Acres of words have been written on what Cablegate (the Wikileaks release of US embassy cables) means, changes and so on. I have tried to avoid any knee-jerk reactions on this blog, whilst watching the debates unfold.
A number of misconceptions are taking hold which are influencing discussions in unhelpful ways. Firstly, Wikileaks did not steal or take the Cablegate cables. Someone passed them to Wikileaks, that’s what a leak is! So whilst the leaker may have broken laws and their terms of employment, Wikileaks haven’t. Neither have the New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais and the other media organisations who also are publishing the cables.
So, if you deplore the breach of confidence by the leaker, that’s fine — but don’t blame Wikileaks and other media organisations for it, the press can’t help but publish good stories that are in the public interest.
Again, if you deplore the leaks, then consider the poor security which enabled over 2 million US personnel access to these cables in such a way that they could be downloaded and leaked so readily. This further highlights the risks of centralised databases with wide-scale networked access. The system wasn’t cracked, a technical flaw wasn’t exploited, someone authorised to use the system just downloaded everything there.
Persecuting Wikileaks only serves to make them more of a rallying point giving them stratospheric profile, and makes them an even more obvious recipient for future leaked materials. So, in their doomed attempts to close them down, the US have succeeded in making the Wikileaks brand stronger than ever.
As for the leaks themselves, are they so bad that democracy and diplomacy are damaged? No. Of course everyone needs some confidentiality to think and debate their work before it is public. Apple wouldn’t want us to see each of their failed prototype gadgets, politicians want to be able to explore all options (even the unthinkable) and diplomats need to have conversations with all sorts of people, not just official points of contact.
However the cables show that confidentiality has been exploited, national security has been abused to cover up information which should be public. Every nation involved in Afghanistan needs to know why the US military are taking a 15% cut off financial support directed there. Dutch voters need to know about nuclear weapons on their soil. British voters need to be aware of the true story behind the release of the Lockerbie bomber. And so on.
To my mind issues of that nature should never have been withheld from the public in the first place. They are clearly of great public interest. That such significant issues have been withheld shows an astonishing disregard by governments for the public and disdain for accountability.
This attitude is worryingly widespread, governments across the world are implicated by these cables in hiding vital issues from their public. This indicates that it’s not a system or cultural failure in one specific democracy. It is human nature to protect one’s own, and also to use restricted access to information as a source of power. So the question for me isn’t about Wikileaks or diplomacy, both of which will surely carry on more or less as before, but about constructing accountability. How, given the massive imbalance in power and information, can citizens effectively hold governments to account when they can use ‘official secrets’ to protect themselves?