We Really Don’t Need Wikileaks

LET ME PREFACE this column by acknowledging that I almost certainly will benefit from the release of the latest wave of Wikileaks documents.  As a scholar of American foreign policy, my current research projects examine US diplomacy in the Middle East and Central Asia and will be boosted significantly by the information.  

But, aside from a small cadre of foreign policy scholars, a few foreign national intelligence services, and Jon Stewart, I’m not sure who benefits from this release.  Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s stated intent for the disclosure was to reveal “the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors – and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what’s going on behind the scenes.”  

With all due respect to Mr. Assange, this is just plain silly. In fact, the release of the hundreds of thousands of documents may actually do more to harm the cause of government transparency than help it.  Because of the widespread embarrassment to the US government and the indiscriminate release of thousands of documents, there almost certainly will be enormous political pressure to tighten restrictions on information flows within the US government, to increase punishment for any release of classified information (even when it reveals illegal activities), and to restrict the protocols for releasing documents through Freedom of Information Act and other legal channels.  Certainly nothing to celebrate in that.

Here’s the problem with Assange’s claims about the need and desire for transparency.  First, to the dismay of many of us who teach American foreign policy, we have plenty of data demonstrating that overwhelming majorities of the American public are not interested in foreign policy in general – let alone what happens “behind the scenes.”  The United States is currently fighting two major wars -- in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and we may be on the brink of another on the Korean peninsula.  Yet it's very hard to see any sign of war mobilization in any community across this vast continent.  Those magnetic yellow “Support the Troops” ribbons that adorned the back of SUVs shortly after the US invasion of Iraq have long since faded and disappeared altogether.  Less than .05% of the country is participating either directly or indirectly in the wars and none of us are paying for them yet. 

Wikileaks will dominate headlines in a few national newspapers for a couple of days, but Americans have long tuned out international news and American foreign policy issues.  International news coverage in print, broadcast, and cable outlets is far less than 10 percent of the daily content and most news organizations have dramatically downsized or abandoned the staffing of foreign correspondents – the explanation is that it is too expensive to staff a product that doesn’t sell.  Despite all the attention given to Fox News Channel’s rigid ideological content and war mongering, four times as many Americans watch Nickolodeon television network’s nightly broadcast of Sponge BobSquarePants as watch the most popular cable news shows.

If we can’t generate interest in US foreign policy when we are in two simultaneous wars, it’s not clear there is much broad-based interest in a data dump of more than 250,000 documents including more than 8,000 cables from the US Embassy in Ankara, 6,000+ cables from the US embassies in Tel Aviv or Tokyo, and so on.

But, second, even if the country was interested in knowing what’s going on behind the scenes, it turns out that we already have a pretty good system of disclosure and transparency.   We don’t need WikiLeaks to know what’s going on. 

To be sure, leaks are an important element of the current levels of transparency.  For example, several major government abuses since September 11, 2001 were exposed by unsanctioned (and probably illegal) leaks from various US government officials to US media outlets.  The New York Times, for example, exposed the expansive domestic wiretapping and surveillance programs, the policy of secret renditions, CIA black prisons, the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and several instances of torture at Guantanamo and Bagram Airfield after receiving leaked information from various government officials.  Unlike the Wikileaks dump of standard diplomatic reporting cables, each of these leaks revealed specific or widespread instances of illegal, corrupt, or inappropriate activity.  Each leak had a positive effect: the disclosure of these practices has led to a significant reduction in the abuses.   

The United States also has a fairly extensive system of laws that allows for the disclosure of classified information – some of which can be highly embarrassing and damaging to a sitting administration – through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Through FOIA, the American Civil Liberties Union and other individuals and organizations were able to get access to a whole range of internal White House Office of Legal Counsel and Justice Department memos regarding CIA and military interrogation techniques used after 9/11 (the Torture Memos).  These were released beginning in 2006 while the Bush Administration was still in office.   The memos certainly exposed “behind the scenes” deliberations and generated a significant political backlash against the administration.  

The FOIA process has been used very effectively by a number of organizations to secure the release of a wide range of historical and contemporary foreign policy documents.  Perhaps best known is the National Security Archive based at George Washington University in Washington, DC.  Every year, it gains the release of thousands of classified documents to uncover a wide range of issues ranging from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, US nuclear strategy, interventions in the Balkans, and such.   Perhaps best known is Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at NSA, who has compiled an exhaustive documentary history of US policy vis-à-vis former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.  Because of Kornbluh’s efforts we now have a sophisticated and comprehensive dossier on the complicity of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his support for Pinochet’s ruthless, illegal, and corrupt activities. 

Furthermore, despite the politicized nature of many Congressional investigations of foreign policy crises and fiascos, such investigations often disclose substantial and very detailed documents on the internal workings of US foreign policy decision making.  For example, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of the Bush administration’s campaign to sell the war in Iraq and the failures of the US intelligence on Iraq’s WMD program disclosed a wide range of State Department, CIA, and National Security Council documents depicting the “behind the scenes” events in the run-up to the war.  The 9/11 Report from the Kean/Hamilton Commission disclosed thousands of pages of internal government documents, testimonies, and reports on a wide range of US government internal actions in the months and years leading up to the terrorist attacks. These commissions and the subsequent disclosures have a long track record in American foreign policy.  The 1975 Church Committee’s work revealed the extensive range of improper and illegal CIA covert operations throughout the world in the 1960s and 1970s and produced 14 separate reports with full documentation.

Finally, we have an elaborate process of releasing archival information.  The National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) and each presidential library has an exhaustive collection of available archives. The standard declassification process is ten years for low-level declassifications, twenty years for mid-level declassifications, and thirty years for the release of highly sensitive materials.  To be sure, these releases come well after events, but the extensive documentary evidence often discloses the most embarrassing, often illegal, and occasionally corrupt activity by US government officials.   As a result of formal archival rules, comprehensive documentation on US foreign policy goes back more than 140 years.  

So given this level of transparency and disclosure of “behind the scenes” documentation of American foreign policy, what is the value added to transparency by this latest release?  I’ve read through most of the latest wave of documents released by Wikileaks and I don’t see a whole lot of illegal or corrupt activity.  Sexy and juicy perhaps.  Embarrassing yes.  But corrupt or illegal – it’s just not there.  And, there is nothing particularly enlightening about the conduct of American foreign policy.

I'm a strong advocate for transparency in government.  But dumping 250,000 documents for the sake of it is more about drawing attention to Assange and his organization than drawing American public attention to illicit or inappropriate US foreign policy. The US government has taken a hit here, and neither the Obama administration nor the new Republican-controlled Congress are likely to take it lying down.  Information may be a lot harder to come by in the future because of this and transparency will suffer for it.