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Analysis: Could WikiLeaks start a war?

It's not black and white, but it wouldn't be the first time leaked cables led to hostilities.

This is highly reckless. At some point, in dealings between sovereign nations subject to (either) electoral pressures or restive populations, private conversations need to occur, and they need to occur in private. They cannot always occur in person — thus the need for diplomatic cables, and, indeed, classified information writ large.

As someone involved in reporting on Al Qaeda in the late 1990s, I constantly wonder whether 9/11 might have been avoided had an ignorant (or just reckless) CIA agent not decided in 1997 to brag to the Washington Times that the agency was listening in on Osama bin Laden’s satellite telephone. Do I think the CIA source is more at fault? Yes. Do I think the newspaper is blameless: Hell no, and especially not a newspaper that staunchly defends American intelligence agencies.

Bin Laden, of course, never used his satellite phone again.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate that some information should not be public is to turn this column on its head: What if, for instance, WikiLeaks had revealed the initial feelers about a U.S.-China summit between President Nixon and Mao Zedong? Would Nixon have gone to China? I doubt it.

Or, let’s say WikiLeaks learned that the Egyptian president had decided to fly to Tel Aviv to engage in peace talks with the Israelis in 1971? Would this not have given Sadat’s enemies, both at home and in Israel, more than enough information to make sure it never happened?

Even in a world where the media trips over itself to report the latest video porn “leak” by Paris Hilton or the latest “policy statement” of Sarah Palin, we should understand the difference between things that matter and things that do not.

Countries have secrets — and they should have some, even if they will inevitably overdo it. The test of a true democracy is not whether or not secrets exist, it’s whether the secrets themselves are serving a higher purpose or a necessary (if unpleasant) goal.

In many cases since 9/11, the secrets held by the U.S. government have not always served a more noble purpose, and that is the fuel that runs the engine of a place like WikiLeaks. The U.S. public distrusts Washington, and the global public distrusts the United States. In effect, the public (finally) has adopted the default view of serious journalists.

Yet the black-and-white worldview WikiLeaks imagines goes too far: no gray is permitted — sunshine falls on everything. This confuses being “ardent” with being wise, and “transparency” with honesty. The world, unfortunately, is far more complicated than that.

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View From Iran: The "snake's head" reacts

View from Zimbabwe: US wants Mugabe out

View from Europe: Coverage focuses on gossip

View from Turkey: Cables hurt US-Turkey relations

View from Latin America: Hugo Chavez called "crazy" and other tales

Analysis: WikiLeaks will kill transparency