This was the moderate reaction of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates when asked about the impact of WikiLeaks.
Compare this to the statement the previous day by an overwrought Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton: The leaks are “an attack on America — it’s an attack on the international community.” And, she said, they “tear at the fabric” of responsible government. Secretary Clinton can be excused her hyperbole since several leaked cables reflected her opinions on delicate matters. But if the leaker-in-chief, Julian Assange — whose WikiLeaks website recently partnered with several global news providers to publish the confidential diplomatic cables — sought to humiliate the U.S. government or the administration, as he claimed, then he failed miserably.
There were no smoking guns, no pernicious plots, no unconscionable conspiracies so loved by many of my friends in the Arab world. What these leaked cables showed was a fairly high level of responsible reporting and diplomacy by the professional Foreign Service and our embassies and ambassadors abroad. They showed that our Foreign Service is doing its job.
The reality is that the leaked cables were limited to the secret level and to those cables that are given wide dissemination in our government. While I cannot speak for the practices of all of our ambassadors and embassies, any cables that went out under my name in the four ambassadorships I held either were devoid of embarrassing statements about our host government and its leadership, or were specifically limited in distribution by special captions such as Nodis (no distribution in Washington outside a few designated individuals). And if I really had sensitive opinions or information to convey, I picked up the secure voice telephone and called Washington. Neither the records of secure voice conversations nor limited-distribution cables were included in the databases available to Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is accused of providing the documents to WikiLeaks. If in fact 250,000 classified diplomatic cables were compromised, it says more about the excesses of reporting and overclassification than the nature of the information revealed.
There has obviously been some fallout from the Assange attack. Several governments suggested that they would be hesitant to deal with U.S. diplomats in the wake of WikiLeaks. And perhaps some foreign leaders will watch their words more carefully now. But in my experience, foreign leaders tell us what they want us to hear. They are not prone to putting themselves or their national interest at risk through loose talk with our diplomats. And if they do slip and make an embarrassing admission, Secretary Gates is right: Most countries can absorb the momentary embarrassment if the alternative is cutting off contacts with the United States.
There has been some speculation that the revelations contained in the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have had something to do with the current events, demonstrations and clashes in the Middle East. But it is a real stretch to say that this was a WikiLeaks revolution. What is happening in several Middle East countries is home-grown and based on longstanding ethnic, tribal and religious divisions, communications technology and grievances with the governments involved.
Should Pfc. Manning stand trial for what he did? Absolutely. He had no idea how much damage he could have caused and had no compunction about harming the national interest. What about Julian Assange? Let’s leave him to the Swedes and his trial for sexual misconduct. We should be very cautious about any effort to criminalize the acts of receiving or repeating classified information from U.S. government sources, particularly since, as I know from personal experience, some of these leaks are generated on purpose by administration officials with a particular and, arguably, legitimate agenda to serve.
Ambassador Edward S. “Ned” Walker ’62 is the Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Global Political Theory at Hamilton. Throughout a diplomatic career spanning 35 years, he served in key ambassadorial positions, including Egypt, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, at our U.N. mission in New York and as assistant secretary of state for the Middle East.