John B. Judis: A Defense of Wikileaks ... How it could actually improve U.S. foreign policy

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[John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic.]

The Obama administration has condemned Wikileaks for its second release within a year of classified foreign policy documents. And some liberal commentators have backed up the administration’s complaints. And I am not going to argue that the administration doesn’t have a case. Governments rely on candid assessments from their diplomats; and if Americans in overseas embassies have to assume that they are writing for the general public and not for their superiors back home, they are not likely to be very candid. But there is also something to be said in defense of Wikileaks. Or to put it in the most minimal terms, there is a reason why, outside of Washington, most people, and much of the respectable press, have focused on the contents of these leaks rather than on the manner in which they were leaked.

Many of the cables consist of high-level gossip, or educated but not necessarily insightful opinion, with little bearing on policy. Yet those that do deal with policy reveal contradictions between what the Bush or Obama administrations have been telling the public and what was known inside the State Department and White House. For instance, while the White House was warning Congress that Iran was arming the Taliban in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was assuring the Italian foreign minister that “there was little lethal material crossing the Afghanistan-Iranian border.”

Other revelations bear upon what the administration knew or thought it knew about other countries, but was not telling the public. Some of the most significant concern China. The State Department believed that the Chinese government was behind the global computer hacking that affected not only Google in China, but American Defense Department computers. The Chinese have also rebuffed American pleas to stop exporting militarily sensitive equipment to Iran and North Korea.

Should this kind of information be known to the public? The administration says it should not. Referring to the leak about China and proliferation, a “senior administration official” told the Washington Post, “Clearly, you don’t want any information like this leaked illegally and disseminated to the public.” But I beg to differ. I think the public has a right to know about China’s willingness to arm Iran and North Korea. And I applaud Wikileaks for making this kind of material public. I would feel the same way if an enterprising reporter unearthed the relevant documents and published them in The New York Times. If Wikileaks is doing a disservice by indiscriminately airing classified dirty laundry, the U.S. government is doing its public a disservice by keeping this kind of information about China or Iran or about Afghanistan’s government secret...

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