The embarrassing release
of more than a quarter million confidential U.S. diplomatic cables Sunday by WikiLeaks is certain to spawn a hand-wringing national debate over why America cannot keep its secrets. Inevitably there will be strident calls for draconian new laws, more exhaustive security procedures and more invasive background investigations into the staggering 3 million Americans with security clearances.
That is the American way dating back to the earliest days of the Cold War – respond to every security breach with a new slam-the-barn-door crackdown. But this bureaucratic reflex obscures the larger truth that for decades America has been unable to tell the difference between real secrets (nuclear codes, the names of Iranian spies, war plans on how to respond to a North Korean military offensive) and routine memos stamped "secret."
Among the 11,000 "secret" cables included in the WikiLeaks document dump is a memorable September 2009 character assessment of Muammar Qaddafi
by Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Qaddafi, according to the cable, will not travel without his favorite "voluptuous blonde" Ukrainian nurse because she alone "knows his routine." In fact, Cretz reports, "some embassy contacts claim" that (warning: shocking revelation ahead) Qaddafi and his 38-year-old Ukrainian caregiver have a "romantic relationship." The memo to the State Department goes on to conclude that Qaddafi is "a complicated individual who has managed to stay in power for 40 years through a skillful balancing of interests and realpolitik methods."
Sprinkled with details about Qaddafi's apparent interest in dance troupes and horse racing, the cable reads like a competent newspaper profile written by a visiting foreign correspondent after a week of picking up the diplomatic gossip in Tripoli. The difference is that rather than immediately appearing in the Economist or The Washington Post, the Cretz cable was supposed to remain secret until 2019 when it would be reviewed for declassification. If Qaddafi is still alive in 2019 or any of his heirs hold power in Libya, the odds are prodigiously high that the cable would again be stamped "secret" until 2029 or 2039.
Obviously, there are serious complications for American diplomacy from the unauthorized release of documents like the 2009 conversation between King Hamad of Bahrain and Gen. David Petraeus
about possible military strikes against the Iranian nuclear program. No national leader – especially not an Arab monarch – wants his private conversations with the U.S. military emblazoned across the world's front pages. That is why a chagrined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may be contemplating a new book, "It Takes a Village to Plug a Leak."
For all the blustery denunciations of the security breach (John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called it "a reckless action which jeopardizes lives"), this is not the Pentagon Papers revisited. Blaming The New York Times for coordinating the release
(and redacting documents) with WikiLeaks is ludicrous since the same material was provided to foreign publications such as The Guardian in Britain
and Der Spiegel
Short of Chinese-style totalitarian measures like blocking Google searches, any American could access the documents once they hit the web anywhere in the world. The humiliation for U.S. diplomacy comes from the document dump itself – and not from the ability of American voters to learn that the Afghan vice president arrived in the United Arab Emirates with $52 million in cash. (Presumably the Afghan official, Ahmed Massoud, does not qualify for an American Express card).
A lasting casualty from the State Department security breach is the hallowed tradition of the eloquent cable to Washington from an astute political officer in, say, Jakarta who can convey the Indonesian mood with deft details and dazzling analysis. Every diplomat wants to be a modern-day George Kennan who defined the contours of American Cold War policy with his famous Long Telegram from Moscow in 1946. But such bravura breakthroughs are impossible in a world defined by instantaneous communication. As Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins shrewdly wrote
Sunday: "What this saga must do is to alter the basis of diplomatic reporting. If WikiLeaks can gain access, by whatever means, so presumably can a foreign power."
All this brings to mind the enduring wisdom of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the last intellectual to serve in the Senate (four terms from New York) and the only public official to serve in the Cabinet or sub-Cabinet of four successive administrations (from JFK to Jerry Ford). Moynihan, who was U.N. ambassador and envoy to India, was long obsessed with the folly of excessive government secrecy. As Moynihan put it in a 1990 memorandum written right after the Berlin Wall came down with no warning from the CIA, "The central and enduring problem of the security system is that ... the secrets are frequently wrong."
Moynihan's correspondence has been collected in a new book titled "A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary
," edited by my friend Steve Weisman. Moynihan took pains in his final 2000 letter to his constituents in New York to stress, "As I close out near on to a half century of government and politics, the great fear that I have is the enveloping culture of government secrecy and the corresponding distrust of government that follows. Since the end of the Cold War – which, incidentally, all those secret agencies quite missed ... the secret side of government just keeps growing."
These words were written a year before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist threat has, of course, changed the nature of government secrets worth protecting: No one wants to publicize the vulnerabilities of nuclear power plants or the targeting instructions of Predator drones. But secrets like these are far different than an ambassador passing along unverified rumors about a "romantic relationship" between the Libyan dictator and his "voluptuous" nurse. Such details about Qaddafi are intriguing – and might possibly be useful in Washington – but they are not exactly the crown jewels of American intelligence.
That is the key word -- "intelligence" or the lack thereof. Maybe one reason why America is so bedeviled by WikiLeaks is that the nation has too much dumb bureaucratic over-classification and too little wise national security.
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