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Debate: WikiLeaks release of US diplomatic cables

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Background and context

WikiLeaks obtained in November of 2010 a trove of over 250,000 US diplomatic documents leaked by US Army Pfc. Bradley Manning. The stated intention of the leaks was to reveal contradictions between public and private US international policies.
But, the leaks have set-off an international debate on the value of transparency to democracy, whether such transparency jeopardizes diplomacy and even lives, whether the leaks expose illegal behavior on the part of the United States, and whether Wikileak's actions were legal. The White House came out strongly against the leak, as it did against the Afghanistan and Iraq War Log leaks earlier in the year, declaring: "Such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the US for assistance in promoting democracy and open government. By releasing stolen and classified documents, WikiLeaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals." But others have come out in defense of the leaks, including the New York Times, which wrote: "the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match."[1] These and other arguments and quotations are outlined below.
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Democracy: Are the leaks good for democracy/transparency?

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Pro

  • WikiLeaks aids transparency and accountability Steven Greenhut. "WikiLeaks no threat to free society." OC Register. December 5th, 2010: "Clearly, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has done our nation a service by publishing at-times embarrassing accounts of how the U.S. government conducts its foreign policy. This is a government that claims to be of the people, by the people and for the people, and which has grand pretenses about projecting freedom worldwide, yet it wants to be able to keep most of the details of its actions away from the prying eyes of the public. [...] I applaud WikiLeaks and its efforts to provide the information necessary so Americans can govern themselves in this supposedly self-governing society. WikiLeaks has helped demystify the inner workings of our government, sparking a much-needed debate over various U.S. policies across the world and reminded Americans that free societies depend on an informed citizenry. And the disclosures even provided some levity, as we got to read some honest assessments of puffed-up world leaders. We should thank Assange rather than malign him, and we should eagerly await his next release."
  • WikiLeaks helps expose wasteful/equivocal top secret world. David Samuels. "The Shameful Attacks on Julian Assange." The Atlantic. December 3rd, 2010: "According to a three-part investigative series by Dana Priest and William Arkin published earlier this year in The Washington Post, an estimated 854,000 people now hold top secret clearance - more than 1.5 times the population of Washington, D.C. 'The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive,' the Post concluded, 'that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.' The result of this classification mania is the division of the public into two distinct groups: those who are privy to the actual conduct of American policy, but are forbidden to write or talk about it, and the uninformed public, which becomes easy prey for the official lies exposed in the Wikileaks documents: The failure of American counterinsurgency programs in Afghanistan, the involvement of China and North Korea in the Iranian nuclear program, the likely failure of attempts to separate Syria from Iran, the involvement of Iran in destabilizing Iraq, the anti-Western orientation of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and other tenets of American foreign policy under both Bush and Obama."
  • WikiLeaks can avoid pressure govts level on journalism. Evan Hansen. "Why WikiLeaks Is Good for America." Wired. December 6, 2010: "One of the core complaints against WikiLeaks is a lack of accountability. It has set up shop in multiple countries with liberal press protections in an apparent bid to stand above the law. It owes allegiance to no one government, and its interests do not align neatly with authorities’. Compare this, for example, to what happened when the U.S. government pressured The New York Times in 2004 to drop its story about warrantless wiretapping on grounds that it would harm national security. The paper withheld the story for a year-and-a-half. [...] Sites like WikiLeaks work because sources, more often than not pricked by conscience, come forward with information in the public interest. WikiLeaks is a distributor of this information, if an extraordinarily prolific one. It helps guarantee the information won’t be hidden by editors and publishers who are afraid of lawsuits or the government."
  • WikiLeaks helps journalists do job and check govt David Samuels. "The Shameful Attacks on Julian Assange." The Atlantic. December 3rd, 2010: "It is a fact of the current media landscape that the chilling effect of threatened legal action routinely stops reporters and editors from pursuing stories that might serve the public interest - and anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or lying. Every honest reporter and editor in America knows that the fact that most news organizations are broke, combined with the increasing threat of aggressive legal action by deep-pocketed entities, private and public, has made it much harder for good reporters to do their jobs, and ripped a hole in the delicate fabric that holds our democracy together. The idea that Wikileaks is a threat to the traditional practice of reporting misses the point of what Assange and his co-workers have put together - a powerful tool that can help reporters circumvent the legal barriers that are making it hard for them to do their job. Even as he criticizes the evident failures of the mainstream press, Assange insists that Wikileaks should facilitate traditional reporting and analysis. 'We're the step before the first person (investigates),' he explained, when accepting Amnesty International's award for exposing police killings in Kenya. 'Then someone who is familiar with that material needs to step forward to investigate it and put it in political context. Once that is done, then it becomes of public interest.' Wikileaks is a powerful new way for reporters and human rights advocates to leverage global information technology systems to break the heavy veil of government and corporate secrecy that is slowly suffocating the American press."


