Disclosure without a cause

Posted: Monday, December 06, 2010

All the hoopla about whether WikiLeaks has harmed U.S. foreign policy has missed the most stunning lesson of this drama.

We now know that, in the age of the Internet, two obscure individuals can upend U.S. diplomacy and command global headlines. A bored U.S. Army private and an obsessive Australian oddball have set the world on edge.

Although I am a journalist, and journalists are supposed to love leaks, I do not think this is a good thing. Consider: If two hackers can cause such a global stir by dumping tens of thousands of secret diplomatic cables onto the Web, what comes next?

We already know that hackers are trying to discover military and industrial secrets, and experts warn about cyber wars in the future. WikiLeaks has shown us what lies ahead.

Julian Assange, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks, has gleefully announced that his next "megaleak" will target Bank of America, revealing a trove he obtained from an executive's hard drive. No matter what you think of big banks' recent behavior, this leak won't be good for a fragile global economy or a public reeling from recession.

Indeed, Assange's technique is more likely to do harm than to enlighten. If you plow through some of his writings, you find the garbled, self-righteous prose of an anarchist with a deep distrust of all governments and institutions. He seems to believe he can disrupt the U.S. government, and presumably other governments as well, by publishing masses of secret information.

Assange sees deep government conspiracies everywhere, but believes, with twisted logic, that the U.S. system is easy to disrupt because it is so open. His goal is to make it harder for the system as a whole to function - not to right a specific wrong.

That's why this dump of secret documents has nothing in common with the Pentagon Papers, despite Daniel Ellsberg's mistaken praise of WikiLeaks. Ellsberg's act aimed to reveal government dissembling in the launch of the Vietnam War, as laid out in particular documents.

These recent leaks reveal no plots or scandals. Even the leftish British newspaper the Guardian, one of the first to receive documents from Assange, admitted to its readers: "The cables are unlikely to gratify conspiracy theorists. They do not contain evidence of assassination plots, CIA bribery, or such criminal enterprises as the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan years. ..."

Instead, by dumping large amounts of unfiltered data without concern for the contents, Assange has endangered lives. The documents expose U.S. informants who could be arrested. Human-rights organizations fear the leaks will endanger activists and journalists whose names are in U.S. cables. Newspapers that received the leaks have carefully redacted any such names, but as Assange puts secret cables online, he may not be so discreet.

And although journalists have extracted some good stories from the material - on Pakistan, Iran, China, and North Korea - there is little that has not been written about before.

Yes, we may now have some quotes from foreign leaders that tell us what we already knew - that the Saudis distrust Iran, or that we can't rely on Pakistan to go after key Taliban groups. Yes, we now know some titillating bits, including the fact that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has a "voluptuous" blond Ukrainian nurse. Who's surprised?

But rather than expose specific wrongs, Assange seems intent on messing up entire systems. If U.S. diplomats have to resort to more secrecy, if foreign leaders are more reluctant to talk openly to our leaders, if hard-won trust between the United States and the leaders of Russia, China, and Arab countries is downgraded, all to the good.

Fortunately, Assange won't succeed - this time. The leaks will embarrass U.S. diplomats and make their jobs harder, and may undercut some foreign leaders who were quoted. I agree, however, with Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, who said: "Governments deal with the United States because it's in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets."

Yet next time we may not get off so easy - even if U.S. officials correct a bizarre situation in which three million military and civilian officials had potential access to the "secure" system from which Pfc. Bradley Manning lifted the cables.

The WikiLeaks dump is a preview of coming attractions. The next installment could be more dangerous and disruptive. Forewarned should be forearmed.

• Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at trubin@phillynews.com.

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