Will the WikiLeaks release damage U.S. diplomacy?

Yes.

The leaks will blunt candor, the bedrock of diplomacy.

By Earle Scarlett

Diplomacy is the second oldest legal profession but arguably the least understood. This reality has triggered disparate assessments of the impact of WikiLeaks’ release of thousands of U.S. confidential diplomatic dispatches. The consequences for the conduct of diplomacy are far-reaching and go beyond U.S. fundamental values of freedom of speech and transparency. Statecraft is stymied. National security is put at risk.

Diplomatic communications have changed, due largely to advancement of technology. But the essence of diplomacy remains intact. Beyond representing and explaining, diplomats have been engaged throughout history in private consultations with host country officials on an array of national and international matters. Trust and confidentially are the bedrock of diplomatic discourse, and reporting, analysis and recommendation its grist. In contrast, public diplomacy has a different mandate: to promote U.S. interests by engaging foreign publics and projecting a positive U.S. image.

Conflict resolution is an integral element of a diplomat’s portfolio. Influence and suasion help diplomats promote mutual understanding and responsibility, navigating foreign cultures toward averting or resolving conflict. This endeavor requires tact, dialogue and empathy, while never losing sight of U.S. objectives. Firmness with recalcitrants and adversaries is at times appropriate. But the confidentiality of this give-and-take should be respected to avert unraveling and derailing the process for settlement. Important diplomatic relations and negotiations take place in the context of fear, indifference or admiration for the U.S. as countries seek to optimize their perceived interests.

The leaks will dampen customary official private candor. Fears that cables dealing with sensitive and strategic issues will be revealed circumscribe frankness and could impair the quality of dialogue between diplomats and host country officials. Cables that provide trenchant analysis, thoughtful comments and enlightened recommendation run the risk of being transformed into bland reporting. Such an outcome would weaken the effectiveness of our diplomatic missions and tarnish bilateral and multilateral relations. This would have wide negative implications for diplomacy.

Diplomats acquire information overtly, and are obliged to protect sources, as I did in my role in the capture of an elusive Latin American dictator and narcotics kingpin, ensconced in another country, who had been sought for several years.

My disclosure and dispatches of coup plotting in the Philippines, the role of the Catholic Church in the People Power revolution, which aided the overthrow of a dictator and subsequent ascension of a reluctant housewife to power, are examples of classified reporting that, if revealed, would have compromised U.S. interests. In the Philippines, the U.S. had the two largest military bases overseas, during the period of intense rivalry with the Soviet Union over access of petroleum trawlers to the South China Sea.

My reports, based on intimate contacts with an aspiring South American leader and advisers, enabled Washington to grasp what made this leader tick and become an amenable negotiating partner. This leader is now in power and there appears to be an ongoing mutually beneficial relationship.

These personal experiences underscore my perspective of the gravity and magnitude of leaking classified cables that are intended to give Washington and other official U.S. end-users the local patina and inner workings of the country in question, and importantly add data to the decision-making process of the U.S. president and Cabinet members.

Earle Scarlett of Atlanta served 28 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and was director of political training at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute.

No.

U.S. exaggerates the harm; most revelations are just embarrassing.

By Gwynne Dyer

The U.S. government, faced with the publication on the Internet of a quarter-million cables sent by U.S. embassies in recent years, has responded just as it did when WikiLeaks posted similar troves of secret messages about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the Web earlier this year. It has solemnly warned that WikiLeaks is endangering the lives of American diplomats, soldiers and spooks.

“Such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the U.S. for assistance in promoting democracy and open government,” the White House declared.

Hmm. Might there be some exaggeration here? Does the U.S. ambassador to Moscow really face assassination for reporting, in late 2008, that President Dmitri Medvedev “plays Robin to [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin’s Batman”?

Will United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon really order a hit on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now that he knows she ordered U.S. diplomats to collect the details of confidential networks used for official communication by senior U.N. officials, including passwords and personal encryption keys?

Will French President Nicholas Sarkozy have the U.S. ambassador murdered for saying that he has a “thin-skinned and authoritarian personal style”? Will Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi put out a kill order on Elizabeth Dibble, U.S. charge d’affaires in Rome, for saying that he is “feckless, vain, and ineffective”?

And by the way, the leaked documents don’t only deal with “people around the world who come to the U.S. for assistance in promoting democracy and open government,” as the White House put it. They also reveal who came to the U.S. for assistance in suppressing democracy and open government — and, quite frequently, got it.

The official outrage is as synthetic as it is predictable, and what drives it is not fear for the lives of American diplomats and spies but concern for their careers. But how did a big, grown-up government like that of the United States blunder into the error of making all this “secret” material so easily available?

It made the elementary mistake of thinking that electronic communications could really be kept secret, even when widely disseminated, if you just surround them with a sufficiently impressive clutter of passwords, security clearances and encryption. Any historian could have told them they were wrong. If it’s written down, then it will come out sooner or later. In this case, it was sooner.

What the U.S. Defense Department thought it had invented in the Siprnet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network) was a way to distribute confidential information widely, like in the good old days, but without jeopardizing secrecy. Except that it wasn’t secure, as the massive dump of cables on WikiLeaks demonstrates.

All you needed to access the Siprnet was a “Secret” security clearance. When the number of people with a “Secret” clearance or above was last counted by the General Accounting Office in 1993, there were more than three million of them. There are probably twice as many today. And all it takes is one of them to send the data to WikiLeaks, and the whole system is compromised.

The more you distribute information, the more likely it is to leak. If you disseminate it widely by electronic means, it’s almost certain to leak.

So distribution lists will get a lot shorter in the U.S. and elsewhere. This may result in some minor degradation of the decision-making process, but not much. The most striking thing about those quarter-million messages is that they contain almost no real surprises. You’d be just as well informed about the world if you read a couple of good newspapers every day.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based foreign affairs reporter.