LONDON — Is the WikiLeaks dump of diplomatic cables a victory for transparency? Will it change the way governments deal with each other? Will it be seen as a new and better form of journalism?
I think we have already seen enough to know the answer. It's clearly no.
So what exactly does it all add up to? Well for one thing, the newspapers that formed a consortium to publish these leaks are receiving stolen goods and selling them to the public. And they are doing it in a strange way for media that normally take pride in scoops and competition.
There is no competition in this arrangement, with the cartel deciding which topics will be released on which days. It reminds me of the old Soviet Pravda newspaper — which used to hold weekly editorial meetings to decide that the news will be on the following week. Monday the news will be about a new hydroelectric project, Tuesday the headlines will be about the harvest, etc. The Wikileaks pre-selected diet of topics is not news. It's news management. It is being released piecemeal for maximum impact.
One of the first things I learned as a journalist is that you should not sit on news. But that's what the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Der Spiegel and Le Monde are doing. Now that they have shown us a week's worth of their treasure trove, what else are they sitting on?
Last week, I put that question to their spokesman, Kristinn Hrafnsson. “You will have to wait and see,” he replied. He was vague when I asked him who decides which topics will be released on which days. And he refused to tell me who is funding the WikiLeaks staff, explaining that “donations” were being held in a blind trust in Germany. When it comes to talking about their own organization, WikiLeaks is remarkably opaque for an organization that is supposed to promote transparency.
Of course, it has reasons to be cautious. Its founder and leader, Australian journalist Julian Assange, is reportedly hiding somewhere outside London while the British police and Interpol decide what to do about a Swedish warrant for his arrest on charges of sexual misconduct.
The WikiLeaks website has been the target of repeated cyber attacks and technology companies have been pressured by the U.S. and other governments to stop hosting it on the internet.
Mark Stephens, Assange's British lawyer, says his client is keeping back a number of sensational diplomatic cables that automatically will be released if WikiLeaks is completely shut down or something happens to Assange. He calls it Assange's “thermonuclear device.”
Meanwhile the cables between American diplomats abroad and the State Department that have been published so far are hardly bombshells. Most of them confirm what outsiders already knew from a careful reading of the press. It is not news that Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi is a scandalous womanizer, that the Russian government is deeply corrupt or that the Saudi royal family hates the mullahs who rule Iran.
It is embarrassing to see such frank comments published, but much of the stuff is more embarrassing for the foreign officials who are the subjects of the diplomatic cables than for the U.S. government.
There was one item, however, that did put the State Department in a very bad light: a request that American diplomats collect “biometric data” and other personal details such as credit card and frequent flyer numbers of United Nations staff and other foreign officials, presumably to facilitate tracking their movements. That crosses the line between diplomacy and spying.
The leaked cables will at least initially make foreign officials and informants less open in their dealings with American diplomats, for fear that the U.S. government can't keep a private conversation private. But it won't stop governments from conducting business behind closed doors. Treaties are not hammered out in public in the presence of the press and public. They are crafted from compromises patiently negotiated behind the scenes. That's the way diplomacy works best, whether Julian Assange likes it or not.
As for Assange's belief that he has scored a victory for openness in government, his legacy is likely to be the opposite. The State Department and Pentagon will tighten up what is clearly very loose security in their systems for preventing the unauthorized release of classified information.
And for the newspapers who accepted and sold his stolen goods, they might have edited the cables to protect the lives of some of the sources, but they hardly deserve awards for enterprising journalism.