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Watch out for WikiLeaks

The documents do little more than embarrass the U.S. and complicate its foreign policy.

November 30, 2010

Many disclosures of classified information, such as the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, have served the public interest by shedding light on the previously obscure development of government policy. The latest document dump by WikiLeaks, consisting of diplomatic cables rather than military reports, so far falls short of that noble purpose, though it contains some fascinating — even titillating — details. The primary objective seems to be to embarrass the United States and complicate its foreign policy.

We don't question the right of news organizations to publish excerpts of the 250,000 diplomatic dispatches released by WikiLeaks. For good or ill, the information was going to end up in the public domain. The responsible party is WikiLeaks.

The revelations include unflattering characterizations by American officials of foreign leaders and details about how Arab leaders have beseeched the United States to attack Iran. They also show that U.S. diplomats have been asked to gather personal information about foreign officials, among them U.N. representatives. One cable described how a U.S. diplomat in Germany urged that country to "weigh carefully" the arrest of CIA officers suspected in the torture of a German national suspected of terrorism — because there might be implications for the Germany-U.S. relationship.

Few of the disclosures would surprise anyone who followed the practice of foreign diplomacy, in which private conversations are often at odds with public pronouncements and diplomats engage in intelligence-gathering, not just cocktail-party pleasantries (though under the so-called Humint program described in the documents, the sought-after information was exceedingly specific). Likewise, it was obvious that the U.S. would oppose the arrest of CIA agents, though it wasn't known how heavy-handed U.S. diplomats were.

By making these matters public, WikiLeaks has put American officials on the defensive. The White House's complaint that the disclosures were "dangerous and reckless" is probably an exaggeration, but they will make the conduct of foreign policy more difficult without providing much edification to the American public.

Rather than railing against WikiLeaks — or the news media — the Obama administration needs to take responsibility for safeguarding information at its source. Some have argued that the increased information-sharing among agencies required after 9/11 has made it easier for leakers to lay hands on a wide range of classified information. Whatever the explanation, the government failed in this instance — and has suffered for it.

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