WikiLeaks’ decision to place sensitive diplomatic traffic completely within the public domain (following the inadvertent disclosure of codes used to encrypt the material) has prompted a number of heated debates around the world. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, many have argued that while most of the information released so far offers little more than titillation it has nevertheless imperilled dozens of previously anonymous sources and compromised diplomatic intelligence gathering. Some would go even further and argue that apart from the lack of an obvious profit motive the disclosures are no better than those obtained by scurrilous journalists in the recent phone hacking scandals.
Is it worth endangering the lives of people so that the rest of us can learn that the Canadian Conservative party sees itself as the country’s “natural governing party” or that US diplomats were concerned about former Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s “bizarre anti-American public musings”? Is it worth exposing a Venezuelan journalist who tipped off the US about secret meetings between the Chávez government and Colombian rebels? Is our own President’s demeanour during meetings with the American ambassador worth knowing, or his reported opinion of the political opposition and the governments and economic policies of other Latin American countries?
There can be no consistent answer to these questions because the WikiLeaks disclosures are so varied. They range from the sort of cocktail party anecdotes that diplomats use to support hunches about their host countries to stark, professional analyses intended to influence policy. Consider the sensitive but unclassified 2008 report from the US embassy in Kinshasa which noted that “The government does virtually nothing to prevent children risking their lives for $1-2/day in mining sector. Many are suspected former child soldiers who have not reintegrated, others are victims of trafficking.” Or a 2009 cable from the US consulate in Guangzhou province which warned that: “The following is neither an overstatement nor is it hyperbole. It is a fact. The contaminated waters of the Pearl River and other water sources in Guangdong are as serious a threat to the region’s health and economic sustainability as the decline in exports, the closure of small and medium enterprises and the increasing utilization of land for nonproductive reasons.” This is a small sample of the 30 global revelations which Wikileaks highlighted on its website last month to give a sense of how important some of its disclosures have been.
Diplomats and bureaucrats have understandable reasons for loathing WikiLeaks, but so, apparently, do some journalists. The New York Times journalist Judith Miller – despite being, as a matter of record, the American reading public’s primary source of false information about Saddam’s weapons, and thus a pivotal figure in tilting public opinion in favour of the invasion of Iraq – saw nothing amiss last year when, during an appearance on Fox News, she dismissed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as a “bad journalist” who “didn’t care at all about attempting to verify the information that he was putting out.” Such hypocrisy is bad enough but attacks on WikiLeaks have gone beyond name-calling and dark hints that Assange be targeted because of his supposed threat to US national security. In February, reports surfaced that lawyers acting for a large American bank had considered counterespionage against the group. A draft of their plans recommended the covert planting of false documents among the information that WikiLeaks planned to release about the 2008 financial crisis. The plans even included possible action to hack and discredit sympathetic bloggers like Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald.
Recent reports by the Associated Press and others have shown that fears about the dangers posed by the loss of sources’ anonymity are greatly exaggerated. So too, arguably, is the significance of secret and sensitive back stories to last year’s or even last month’s headlines. More than 45 million people are now unemployed in the United States and median household income has dropped to its lowest point in 15 years. While the Obama administration struggles to find its way out of these grim circumstances neither it nor the public at large is likely to pay much attention to secrets of Wall Street or the US diplomatic corps. Provocative facts are readily available elsewhere and many of them as just are startling as the WikiLeaks cables. Last year, for example, General Electric – whose CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, was chosen by President Obama to lead a “Jobs Council” to combat unemployment – made more than $14 billion dollars profit but claimed a tax benefit of more than $3 billion. This iconic American company – which has more than two-thirds of its workforce conveniently located outside of the US – sheltered some 82 per cent of its profit abroad. This publicly available information, is far more relevant to the average American than most of what is contained the WikiLeaks disclosures. None of it is secret, but, given the overwhelming flood of information and the imperfect ways we currently disseminate the news, it might as well be.