For all journalists, this I know to be true: We all love a good leak.
It’s the sexy part of the news game, to reveal something that heretofore was so off-limits and so verboten. That makes it one lucky day when a reporter is leaked upon for subsequent dissemination. It’s practically orgasmic.
Still, I confess to being a tad bewildered by the latest doc-dump from WikiLeaks, with some 250,000 cables worth of secret banter from the world-wide universe of the U.S. State Department. That’s not a leak. That’s a busted dam.
And yet, for all the tidbits of information that’s come out, I’m still wondering if the revelations were worth it.
Normally, leaks are justified because there’s a need to document some kind of illegal or immoral act that has resulted in some harmful government policy.
But after a big weekend splash, where’s the “big deal” headline that’s going to make a difference? Is it how U.S. diplomats tried to empty Guantanamo by tempting countries to re-settle prisoners in exchange for a meeting with Obama? (Isn’t that normal tit-for-tat?) Is it how China hacked Google’s computers in that country? (Couldn’t we figure that out?) Is it that South Korea and the U.S. are still guessing how China will react to the possibility of a unified Korea? (Everyone’s still guessing.) Is it how Yemen’s leaders cheerfully cover-up U.S.military involvement there, despite anti-U.S. sentiment among its people (we already knew that).
There’s a lot more and a lot less. But that’s just a taste. It’s more factual than reading tea leaves, but not by much. Sometimes the leaks are just catty, like when Libya’s Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi is said to travel everywhere with his Ukrainian nurse, a “voluptuous blonde.”
She may have been smoking hot, but once again, no real smoking guns here. Clearly, if these cables were secret, it was to allow our diplomats a higher level of gossipy candor.
But does WikiLeaks really want to be the TMZ for policy wonks? I didn’t see one Kim Kardashian mention (but there’s still some 249,800 or so cables to go).
I was struck by one startling revelation. Apparently, we’re asking our diplomats to spy. Normally, there’s a firewall between diplomats and spies. They’re not supposed to nod and wink at each other, let alone be the same person. Diplomats are supposed to make nice with the foreigners. Spies are supposed to be duplicitous. Transparency? Not a virtue in the spy business. But the cables released show our diplomats were digging up personal information on foreign dignitaries that could be used for data mining and surveillance.
I guess they won’t be doing that for much longer.
It’s easy for the New York Times, one of the sub-leakers in this overall wiki-dump, to say nothing in the released documents “would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security.”
But the fact is, the leaks do change the diplomatic environment from here forward.
If diplomacy is like a high-stakes poker game, you don’t really know how strong your hand is when no one shows his cards. It’s a whole different game when the cards are revealed. Even if the leaked events are in the past, this new knowledge imparted to another country is useful information and can put the U.S. at a disadvantage.
Consider the next meeting with any leader of a country named in the documents. Who has to suck up to whom now?
When it first came on the scene this year, WikiLeaks passed itself off as a public service, ready to expose ill-advised U.S. military policy.
This time, the leaks seem only to embarrass and compromise the U.S. in the only real war alternative, diplomacy. The leaks say it’s not what it appears on the surface. OK, but I doubt that was worth making the work of U.S. diplomats harder than ever.