WikiLeaks: trying to have it both ways

The recent postings on the anarchist website WikiLeaks of more than 250,000 pages of diplomatic cables from my former employer, the US State Department, is extremely troubling.

The recent postings on the anarchist website WikiLeaks of more than 250,000 pages of diplomatic cables from my former employer, the US State Department, is extremely troubling.

The cables give a no-holds-barred look at the inner workings of US statecraft, along with candid assessments of world leaders and the often thorny situations our diplomats face that require discretion in trying to solve. Which is exactly the purpose of a cable.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went on the PR and diplomatic defensive earlier this week, issuing a carefully worded statement in a press conference with reporters and other points along her travel stops this week to Central Asia. From a crisis communications standpoint, she has a lot of work ahead of her and a lot of diplomatic fence-mending to do with our allies, as well as some of our foes.

She is doing all the right things. And while Clinton and I do not see eye-to-eye politically speaking, I have to admit she's been a very good and capable Secretary of State. This latest crisis will test her again.

Speaking with Time magazine this week, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange argued that Clinton should resign in the wake of his postings of these ill-gotten goods. She should not. This incursion into the US government's classified system is not of her making.

Assange defends his actions, portraying it as some noble cause. Make no mistake: what he and his co-conspirators have done is reprehensible, reckless, and naïve.

These cables, like the military information about our actions in Afghanistan that Assange obtained and posted this summer, were never meant for wholesale public consumption. They are secret and confidential for a reason. Sources' lives are at stake.

People who cooperate with us in war zones or in other not-so-democratic countries by shedding light on things like human rights abuses, terrorist actions, and corruption are extremely vulnerable to retribution. Leaks of this magnitude can and will send chills throughout the world, while our ability to “connect the dots” in foreign capitals to prevent terrorist attacks here on US soil is severely compromised.

WikiLeaks is not a news organization. It is a “virtual” dumping-ground for stolen information, hiding behind the guise of free speech and a vague wish to make governments more “transparent.” By sharing the materials purloined from the State Department with news organizations such as The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and The Guardian, WikiLeaks has co-opted legitimate news organizations in an effort to try to hide legally behind First Amendment protections.

Which gets me to the topic of secrets and sources. Attorney-client privilege allows for protected communications. Legitimate news organizations have protections to shield their sources. Yet WikiLeaks asserts that the US government and its military and diplomatic apparatus have no such rights to protect discreet and sometimes sensitive information-gathering and intelligence.

When pressed on who funneled him this massive amount of information, Assange demurs and talks about protecting his sources. What hypocrisy. In reality, what Assange and WikiLeaks are trying to do is have it both ways.

Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US State Department, is president of The Tappan Group, a public affairs firm based in the Washington, DC area. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at: tappan@tappan.org.

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