Wikileaks is a gift – but what is it worth?

post to UNC Press Blog, 7 January 2011

Think of the Wikileaks’ release of State Department cables as one of your holiday gifts that will keep on giving … and giving and giving. Julian Assange and Company got generous just before Thanksgiving. A steady dribble from the quarter-million purloined documents should keep us happily diverted well into the new year and perhaps beyond.

But what kind of gift have we gotten? To judge from the initial government reaction, the material was earth-shaking in its importance. After thundering about dire consequences for a while, officialdom seems to have calmed down. Journalists were certainly taken by the material’s seeming importance, featuring one Wiki-derived story after another. My own experience as a historian of U.S. foreign relations leads me to a lower valuation. Let’s start with what these materials are not.

They are not the “Pentagon Papers.” That secret study, set in motion by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, provided a coherent account of the Vietnam intervention meant to serve as a source of instruction for policymakers. When Daniel Ellsberg leaked the study to the New York Times in 1971, it had a major political impact. By highlighting the deception, doubts, indecision, and misperceptions that had attended Vietnam policy, the papers strengthened anti-war forces pressing President Richard Nixon to accelerate U.S. withdrawal. The Wikileaks are far too fragmented in the story they tell and in the way they have been released to have such an impact. They offer tidbits about this and that, not a compelling new way to see important aspects of U.S. policy. The political and policy consequences have, at least to date, been minimal.

The Wikileaks are, moreover, unlikely to serve as a prime source of insights for historical accounts in the years ahead. These cables don’t go beyond the low classification of secret and, as anyone who has pored through box after box in the official archives will understand, they contain mostly routine reporting to be read in the lower and middle levels of the State Department bureaucracy. Some items may have helped shape internal discussions, perhaps informed the department’s position in interagency meetings, and even on occasion figured in its stance in discussions within the president’s National Security Council where important policy decisions are made. For real insights, Assange needs to lay his hands on something like the records of NSC meetings or of the president’s discussions with his national security adviser.

One way to gauge the most recent material’s importance is to guess how much of it will eventually be incorporated in the venerable “Foreign Relations of the United States” series, edited by the State Department. That series presents to the public compilations of the most important policy documents, usually some thirty-plus years after their creation. Unlike the grab-bag Wikileaks collection, FRUS publications offer a considered, ordered selection of material on key policy issues and provide a sense of what decisions were made, by whom, and through what process of intelligence gathering and high-level discussion. My guess is that FRUS publications will incorporate little of the Wikileaks materials precisely because the authors were relatively minor players in the overall U.S. policy process and represented only one of the multiple agencies that dominated that process.

Wikileaks does have a significance that is obscured by all the hoopla over this or that revelation. The leaks are a reminder that foreign service officers play a role similar to foreign correspondents. Though the old adage characterizes diplomats as honest men sent to lie abroad for the good of their country, in an age of rapid communication the lying can be done just as well by officials in Washington. That still leaves the personnel in the field with the important task of keeping track of foreign conditions and foreign leaders. In this respect they constitute a virtual news service of their own, probably larger than all mainstream media outlets with their down-sized corps of correspondents and limited space devoted to world news. Wikileaks helps us not only recognize the existence of these parallel worlds of journalism and foreign service but also invites comparisons of the ways they function.

As with conventional journalism, the quality of the official version can vary a lot depending on the skills of the reporter. For an example of first-rate coverage, take the report on “Roots of Italian Russophilia”. This treatment of the political players and economic considerations would have done any overseas correspondent proud. Sad to say, most news editors would have found the space only if the story had foregrounded picaresque details on Silvio Berlusconi’s personal antics or Vladimir Putin’s macho life style.

Wikileaks provides fascinating examples of how official observers are no more immune than their media counterparts to getting snookered by seemingly authoritative sources. The New York Times‘ Judith Miller, who became a mouthpiece of the U.S. government during the runup to the Iraq invasion, is a striking example of this classic journalist pitfall. A similar fate appears to have befallen the U.S. embassy in Tblisi. It became so reliant on information from the government of Georgia during its confrontation with Russia that the embassy misread the development of the conflict. It thus failed to exercise the critical independent judgment essential to any kind of good journalism or diplomatic reporting.

For better or worse, official reporters seem to share the conventional reporter’s attraction to good gossip and the temptation to retail hints of corruption and whispered personality quirks as news. Wikileaks offers the striking case of the Moscow embassy’s reflections on Putin’s work ethic. This titillating report recycling rumor and speculation may tell us as much about the embassy mindset as about Putin. From a historian’s perspective, it’s actually great to get this sort of indiscreet commentary into the public record because otherwise it might never see the light of day. The rules governing the regular declassification process frowns on the release of material of this sort that might prove an embarrassment to other governments and thus harm U.S. foreign policy.

Finally, the Wikileaks contains some fascinating examples of bias intruding into reportage. Personal pique, it turns out, can shape the views of foreign correspondents regardless of whether the government or corporations pay their salaries. Particularly striking here are the observations in December 2004 and March 2005 by the embassy in Ankara headed by Cheney protegé Eric Edelman. They paint a sharply critical portrait of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose government had not incidentally adopted an increasingly independent foreign policy, including a refusal to fall into line on U.S. Iraq policy.

Where the Wikileak materials differ dramatically from regular journalism is in costs and risks they carry as a result of their classified origins. The very volume of government reporting, much of which is overclassified, translates into an enormous declassification budget (estimated at almost $9 billion for 2007). At the same time, the volume of secret materials also creates a problem unknown to foreign correspondents of simultaneously securing and sharing information from a massive archive of electronic data accessible in this case to over three million readers in government with the proper security clearances. Too much security and someone who needs to know cannot. Too much sharing and the world gets to read your confidential correspondence.

Whatever our estimate of their value, let’s appreciate the Wikigifts given so far and watch with anticipation for future installments. Who knows, somewhere in the megabytes of data Assange has squirreled away may be surprises that will force me to alter my appraisal. Given more and better material, historians are always ready–even delighted–to change their minds.

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