What's More Transparent, TSA's Scanners or WikiLeaks?

"We are transparency activists," says WikiLeaks' elegantly rumpled Julian Assange.

Except about the still-mysterious WikiLeaks, and perhaps the social personality quirks of its leader, who may or may not be the Silvio Berlusconi of whistle-blowing.

Reading the copious WikiLeaks press, I get the sense that lots of people are willing to disbelieve claims that Assange is a sexual criminal but yet have primal trust in his role as avenging angel of public policy. At the very least, Assange seems an absolutist about transparency, though not every fact or cable or piece of low-minded conversation has the same value to society.

I'm reluctant to cast double standard stones. Journalists love transparency. For everyone else. We often hate it when it comes to our own craft, our sources, whose obscurity we'll go to jail to protect, and ourselves.

Just try substituting "classified" with "private" or "top secret" with "off-the-record" and watch reporters get edgy about openness.

But while information generally may want to be free, not everything a soldier lip-syncing Lady Gaga can cart away on computer disc is worthy of freedom. "Just because it's a secret doesn't make it nefarious," says Jon Stewart, our national news icon and twisted, contemporary Walter Cronkite.

When WikiLeaks released video of a helicopter gunship obliterating some Iraqis in the street last April, I was an unadulterated fan, posting this:

"I am sure of one thing: tragedy aside, this is all good for us in the bigger sense, starting with the video release. Transparency is the victor here. More information and even more yelling back and forth gives everyone more data and opportunity to make up their own minds. And it keeps life-and-death topics like war fully in the bull's-eye heat of aggressive social interaction. That's what's really changed since my war correspondent days. No one today has to be a passive non-combatant in the important moments of our culture."

Well, that was then. The diplomatic reality show we've been gawking at the last few days is fun, like a light thrown on in a kitchen full of cockroaches. Scampering heads of state and their employees may make us feel as though there's an information paradigm shift that could force governments to give up the shadows and do what they say they're going to do.

Good luck with that.

"Transparent government tends to produce just government," Assange has said. But not if the transparency is flabby old Kim Jong Il in red thong underwear. Hilarity and repulsion ensue, maybe, but not a Korean coup of the righteous.

The latest WikiLeaks stun grenade has been terrific for feeding the news beast (here I am talking about it), and absorbingly entertaining. Tossed into the dark room of diplomatic gossip and whispering intel assets, the blast of information took less than 24 hours to devolve into a Huffington Post contest: people were asked to vote on which world leader should be the most deliciously embarrassed. Tough call, though fun. And appropriate.

My personal favorite is what my oldest kid used to call the Captain Obvious comment on Berlusconi: "vain" with "a penchant for partying." No kidding. After the young-women-in-hot-tub photos showed up in every tabloid on earth next to close-ups of the Italian prime minister with hair plugs, spray-on tan and a face lift, we didn't need a trained diplomat to tell us what was up.

You have to wonder: how much did we actually pay for that piece of useless intel? Now there's a scandal, Mr. Assange.

Or how about the Obama Administration trying to trade Gitmo prisoners like they were creaky used cars in exchange for a photo op with the President? Shocked, aren't you? News flash: politicians have a forked tongue problem and none of them have clean hands. That's the corpus of our real world leaders and no see-through statesmanship is likely to change that.

Me, I figured I'd watch this latest WikiLeaks flap from the sidelines, cheering for transparency even if it won't lead to world peace or better manners. Except first I need to know that I'm actually ON the sidelines.

"Many more cables name diplomats' confidential sources, from foreign legislators and military officers to human rights activists and journalists," wrote the New York Times the other day, "often with a warning to Washington: "Please protect" or "Strictly protect."

Apparently journalists were among the sources protected, not also just by the responsible New York Times, but by WikiLeaks itself, which said it had worked with news organizations to excise names of individuals.

Should I be relieved about that? Was I an asset to someone beyond my mother? Does my name show up in any of the classified documents? Though unlikely, it could.

In the 1980's, I'd meet for breakfast about once a month with the Philippines CIA station chief at the Hyatt hotel in Manila. He was often late, even though he was only coming from the U.S. Embassy compound a few minutes away. His driver would take a maze-like, circuitous route for safety reasons, he explained to me, and sometimes got lost in traffic.

I left the cloak-and-dagger to him, though I wondered if he really thought a determined scout or assassin would be fooled by the long way around (I'd had coffee in that same hotel restaurant with a high-level leftist, New People's Army guerrilla operative).

We'd exchange information informally, Manila's chief spook and I, and on the deepest background. Ask any foreign correspondent: there's plenty the intel guys don't know that we do - including places we go, people we talk to.

In those analog days, the Agency apparently didn't have a useful method of tracking published material. What I told him was information that had either already been printed in my newspaper, or was about to come out the next day. It seemed like he didn't know because what he gave me in return was useful in my reporting. Other than that, he was a smart, insightful source on things like the return of Ferdinand Marcos cronies from exile and their coup-planning activities.

On a trip to Washington, D.C., I also had dinner with the CIA's Southeast Asia desk chief. He asked me if I'd be willing to get "debriefed" occasionally by some of his folks in San Francisco. While I was dying to know who they were - I did have their downtown SF address - I declined. Believe it or not, there are lines drawn in journalism that are very clear and not just theoretical.

In El Salvador, a couple of years later, I'd meet at an ice cream place with a key Defense Intelligence Agency employee. He never said that's what he was, but I knew it from some of his colleagues in the shadow world. I also spent time in the home of a U.S. military officer whose wife worked in the San Salvador CIA office. I didn't know that then, and only found out later when I hired her to work for me briefly back at my home office in SF. I'd like to say I figured out her past myself. I didn't. She told me.

What all these meetings with clandestine types reinforced for me is that Francis Bacon was wrong. Knowledge is not power. Withholding knowledge is power. When you disclose information, its force dissolves in the atmosphere. But if people know you know something and they want to know it, too, you'll always get asked to the dance.

The more the WikiLeaks info is made public, the more people absorb it into their understanding of how things works. And the less power it will have. The back fence chatter and double-dealing will go on as it always has.

Despite what government officials are claiming could be potentially grave though unlikely consequences of the WikiLeaks, and the temporary junk adjustment diplomats are forced into in the white light of the cable revelations, dancing and double-talk is what we all do in this cabaret of international and national (remember Jesse Jackson caught on tape about wanting to "cut [Obama's] balls out"?) interaction.

Whenever I'd have one of these conversations with intelligence ops or analysts, I'd run back to my room and bang out notes. Maybe some of them did the same. Sunday night I found myself digging like a gopher through the WikiLeaks search parameters. Nothing. Yet.

But if I'm in there somewhere, I hope my spy tablemates were kinder to me in their cable traffic than, say, Gawker, or some commenters on SFGate where "flabby" would rate as a compliment.