Last night while waiting for some friends to arrive for a long-overdue hangout, I checked in to the NY Times and ran headfirst into this article on the latest diplomatic dish from Wikileaks. As a brand-new HuffPo blogger I planned this morning to write my first post about sunshine, puppies & jelly-donuts -- the usual things I wake up thinking about on Mondays. But after reading what one witty reporter described as "TMZ for the Diplomatic set," I had to kick things off with a comment on the news of the day.
There is a difference between holding government accountable for its decisions and holding government officials hostage to their words. When I first heard about the latest impending Wiki leak last week, I couldn't help but wonder what was the purpose? I was impressed last Spring when I first saw their footage of the 2007 murder of a journalist & Iraqi civilians. I questioned the impact on U.S. informants and intelligence assets of their release of military documents on the Afghan War, and whether Wikileaks might be crossing an important line -- but I wasn't yet prepared to question their motives in doing so.
With this release I am questioning both the value and motives of WikiLeaks itself. Is there a genuine public good in publishing the internal communiques of diplomats and world leaders? Some of my friends argue a vigorous "yes." One posted on my Facebook page that we need to always keep government accountable. Another tweeted me that "exposing lies & hypocrisy is always a good thing."
But is that really what's happening here? Exposing the cover-up of civilian murders in Iraq is clearly important work. Publishing private emails of diplomats strikes me as... sort of petty. Mind you I'm sure there were "lies & hypocrisy" present in those cables. If we could go over the last 250,000 emails any of us sent I'd wager there would be plenty of both to go around. After all, what you tell your classmates about what you really think of that one professor, or the candid thoughts you share with a colleague about the intellectual "gifts" (or lack thereof) of a potential client may not always sound as sweet in the morning sun.
Yet that ability to both give and solicit candid assessments of people and circumstances is a prerequisite to doing the work of diplomacy. Most of us wouldn't speak the same way in front of our boss as we would with our best friend. When world leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chavez make brazen and inflammatory statements, we take umbrage not only at the content of their comments but with the accompanying and typically unnecessary bombast. The nature of diplomatic relations, is that they require a sensitivity in not only what is said, but in how it's said.
By breaching the privacy of diplomatic cables WikiLeaks has compromised the fundamental nature of what diplomats do -- they translate the feelings, passions, prejudices, inadequacies, ambitions and aspirations of real people in positions of power into language that at its best, prevents us from blowing each other up. The "diplomatic set" is arguably a big part of why we don't have more conflict in our world.
The saddest thing to me about this latest Wikileaks disclosure is that it diminishes the value of "whistle-blowing" itself. As I tweeted yesterday "you blow the whistle to spread the truth, not to hear the sound." By publishing these emails not only has Wikileaks compromised the privacy of state department officials and the trust within important diplomatic networks, it has also undermined its own credibility as a resource for people who have genuinely important information to share with the global community.
There is a distinction between truth tellers and high tech gossip-peddlers. Unfortunately it looks like this time Wikileaks has crossed that line too.