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On the Media: The larger truth in the WikiLeaks revelations

America's overseas diplomats appear to be doing their jobs well.

December 01, 2010|James Rainey

We have heard it all this week: the furor over the release of a quarter-million private diplomatic cables, the embarrassment in many foreign capitals, the calls for a crackdown on the intrigue-meisters at WikiLeaks. But all that noise has clouded a larger truth — that America's overseas diplomats appear to be doing their jobs and doing them pretty well.

Lost amid all the conversation about cables that could be damaging (U.S. teams trying to secure loose nukes in Pakistan), provocative (Middle Eastern states secretly supporting the bombing of Iran) and whimsical ( Kim Jong Il's drinking, Moammar Kadafi's buxom blond nurse) has been a discussion of what the memos do not show.

They don't show — at least in any significant way, with the caveat that thousands of e-mails still remain to be released — the U.S. government seriously misleading its allies. They don't show unauthorized war, fraudulent procurement practices or unexpected assassination. They don't show America forming significant alliances with sworn enemies or visiting unexpected deceit on friends.

The U.S. government doubtless has fences to mend. It will have to do much more to keep control of its private communication. Allies will be more hesitant about whether they can really trust American diplomats to keep secrets. But because journalism tends to focus on trouble that's present, not what's absent, this week's unauthorized diplomatic download has not been noted for what makes it most singular: the dearth of scandalous behavior by the U.S.

That conclusion will be ridiculed by some, particularly WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange, who on Tuesday told Time magazine that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton should resign over revelations in the memos. He pointed to the fact that State Department employees had been asked to gather confidential information — including credit card and frequent flier numbers — on foreign dignitaries.

That seems like a relatively small-bore violation, one unlikely to linger in the public imagination for very long and certainly not enough to cost the secretary of State her job. But Assange can be expected to play any news big. He's building a brand, after all, not just a new source for unleashing secret information.

Most of what the public knows so far about the blizzard of documents comes from the New York Times and four foreign publications —El País, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and the Guardian — that got early access to the information. The five publications have produced some news, a lot of novelistic detail and a few titillating bits of gossip — like the fact that Clinton asked the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires about the mental health of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

But bombshells? Not yet.

The newspaper accounts have demonstrated some of the admirable editorial judgment — weighing the damage that could be caused by publication against the benefits — that is one of the hallmarks of the old journalism.

The New York Times, for example, pointed out in a story Tuesday all the reasons why talk about a break in the relationship between China and North Korea — as detailed in the memos — might be just so much wishful thinking. (The more credulous Guardian, relying mostly on one third-hand cable, somehow produced the conclusion that China is "ready to abandon North Korea.")

And what about the journalistic practices of WikiLeaks and its elusive, seemingly stateless founder, Assange? There are reports that the website may be at least a little chastened, and somewhat more circumspect, about its third major dump of U.S. foreign affairs documents.

When I e-mailed New York Times Editor Bill Keller, he suggested that WikiLeaks may have changed its approach. In its first dump, consisting of documents related to the war in Afghanistan, WikiLeaks "took a great deal of heat for posting documents that contained names of Afghan informants," Keller said, via e-mail. In the second dump, on the Iraq war, the site used software to strip out names.

"This time they have signaled their intention to hold back documents or parts of documents that could put lives in danger," Keller said. "How they interpret that objective, and whether they will do it, I have no way of knowing."

Still, Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, has placed an almost mystical faith in the purifying power of "transparency." WikiLeaks' introduction to the diplomatic documents invokes George Washington, who "could not tell a lie."

Or as Assange told Forbes recently: "If you know what a government is doing, that can reduce tensions."

Candor can sometimes have that benefit. Far be it for a journalist to make a blanket argument against public information. But no value is absolute.

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