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Con

  • WikiLeaks can be exploited by regimes unfriendly to democracy. The United States of America is surely a democratic country, respecting the freedom of reporting. However, the acts of WikiLeaks are not appropriate because it is revealing the national secrets to the world. This can cause serious problems around the globe because enemy countries, such as North Korea, can use the information from the WikiLeaks for their own benefits.
  • WikiLeaks release is an assault on global democracy US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "The United States strongly condemns the illegal disclosure of classified information. It puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security, and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems. This Administration is advancing a robust foreign policy that is focused on advancing America’s national interests and leading the world in solving the most complex challenges of our time, from fixing the global economy, to thwarting international terrorism, to stopping the spread of catastrophic weapons, to advancing human rights and universal values. In every country and in every region of the world, we are working with partners to pursue these aims. So let’s be clear: this disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community – the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations, that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity."[3]
  • Transparency is important, but not in case of diplomacy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "Transparency is fundamental in our society and its usually essential — but there are a few areas, including diplomacy, where it isn't essential."[4]
  • WikiLeaks decreases diplomatic frankness, undermines public debate. "The return of information silos." The Acorn. November 29th, 2010: "If everything a government official says and writes is liable to become public the next moment, you will only have self-censorship, political correctness and worse, a greater tendency to avoid putting debates and decisions on record."
  • WikiLeaks leaks lack democratic principles of consent. "Why Wikileaks is Wrong." Wired State. November 29th, 2010: "In that sense, Micah Sifry's tweet that Wikileaks represents an 'open society' is a disgraceful perversity -- and I told him so. You can hardly compare a society that is open *by consent* and by voluntary disclosure of the governed and the governing to vandals who forcibly pry open what is rightly closed. How strange that Micah answers that I 'of all people' should be interested in this openness?! Like all the opensource thugs, Wikileaks violates the principle of opt-in; and indeed there is not even an opt-out. Yes, most of all, what's wrong with Wikileaks is that it is achieved by force, without consent and without knowledge. It's Bolshevist, in that a group of people arrogantly usurp to themselves power, without democratic legitimacy, in the name of revolutionary expediency (and here, it's not even clear what the revolution is for, except to undermine the leader of the Western world for the sake of hackerish info-anarchy). [...] I bet some people doubt that a democratic and fair vote as to whether this sort of leakage should be approved would lead to people voting *against* Wikileaks. I don't. And the problem is, like people living in a totalitarian society, we didn't *get* to vote. It's our country and our diplomats and our documents -- and we *didn't get to chose*. It was unaccountably leaked in spite of us."
  • WikiLeaks not about transparency, but damaging US "Why Wikileaks is Wrong." Wired State. November 29th, 2010: "there's only the taunting slogan 'We open governments.' Except they don't. They only open *one* government, pretty much, the U.S. The others only become displayed to the extent the U.S. engages with them, and much of the time, it's unflattering and damaging to the U.S., not anyone else. Timothy Garton-Ash makes a strange effort to make lemonade out of lemons by describing, for example, William Burns' literary talents in describing a Dagestani wedding where Kadyrov is present and concluding that U.S. diplomatic efforts make the diplomatic corps look good. Maybe so. But they'd look even better if their secrets weren't dumped."
  • WikiLeaks release is rooted in anarchist objectives. Editorial in a US newspaper: "like small children playing with fires, fascinated with their own power to destroy, Assange and company are setting the world aflame merely to watch it burn. They are not crusaders for a better society. They are nihilists. They are anarchists. And they are enemies of the United States."[5]
  • WikiLeaks has none of the transparency it espouses. "Why Wikileaks is Wrong." Wired State. November 29th, 2010: "there's also the issue of democracy, transparency and accountability -- of Wikileaks itself, as an operation or loose organization or movement. It has none of those things. People involved are mainly anonymous. They ask for donations by banking accounts -- but we don't know how much they raise or how much they spent, or on what. They don't say what their aspirational goals are, or whether they have any creed or ideology -- there's only the taunting slogan "We open governments. [...] The nature of Wikileaks itself and the contrary, secretive, unaccountable essence of its own operation are, of course, a problem, and one not commented on often. As is the one-sided nature of their 'opening' -- it's never the Kremlin, the Taliban, the Iranian ayatollahs and *their* plans and *their* assessments that we ever get from this bunch."


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Diplomacy: Will leaks neutrally or negatively impact diplomacy?

