatives and if American diplomats no longer give Washington their best, candid advice is the American people. They no longer would get quality for their dollar from the U.S. overseas presence. That is very bad.

Whose fault is it? It isn't WikiLeaks', or the private who appears to have substituted the cables for Lady Gaga songs on a CD. Here, as far as I can tell, is the genesis of the affair.

After 9/11 it was generally concluded that one reason the attack wasn't prevented was a lack of cross-government sharing of information. If the CIA had talked to the FBI, for example, the attackers might have been apprehended before they struck. So it was determined that a comprehensive government intelligence data base was needed. The only government department with the money to set it up was the Department of Defense. And it did. The problem is that the department includes a modest 3 million civilian and uniformed employees, possessing, like any group of people, varying degrees of good judgment.

Thus, the disaffected or bored private with access to reports of American conversations with the King of Saudi Arabia passed them along to WikiLeaks, which passed them along to the world, with what I consider to be catastrophic results.

The way to fix the problem is to re-compartmentalize the sharing of sensitive information as quickly as possible, tell foreign officials we have done so and then wait for time to pass and the need for world leaders to communicate frankly with American representatives to reassert itself.


Dan Simpson , a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor ( dsimpson@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1976).


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