Four Lessons from the WikiLeaks Leaks
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Four lessons for government functionaries emerge from the WikiLeaks release of some quarter of a million U.S. State Department dispatches.
1. Unless you are sure of absolute security, don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t want to see on Page One of the New York Times.
This is straight out of E-mail 101, the absolutely most important survival rule for people who exchange e-mail with any but their most intimate friends. It’s also basic to Elementary Texting, the Facebook Rulebook, Video Verities, and Twitter Truisms.
Anyone, from tweens to congressmembers, can – and eventually will – be pantsed in public by an injudicious offhand remark. Words are evanescent; you can say something stupid or mean, someone can quote you, but they can’t prove you said it. Pixels are forever.
2. American diplomacy is to diplomacy as U.S. Intelligence is to intelligence.
I don’t have to tell you about the intelligence part of Lesson 2. We have about nearly a million people working in various government and contracting “intelligence” agencies and still we have to get photographed naked or felt up by T.S.A. Workers, an act that must be as humiliating for them as it is for us. And still you can make it through security with pocket change and a dry cell battery in your pocket.
The American diplomacy part has to do with such WikiLeaks revelations as the mean-spirited and petty ways State Department employees described the rulers of various nations. I won’t give them space here. If you want to see a sampling, the Daily Beast will satisfy your curiosity.
Then there’s the disclosure that both the immediate past and present U.S. secretaries of state ordered their subordinate ambassadors to spy on the personal lives of the leaders of the countries to which they were posted, and at the United Nations. The information sought went far beyond the necessary and included credit card and frequent flyer numbers, and biometric data.
My personal favorite revelation concerns the mental state of the individual who reported that a certain ruler of an African nation travels with a nurse described as “voluptuous.” Will someone please tell me how the bust development of a ruler’s traveling companion impinges on the internal security of this country?
Writers learn to go easy on the adjectives. Public servants should, too.
3. Remember the boy who cried wolf.
Attention to Rule 3 would, in future, spare us the international humiliation of heavy-breathing spokespeople at the White House and State Department intoning that release of the State communications will put lives in danger.
Careers? One might hope so. But lives? Rubbish. We’ve heard this all before. I expected it of the previous administration, but I thought this one might be permeated with a bit more intellectual integrity.
This isn’t the Pentagon Papers, by which I mean nothing contained in these dispatches is going to change the course of history.
And as far as going after the character of the leaker, that’s even worse than crying wolf when none is threatening the flock. When an American weapons inspector before we invaded Iraq went public later with some unpleasant revelations, raising questions about the attack on the World Trade Center in the process, the FBI was detailed to investigate him for sexual misbehavior and the fact (of the investigation, not of any actual misbehavior) was leaked to the news media. The fact that he was never charged with anything not. You had to search for that.
Now the leader of the WikiLeaks group, once charged in Sweden (or all places) with rape, then cleared, has been charged again. I love Sweden. I almost moved my kids there during the Vietnam Era, because I didn’t raise my sons to be soldiers. I hate to think that freedom-loving country is carrying the United States’s water on this one. The man will be cleared again, as soon as the dispatch fracas dies down.
Meanwhile, our bullshit detectors are hitting the pegs, and the government only discredits itself by these tactics.
4. Take a course in damage control.
The constant braying by the White House and State Department over how awful the leaks were going to be attracted more attention to the WikiLeaks site than all the media could have done if the government had done nothing but phone the people who were insulted in the dispatches and apologized abjectly.
It’s said (I haven’t had the experience myself, so I can only say I’ve been told) that if you get a camel angry, the only way to make amends is to take off your clothes, bury them in the sand, and go away naked. I wouldn’t expect that of the Secretary of State, but that’s what I’m thinking about when I say “abjectly.”
You don’t get to be the leader of a country, any country, by being thin-skinned, no matter what someone said about the president of France. I’m sure the folks who were maligned deserved the apologies they got, and then some, but I’m also sure they didn’t go to bed sulking when they heard how others saw them.