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WikiLeaks Hubris

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China Power

WikiLeaks Hubris

The dump of confidential US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks is a clumsy and misguided way of securing transparency.

The latest dump of information by WikiLeaks has begun, this time of confidential messages sent by US diplomatic staff. I’m sure there’ll be plenty to pore over about China, and already there are several cables looking at its role in the Middle East, most notably its links with Iran.

The New York Times has reported that among the 251, 287 cables set to be released are some outlining US concerns over the hacking of Google earlier this year, with the US claiming that the intrusions were directed by the Politburo.

The NYT reports: ‘The Google hacking was part of a coordinated campaign of computer sabotage carried out by government operatives, private security experts and Internet outlaws recruited by the Chinese government. They have broken into American government computers and those of Western allies, the Dalai Lama and American businesses since 2002, cables said.’

Although none of the cables are believed to be ‘top secret’, there are expected to be thousands of ‘secret’ files released, as well as many that are considered too sensitive for foreign governments to see.

But while government transparency is to be welcomed, there’s something a little repulsive in such a mass dump of material, which by the very nature of its size makes it impossible to have vetted properly for potentially damaging or even life-threatening leaks. The fact that WikiLeaks has admitted that it ‘pores over’ such information to ensure that there’s nothing that could put lives in danger is an admission that such information could indeed be contained in such documents. WikiLeaks takes pride in the fact that it’s a small team, which begs the question of how they can be sure that every single one of the hundreds of thousands of documents has been properly screened.

More troubling than anything, though, is the hubris in the claim made over the Afghan documents (and presumably one that would be repeated over these cables, too) that they were reviewed ‘line by line’ so that the names of ‘innocent parties who are under reasonable threat’ could be removed.

Julian Assange may believe that he and his team have developed unparalleled expertise on all facets of defence and diplomacy to the point that they know instinctively when someone’s life will be endangered. But surely if their interest is genuinely in exposing wrongdoing and holding a government to account, why not just be more selective about what they’re releasing?

The Afghan and Iraq leaks apparently exposed further allegations of torture. If this is true, and if a future Abu Ghraib can be averted, then this is to be welcomed. But mass dumping of diplomatic cables—or of any kind of documents—is far too blunt an instrument to be using and smacks of grandstanding, not genuine concern for justice.

It’s hugely naïve to believe that any government doesn’t need to keep secrets, at the very least temporarily. And it’s not just in obvious ways such as countering terrorism, or spying on foreign governments. Peace negotiations, for example, can be tortuous and delicate. I’m currently reading Tony Blair’s A Journey about his time in office, and have just finished his chapter on the negotiations to secure peace in Northern Ireland. If a dump of information of the WikiLeaks variety had occurred during these negotiations—if the subtle and necessary fudges and mis-directions that ultimately secured a deal had been revealed at the time—then I don’t have any doubt peace would have been elusive. Similarly, by revealing US State Department secrets on issues as sensitive as Iran, counter-proliferation and Middle East peace efforts, WikiLeaks could put at risk not just US, but other countries’ diplomatic efforts.

Even with the few documents already set to be released on China, the potential to inflame has already been laid bare. The New York Times reports that it has seen cables from the US ambassador to Seoul telling Washington in February ‘that South Korean officials believe that the right business deals would “help salve” China’s “concerns about living with a reunified Korea.”’  With the Korean Peninsula so tense, and with China having a potentially crucial calming role to play, it’s difficult to see how such views being aired in public, regardless of if they could have been guessed at anyway, won’t make North Korea feel more cornered. It will also presumably make countries like China more wary about sharing information with the United States.

And another question remains. If Mr Assange is such a genuine global crusader for open government, then why hasn’t more been done to secure the release of Chinese and Russian documents, for example, rather than just targeting the United States? After all, the US is, despite its many flaws, one of the most open and transparent countries in the world (it ranked a respectable 22nd for cleanness in Transparency International’s last corruption index).

If the answer is because the US information has been easier to access and so more of it has been passed on, then surely that suggests the WikiLeaks crusade is perhaps by its own stated intentions a little misplaced. If it is because Mr Assange feels his life would be more likely to be placed in danger, then it’s a sad state of affairs that he views others’ well-being as so much less important than his own.