The public has a legitimate interest in knowing the lengths to which the U.S. government went to relocate its Guantanamo Bay detainees, and perhaps a salacious interest in the news that Moammar Gadhafi keeps company with a blonde from Ukraine. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is overreacting when she says that the latest WikiLeaks revelations are an "attack on America's foreign policy interests and … the international community." That said, if governments cannot assure diplomats of the security of their communications, poorer decision-making, and, paradoxically, more secrecy may result.
Disclosure of written government secrets can still be a very good thing, especially when it shows a government privately at odds with its public utterances. It is the obligation of journalists to report on and interpret such information.
These leaks, however, are of a different character. They are not primarily military in nature, nor are they the cries of whistleblowers or carefully constructed paper trails (such as the one put together by the Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin in his attempts to contest the treatment of Afghan prisoners). Rather, they are diplomatic cables - the lifeblood of a government's foreign policy.
The latest disclosure is a direct consequence of a necessary centralization of information. After the Sept. 11 attacks, for which there were plenty of dispersed warning signs within government but no single warning, diplomatic cables were centralized in the SIPRNet system, to which hundreds of thousands of American officials have access.
With such an unprecedented breach, government officials may prefer to hide their views, or to pick up the phone to communicate. But without frank, written disclosure by juniors to their superiors, governments cannot synthesize information and make the good decisions that are integral to its strategy and statecraft. In a recent speech, a senior Bush administration official provided perhaps the best takeaway lesson for governments: "The great danger, frankly, is overreacting to the leak."
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