The latest trove of documents released over the weekend by WikiLeaks does make for titillating reading. The cache of diplomatic cables contains juicy items of the sort usually found in gossip columns.
Amid the chitchat there are a few pieces of information that illuminate important questions about American diplomacy. In particular, documents that suggest that diplomats may be crossing the line into low-level spycraft, and revelations about the degree of international concern about Iran's nuclear program, do legitimately inform the international debate. In that way, they share some of the value of earlier releases of documents about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which described the real toll of those conflicts and called into question American strategy and the broader chances for success.
But to a disturbing degree, this latest release is rather like stealing the diary of the most popular girl in high school and posting it on the Internet. It serves no purpose other than embarrassing the State Department. Tidbits including the observations that American diplomats have noticed the voluptuous blond nurse who accompanies Libyan President Muammar el Kadafi, that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is the alpha dog of his government, that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi acts like Mr. Putin's European lapdog, and that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is unstable are tantalizing material, and they probably won't drastically compromise national security. But they don't serve any noble cause either.
The philosophy of WikiLeaks, such as it is, seems to be that all information should be freely, openly available and that there is no cause to hold any one secret to be any more deserving of protection than another. The group has taken to providing its documents ahead of time to a selection of European periodicals and The New York Times for perusal and digestion before posting the full cache on the Internet, but the effect of the practice is more to heighten the publicity for the release rather than to rationally discern what merits public discussion and what doesn't. From the WikiLeaks point of view, it's wrong for any individual or group to act as a filter — only the wisdom of the crowd can sort out what's important and what's not. That's a lovely idea, but we all probably figured out by middle school that the world doesn't actually work that way. Some secrets are harmful, but some are benign or even beneficial.
New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote in Monday's paper about his decision to agree to WikiLeaks' terms for publication and to write about what they contained. He said the paper discussed the matter with the State Department and asked which parts the government believed would be damaging to national security if released. He said the paper honored some requests but not others, and that it generally did not "censor candid remarks simply because they might cause a diplomatic controversy or embarrass officials." He concluded that the government's concern that such disclosures would hinder other nations' willingness to cooperate with us was overblown, and he may well be right. Surely other nations' diplomats also make candid assessments of our leaders. But that doesn't make many of these latest revelations anything more than prurient.
There may be no way to stop WikiLeaks, and trying to do so may ultimately be counterproductive. The U.S. government can prosecute those who violate the law by releasing classified materials, but that is a dangerous road. As useless as some of the information revealed this time may be, there have been other cases — most famously, the Pentagon Papers — when the release of secrets has served a vital national interest. All we can do, as consumers of information, is to respond to the actions of WikiLeaks with precisely the discretion and maturity that the group lacks — and hope that the world leaders named in these diplomatic cables do the same.