The United States political establishment has responded with fury to the release by WikiLeaks of a quarter of million diplomatic telegrams sent by Washington’s envoys around the world. That is understandable - after all, no one likes to see his or her correspondence publicised for all the world to read. Yet there is also something disproportionate about this reaction.
After all, Julian Assange's brainchild has not (yet) produced revelations that have truly shaken the world or destabilised governments. True, there are some fascinating shafts of light on the conduct of foreign policy; indications of the unpleasant (mis)behaviour of leaders such as Russia's Vladimir Putin, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and France's Nicolas Sarkozy; and details of the tendency of European politicians behind the scenes (or so they thought) to pledge fealty to the United States as in the good old days of the cold war. But - despite the support of Daniel Ellsberg, whistleblowing hero of the Pentagon Papers on the US’s illegal war in Indochina - there are few if any “smoking guns” here.
So what explains the vehemence of the American reaction? It may be due in part to sheer embarrassment at the fact that so much of what is in these cables echoes what was printed in newspapers, local or international. But there’s nothing surprising in this. Diplomats routinely rely on the media as one of their main sources of information.
During my time as a foreign correspondent, reporting (inter alia) from Washington for Le Monde, I was often questioned by diplomats on what I knew or had written about a specific issue or person. Some even told me that they envied journalists, because my stories were published - and read by their ministers - even before they had drafted their telegrams.
This gives point to the typically flavoursome judgment of the Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco, writing in the French daily Libération (1 December 2010), that WikiLeaks “has confirmed that all files collected by secret services (of any nation) are made up of press clippings. The 'extraordinary' US revelations on Berlusconi's sexual mores only quote what could have been read for months in any newspaper (those owned by Berlusconi excepted), and [Libyan leader, Muammar] Ghaddafi's dark and caricatural profile had for long been an source of inspiration for cabaret artists.”
But there is also a political dimension to this personalising aspect of the leaks, for they also show how close - and even subservient - some western politicians have been to Washington. Nicolas Sarkozy is reported to have told the US embassy that he would be a candidate in France’s presidential election of 2007 a year before he told French voters, and that he disagreed with his own president (then Jacques Chirac) and government’s opposition to the war in Iraq. Britain’s Conservative Party leaders are revealed pressing on US diplomats their country’s status as Washington's special partners; Spanish leaders as closing their eyes to the rendition of CIA prisoners; Argentina’s presidential couple, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, as both cavorting with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez yet cooperating with the US over Evo Morales’s Bolivia and terrorism.
The leaks thus strip the clothes from the sole “emperor” left in the world - and the robes of many others besides. Alongside this, the exposure of the names of US officials and their local contacts and associated details, carry a certain (perhaps unknown) amount of jeopardy - at least for a while. All this is reason enough for hurt pride and anger - if not for the excesses of threats of violence and revenge of some on the American political right.
The real threat
In all this, there are strong elements of hypocrisy. When Washington discovered that hackers sponsored by the Chinese regime had “visited” US military and civilian sites (and Google) its protests were loud. But when its own attempts to (for example) cyber-spy on the United Nations are revealed, such actions become treason.
It is possible that what is yet to come will further fuel the US reaction. The five newspapers who have collaborated with WikiLeaks in publicising and filtering these documents have not released the most sensitive and confidential files that touch on matters of national security, but the American state department and the intelligence community know that these are now effectively in the public domain.
An age has passed since Time magazine wrote (on 22 January 2007) that “if used with a healthy dose of scepticism, (WikiLeaks) could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act”. Yet in principle there is good reason why this and similar projects should play such a role.
France’s political and financial culture of secrecy, for example, could greatly benefit from the ability (at present greatly constrained) to gain access to crucial documents hidden from the public for alleged security or procedural reasons. The Bettencourt tax-evasion scandal, and the sale of three submarines to Pakistan (where both Sarkozy and Chirac have been mentioned in connection with possible both legal commissions and illegal “retro commissions”) are but two examples where the courts have faced difficulty in obtaining documents they requested.
In these cases, whistleblowers on the WikiLeaks model could indeed perform a service to democracy, both by uncovering unjustly hidden documents and holding the powerful to account. No wonder bankers and politicians (on all sides) hate and fear the threat. France’s industry minister tried to have WikiLeaks’s site suspended, only to be rebuked by the courts; the ex-foreign minister Hubert Védrine (a socialist) condemned what he calls the “laundering” of data and the “totalitarianism of transparency” it represents; this, he said, was reminiscent of Mao Zedong’s China, where the leader monitored the hearts and minds of all citizens. But a further comment was the most revealing: “adults only tell children what they can understand, even if they have to lie”.
These harsh reactions confirm the importance of transparency in societies where policies are conducted in secret and which remain stubbornly reluctant to share information the public is entitled to know. The culture of opacity which has become pervasive within governments - in the west, in Russia, in China - is the real threat to democracy. Here, the Robin Hoods of the net show the way forward.