Leading article: Careless talk and the law of unintended consequences

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Secrecy, or rather confidentiality as some might prefer to call it, has always been the essence of diplomacy; ambiguity likewise.

That almost a quarter of a million documents from the US State Department are now seeing the light of day – thanks to a whistle-blowing insider, the possibilities of the internet and the intervention of the Wikileaks website – is the very antithesis of the way diplomacy works. Or perhaps the tense here should be corrected. This is the way diplomacy used to work. In the age of Wikileaks and the internet, will it have to change?

Several points should be made at the outset about what these documents are and what they are not. There are a great many of them, but they did not carry the most secret classification. Washington's most valuable secrets are still intact. The system is not completely broken.

These documents constitute mostly third- and fourth-tier intelligence that was circulated to as many as three million people. Some of it is information that was well known in diplomatic circles, but kept officially under wraps for a reason. Into that category would fall secret memos reporting that Gulf leaders, including the King of Saudi Arabia, had urged US military action against Iran. Into that category, too, would come reports of Israel's desire to retain its regional nuclear monopoly. Such facts were understood in diplomatic circles, but could have been destabilising if voiced in public.

Some of the other information could be described as little more than tittle-tattle. But accumulated gossip, no less than the telling detail or the fleeting personal impression, is also the stuff of diplomacy, informing negotiating tactics and contributing to wider judgements. US diplomats' comments on foreign politicians, including EU leaders, tell us almost as much about US diplomatic attitudes as about the named figures, such as President Sarkozy. Highly personal remarks stand to compromise US relations with its allies quite as much as any geopolitical revelations; personal trust is the most valued diplomatic currency.

Clearly, the interests of very many governments, besides those of the US administration, have been damaged by so much classified information bursting into the public domain, and the US has the added embarrassment that its data security has been shown to be inadequate. While President Ahmadinejad insists, with uncharacteristic calmness, that the leaks will change nothing, other unintended consequences cannot be ruled out. There is also the paradox that this massive leak was only possible because the US changed its systems, having determined that failure to share information between agencies contributed to the security failure of 9/11. This points to the real risks that could arise if the pendulum now swings the other way.

Another likely consequence of Wikileaks' activities – not just with the State Department documents, but those relating to the Iraq and Afghan wars – may well be to make governments more, rather than less, secretive, which is probably not a good thing. And the risk that some individuals' lives may be endangered as a result of publication should not be taken lightly. Had news organisations not secured agreement from Wikileaks to edit sections of the reports, the raw material would have appeared without prior screening.

Which highlights the risks associated with too absolutist a position. The genesis of Wikileaks lies in a profound distrust of governments and a belief in transparency everywhere and in everything. Against that has to be set the natural inclination of those in authority to monopolise information and spin it in their favour when they make it public. As a newspaper, we have no qualms about erring on the side of openness and publishing our selection of the Wikileaks documents on the basis that they are of public interest and add to understanding of the world. We also recognise, however, that breaking confidences is not always in the public interest. There are still times when discretion is the better part of valour.