Since thorough research and reading complemented by careful consideration seem to be out of fashion anyway, I may as well jump on the bandwagon and add my two eurocents’ worth to the latest biggest and juiciest affair of all times.
WikiLeaks site states it is “a non-profit media organization dedicated to bringing important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for independent sources around the world to leak information to our journalists. We publish material of ethical, political and historical significance while keeping the identity of our sources anonymous, thus providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices.”
Whistleblowing as far as I understand it is a legitimate action that allows an employee with a conscience to reveal illegal or negligent behaviour within his or her organisation in order to protect the interests of a wider population. Its official name (in the UK) sums it up nicely: “making a disclosure in the public interest“. The above self-description does make the WikiLeaks site sound like a whistleblowing site.
Motives for Disclosure
But does disclosure or rather the announcement of disclosure of some 250,000 randomly picked diplomatic cables count as whistleblowing? I wonder.
Allegedly, the whistleblower’s motive was to reveal the patronising attitude of the US toward third countries. The US, patronising? What a shocker. As for the WikiLeaks’ founder’s motive?
As seen on ABC via the The Daily Show, Julian Assange explains:
“I’m a combatative person. I like crushing bastards. So, it is deeply personally, personally deeply satisfying to me.”
So let’s get this straight. Confidential diplomatic correspondence has been disclosed, because (allegedly, unconfirmed) a frustrated young American soldier Bradley Manning (who allegedly had social difficulties in the Army attributed to the problems of being homosexual under the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy and had been demoted for assaulting another soldier and scheduled to be discharged early) wanted to show, purely in the public interest, his home country for what it was. Right. No personal vendetta involved. And, because a frustrated not-quite-as-young-an Australian man feels deep personal satisfaction crushing whom he deems bastards. Nothing personal, either, pure public interest at play.
Granted, discrediting a whistleblower in its midst is most probably the first step any organisation is tempted to take once the small wind instrument is blown. So in an attempt to disregard the variety of motives other than serving the public interest, especially since the source of the cablegate leak has not been confirmed, let’s take a look at what has been disclosed.
Subject of Diclosure
What is allegedly about to be disclosed are 251,287 cables exchanged between 274 US embassies around the world and the US State Department. There is supposedly no rhyme or reason as to what is being disclosed. No specified illegal act or act of negligence that should be remedied. Simply, opening a certain country’s diplomatic mail and sharing it .
Manner of Disclosure and Interpretation
Five newspapers (Der Spiegel, El Pais, Guardian, Le Monde and the New York Times) had advance access to the material and while the cables are being posted to the WikiLeaks site in stages that will apparently last for months to come, the newspapers are for all intents and purposes editing the material by choosing what to publish now and how to present the information contained in the confidential correspondence. The tiny nagging voice in the back of my brain won’t stop asking why only five newspapers and if so, why these five. It’s even louder asking why all the cables are not published simultaneously and how their order of publication is determined.
A lovely insight into the importance of editing and interpretation by the select hand-picked media is the case of discussions between the US and Slovenia on the relocation of a Gitmo detainee to our lovely country. Interpretations of the same cable ranged from the US using its might to try and force tiny Slovenia into accepting a detainee to Slovenia’s PM Borut Pahor begging for a 20-minute interview and offering to take in a detainee in exchange. The public depended on these interpretations as the cable was not yet published at the WikiLeaks site. Finally, El Pais came around to sharing it with us: here. Read it yourself and form your own opinion. Slovene media more or less seem to agree that its content constitutes something along the lines of treason. That it reveals servility of Slovene foreign policy and exposes the PM as sucking up to the US.
Then again, a popular Slovene magazine took this text:
“2010 will, we hope, be the year that we focus our attention on partnering with Slovenia in the Western Balkans and ISAF; paving the way for Westinghouse to compete successfully for the construction of a new nuclear power plant; and, perhaps most challenging of all, turning Pahor’s rhetorical support for detainee resettlement into reality.”
and translated “perhaps most challenging of all” into the Slovene equivalent of “probably most importantly of all”. Ah.
Notwithstanding previous whistleblower efforts by WikiLeaks, what I see right now is a case of a quarter million random confidential US State Department cables exposed with no true whistleblower motive. The site does claim the following:
“The cables show the extent of US spying on its allies and the UN; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in “client states”; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for US corporations; and the measures US diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.”
but seriously, they should publish the cables that effectively prove the above claim and prove some sort of illegal conduct. If they fail to do so, the only reason for media to rave about the material and present it as a sensation (though, truth be told, not much less attention seems to be paid to a President choking on a pretzel, a child presumingly trapped in a hot air balloon or a family dog being rescued) and for the public to accept is as such is the perverse pleasure of peeking into other people’s mail. Heck, the public is used to peeking into people’s whole lives. Big brother, big sister, whatever. Sure, you may have already “known” everything contained in the cables, but you also “knew” everything about the celebrities involved in reality shows, yet having your suspicions confirmed along with millions of other people takes you to a whole new level, doesn’t it? So I hear, anyway.
You may call out “ah-hah, but that is not private correspondence, it is correspondence exchanged by public servants paid by our taxes. Basically our employees!” True, but what is these folks’ job that you’re paying them to perform and excel at? If you are a tax-paying US citizen, what do you expect your diplomats to do for you? I’d almost expect you to want them to build solid country-to-country relations, secure your best interests, to gather information that might help your country secure its/your best interests and to behave professionally in public while sharing their private thoughts that may or may not contribute to your country’s policy-making process, privately. And I’d expect the same of any country’s diplomats, i.e. to work in the best interest of their countries without breaching law or duty.
“Openness” and “transparency” sound mighty fine, but may not really be conductive to the objectives of diplomacy as such. When sensitive subjects are being discussed, carrying out the entire process in the open would likely render any negotiations lengthy and fruitless. Negotiations mean making concessions and reaching a compromise that is not the ideal solution for any side involved, but one that all can live with. Again, when sensitive subjects are concerned, try to imagine the public reaction to any of the sides “giving in an inch”. End negotiations right there.
Positive changes in diplomacy and world politics as such are not achieved overnight. As a rule, they are not the result of a single act, but rather of a series of events and acts pushing in the same direction following eternal shifts of power, adapting to new circumstances, negotiations and renegotiations, all based on a certain level of trust.
People, snap out of the reality show mode and engage common sense.