Friday, December 3, 2010

Wikileaks and Me

Ben and I write about Wikileaks in this week's column. My take:

There's a scene in the first "Godfather" movie where an old mobster is preparing young Michael Corleone for a coming mob war. "These things gotta happen every five years or so, ten years," the mobster tells Michael. "Helps to get rid of the bad blood."

That's probably a good way to think about the WikiLeaks' release of U.S. diplomatic cables. Democracy works best when Americans know and understand what their government is doing. It's less helpful for diplomacy, however. So it's probably healthy that we get a once-a-generation look behind the diplomatic curtain, but it's not the kind of thing Americans should hope to see every year.

What's remarkable about the documents is how little scandal they contain. The last two decades have seen anger and conspiracy-theorizing about the American government reach a fever pitch, but it appears that the United States has a team of smart, savvy and diligent diplomats working hard to protect the country -- and its interests -- in a chaotic world.

What's more, the documents that have been released are of such low classification that a reported 3 million people already had access to see them. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted they were of low consequence: "Is it awkward? Yes," he said. "Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest."

The real scandal has been the angry reaction of some American conservatives, such as Sarah Palin, who have suggested that WikiLeaks' Julian Assange should be viewed as and treated like a terrorist. That presumably means he should die for his actions. But there's no evidence that WikiLeaks' revelations have led to the harm of any American or allied collaborator.

If publishing the truth of our government's actions is so hazardous to American interests, perhaps we should reconsider those actions. Leave Julian Assange alone.

I'm not actually thrilled with the last paragraph, because even I recognize that the government does legitimately keep some secrets. On the other hand, he ratio of legitimate secrets to not-so-legitimate is probably out of whack.

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