Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices

Entry archive:

Andrew Steele

WikiLeaks is gossip, not whistleblowing Add to ...

Exposing purposeful deceit is critical in a democracy. The legislature and the citizen must be able to make decisions based on reality, not a version manufactured by the executive.

Past exposures of cover-ups freed us from conspiracy, some of it criminal.

The Pentagon Papers was a leak of critical secret information that proved the Johnson administration had knowingly falsified information to engineer support in Congress for a ramped-up war in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg was prosecuted and unfairly targeted for his actions.

FBI agent Mark Felt revealed the Nixon administration’s systematic involvement in the Watergate break-ins and the resulting cover-up. He kept his identity secret, posing as the secret source Deep Throat and avoided the persecution Ellsberg faced.

In many cases, systems are set up to protect these whistleblowers in making their disclosures, and prevent Ellsberg-style recriminations. For instance, here is the system in the U.S. Defence Department.

And here is the “ disclosure of wrongdoing” process in the Ontario government.

It is moral and just to release information that blows the whistle on wrongdoing that jeopardizes lives or subverts democracy.

However, the latest WikiLeaks release is not protecting the public interest. This is not proof that the government is conspiring to mislead Congress. It shows no evidence that this secrecy puts lives at risk.

In fact, the release may jeopardize lives and certainly undermines Western diplomatic intelligence-gathering, with no real gain in understanding of the world. In short, it fails to meet any of the basic tests of whistleblowing.

It is gossip-mongering of the kind seen on TMZ or Perez Hilton, except about government figures instead of celebrities. It is the equivalent of photographing a private wedding from a helicopter, and selling the results to People.

As David Weigel notes on Slate, “so far I am seeing lots of snigger-worthy diplomatic talk that the authors would not use in public, but nothing that reveals official lying or information that was concealed before last night.”

Instead, we learn that Prince Andrew has private opinions about certain law-enforcement agencies.

We learn that South Korea considers the Chinese reaction to hypothetical Korean unification.

We learn that Russian Prime Minister Vladamir Putin and Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi are both vain and power-hungry, and may be co-ordinating to form an “ axis of jerks.”

In other words, not a lot of news. Just a lot of gossip.

The unguarded opinions of diplomats are interesting and occasionally hilarious, but the release is not whistleblowing.

It’s the opposite.

It is leaking for the sake of leaking. It is being done out of an ideological belief that all government secrets are always bad. And it demonstrates exactly the reason why we have secret documents.

Diplomats and other experts must be free to speak truth to power and give their true advice on the world.

If experts believe their opinion will be released and open to public airing, those opinions will be pinched, limited or even kept silent. We as citizens lose the expertise of people in a position to call it like they see it. Instead, we can fall victim to groupthink and rose-coloured glasses.

And that is a dangerous place that can lead to lost opportunity, declining influence and even war.

Obviously, there are the additional obvious risks to diplomatic sources.

I can imagine a lot of sources suddenly got amnesia this morning, especially those who are valuable because they actually know what is going on from a unique perspective.

The WikiLeaks argument of negotiating the terms of redaction are absurd: “Tell us who is especially vulnerable, because we have really demonstrated our trustworthiness so far.”

Ask yourself how you would feel if someone called and said, “I found your wallet and I’ll send it back if you give me your PIN number first.”

But those risks are relatively minor, compared to the impact on geo-politics.

Today, national leaders of other countries will provide less information to Americans and the West generally, fearing it will become public.

Take Saudi Arabian, United Arab Emirate and Egyptian opinion that Iran's President is " another Hitler." These leaders will face abrogation not only from Iran but from some within their own country over siding with Israel against another Muslim country.

If the criticism becomes strong enough within government and power structures, they could have to alter their positioning publicly and privately to compensate, making concessions to Iran to demonstrate solidarity.

And that is bad for the world.

It weakens the prestige and attraction of the very democratic institutions Mr. Assange claims to be supporting, at just the time when another model of state-operating is becoming fashionable.

The offers national leaders all the growth and economic vibrancy of the West, without that pesky democracy and human-rights stuff. Oh, and without the possibility of your diplomatic cables becoming public.

The truth can set you free. But not in the cases where discretion and secrecy actually keeps us safe and allows the experts to do their jobs well.

I applaud whistleblowers for the risks they take and the impact their actions have. Mr. Ellsberg and Mr. Felt – among the legion of others – should be heroes.

But WikiLeaks is not whistleblowing. It is the opposite.

Thanks to WikiLeaks, the diplomatic world is slightly less safe and considerably less frank. That impacts us all.

Report Typo/Error
 

Next story

loading

Trending

loading

Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular