Leading article: WikiLeak 'plots' need a pinch of salt

Sunday 19 December 2010 01:00 GMT

Openness and scepticism are two of this newspaper's founding principles. It therefore follows that we broadly welcome the putting of confidential United States diplomatic cables in the public domain. But it also follows that The Independent on Sunday has reservations about the effect of some of the revelations; and it follows, too, that we try to use our judgement to pick and choose from the smorgasbord of conspiracy theories swirling around WikiLeaks.

In the past few weeks, we have sifted through the emails (known as cables) that have been published so far and tried to divide them into three categories: genuine revelation; "you don't say"; and unsubstantiated gossip and rumour. Few of the reports fall into the first category, and of those that do perhaps only three are important. The rulers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE repeatedly urged the US to attack Iran to stop it developing nuclear weapons; the Saudis also offered to supply an Arab army to fight Hezbollah in the Lebanon; and the Chinese leadership expressed its impatience with the North Korean regime. Each of these requires a recalibration of our understanding of geopolitics, although whether the world is a safer place as a result will not be clear for some time. If in doubt, though, openness is to be preferred to secrecy.

In fact, though, the main conclusions to be drawn from the WikiLeaks information dump are two. One may seem surprising coming from this newspaper, which has been intensely critical of recent US foreign policy. It is that there is scant evidence of America's officials acting badly. Mostly, its diplomats say in private what we would expect them to say. The important revelations are of the hypocrisy of other governments, and so one of the main impacts is the embarrassment suffered by the State Department.

Which leads to the second conclusion, which is that US officialdom has been as careless of internet security as the average citizen. One of the main consequences of this mega-leak will be a) that America's allies won't tell its diplomats much for a while, and b) that most US diplomatic communications will be given higher classification and better encryption.

It may be surprising, again, but we also take the view that some degree of confidentiality is needed for good government – and for functioning diplomacy.

What is slightly depressing is the way in which the story has moved on from world-historical questions – of nuclear proliferation, terrorism and the promotion of human rights – to the human-scale drama of one man's conduct and the legal proceedings about it. This is depressing not just for the obvious reason, but also for the reaction of so many of what might be called the celebrity left. We worry about Michael Moore syndrome: that so many people rush to assert that the claims against Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, are fabricated by or on behalf of the US authorities.

Of course, the timing of the legal proceedings against Mr Assange in Sweden is extraordinary. But just as we hold that Mr Assange is innocent until proved guilty, so do we assert that the timing of the allegations is a coincidence until proved a conspiracy.

Allegations of rape are notoriously hard to prove, but on the face of it Mr Assange would seem at least to have a case to answer – even if the information about the alleged victims has itself been leaked, paradoxically, in breach of the principle of anonymity designed to make it easier to secure justice. And it goes without saying that if there were a global conspiracy to put Mr Assange behind bars it should be resisted resolutely.

But we believe that it is a failure of moral discrimination to assume that, because the US is the richest country in the world, all the following are self-evidently true: that its government is always up to no good; that all its secrets should be published; and that it is engaged in a vast conspiracy to obtain revenge against Mr Assange.

We should be sceptical about the need for much of governmental secrecy; sceptical about the public statements of diplomats of any country; sceptical about the idea that the US government is a force for good in the world; but sceptical also about whether it is a malevolent force bent on neo-imperialism; sceptical about the allegations against Mr Assange; but sceptical also about the claims that he is the victim of a US dirty tricks operation.

Let us hear it for openness and an open-minded scepticism.

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