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Pro

  • WikiLeaks release won't have terrible diplomatic effects. President Jimmy Carter says he disagrees with Hillary Clinton's characterization of the WikiLeaks fallout: "I don't agree with Secretary Clinton that it's that significant it has torn up the fabric for our diplomacy. [Nothing] serious has happened that would be damaging to America's policies around the world. [...] I think the long-term damage will be much more minimal than is presently ascribed by maybe the White House spokesperson."[6]
  • Leaks not the problem; the lies they expose are. Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, said recently about internet privacy: "If you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."[7]


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Con

  • WikiLeaks undermines international trust and diplomacy "WikiLeaks Starts Publishing US Cables, US Considering Legal Action." Metrolic. November 29th, 2010: "For short, they all agree that it wasn’t a good idea for Wikileaks to make public some very important documents that could seriously contribute to hostile relationships between the US and a lot of countries worldwide. The key ingredient to all relationships is trust. With the release of the cables you could say that the trust that’s essential to diplomacy has been broken. As Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan mentioned, shortly after describing the release as very damaging, a lot of countries, whether US allies or enemies, might ask themselves “Can the United States be trusted?” and might wonder if the country can keep a secret. Apparently it can’t since its top secret documents are readily available on the web, for anyone to read."
  • WikiLeaks release will shift specialized diplomats. Maria Ressa, former head of ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs (NCAD): "The US is going to be moving diplomats around now... The impact is, you have specialists in each region. These specialists have written these cables. Those specialists will have to move since they won't be effective in these posts. You'll have more inexperienced US diplomats in each of the posts they're in now."[8]


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Lives: Can the release avoid jeopardizing lives?

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Pro


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Con

  • Leaks undermine counter-terrorism intelligence-sharing. "The return of information silos." The Acorn. November 29th, 2010: "What might happen is that brakes will be applied in the trend towards sharing of information within government and across departmental silos. A process that began as a result of the US intelligence community’s failure to piece together data that could have led to the uncovering of the 9/11 plot—and was adopted by governments across the world, including in India—might come to an end with abuse of technological power by Wikileaks. ‘Information fusion’ within governments is likely to be the first casualty of Mr Assange’s war on responsibility."
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Missteps: Do the leaks expose missteps, corruption, lies?

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Pro

  • Cables reveal contradiction b/w US public and private statements. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said in a November 2010 statement: "reveals the contradictions between the U.S.'s public persona and what it says behind closed doors."[10]
  • Cables expose/counter US spying, missteps, and corruption WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said in a November 2010 statement: "The cables show the U.S. spying on its allies and the U.N.; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in 'client states'; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries and lobbying for U.S. corporations."


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Con

  • Private cables are not US policy as WikiLeaks claims. Cameron Munter, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan. "Wikileaks - the U.S.-Pakistan Relationship." US Embassy in Pakistan. November 29th, 2010: "I do believe that people of good faith recognize that diplomats' internal reports do not represent a government's official foreign policy. In the United States, they are one element out of many that shape our policies, which are ultimately set by the President and the Secretary of State. And those policies are a matter of public record, the subject of thousands of pages of speeches, statements, white papers, and other documents that the State Department makes freely available online and elsewhere."
  • No illegal behavior exposed by leak. "Why Wikileaks is Wrong." 3D Blogger. November 29th, 2010: "I would challenge Chatterjee to find anything illegal in the actions of the diplomats that have been exposed by this wikidump. No doubt analysts will focus on the instructions to diplomats at the UN to gather humint about the Secretary General. Perhaps. Or maybe it is due diligence in preventing another scandal like the "oil for food" being launched from our shores? In any event: show me the violations, I'm not seeing it, just because somebody provides a frank characterization of the Persian character or tries to gather Arab allies in the job of containing Iran's nuclear mischief."


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Legality: Was the release legal?

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Pro

  • Legal for WikiLeaks to post diplomatic cables. "WikiLeaks' posting of diplomatic cables does more harm than good." TDN.com. December 6th, 2010: "But the person or organization receiving and publishing the documents would seem to be in the clear. The First Amendment prevents the government from telling media outlets what they can and can't publish. The Supreme Court confirmed that constitutional protection against censorship prior to publication almost 40 years ago, when it sided with The New York Times' and Washington Post's right to publish the so-called Pentagon Papers that detailed some embarrassing government lies regarding the Vietnam war. Daniel Ellsberg, who provided the papers to the newspapers, had legal difficulty. But not the newspapers that published them."


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Con

  • Illegal for Wikileaks to specifically encourage illegal leaks. While WikiLeaks is not actually the organization performing the leaks - it is only receiving and publishing leaks - it specifically encourages and facilitates these leaks. Encouraging such illegal behavior can indeed be illegal.


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Infrastructure: Was the exposure of critical infrastructure justified?

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Pro

  • WikiLeaks' critical infrastructure releases revealed nothing important. Steve Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, told Threat Level in December of 2010: “My own opinion is that there’s no shortage of potential targets that hostile actors might find interesting, and they don’t need a State Department list to assist them. The good news is it’s hard to read. Talk about security through obscurity … this is one boring memo. You have to be really committed to get through this."[11]



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Con

  • WikiLeaks wrongly exposed critical infrastructure. Philip Crowley, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, told the Financial Times: "There are strong and valid reasons information is classified, including critical infrastructure and key resources that are vital to the national and economic security of any country. Julian Assange may be directing his efforts at the United States, but he is placing the interests of many countries and regions at risk. This is irresponsible."[12]



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