Saying ‘No’ to Our Right to Know
Some commentators criticized the harshness of the 35-year prison sentence handed down on Aug. 21 against Private Manning, dismissing the alleged damage caused by the exposure of the diplomatic cables in particular as speculative and ultimately inconsequential. Diplomats, U.S. and others, vehemently disagree. They regard the cables they send back to their governments as private — yes, secret — for very good reasons.
“It goes back to the whole point of what diplomats do,” said one Western diplomat in a recent interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity, the usual rule for foreign ministries. “We need to be able to speak to people in the most honest way possible.”
Those interlocutors can be top officials spelling out their governments’ policies; they can be junior officials who — at some risk to their jobs — want to register a dissenting view; they can be human rights activists who have reason to fear retaliation from their authoritarian rulers; or they can be informed citizens eager for a no-holds-barred discussion about the mood in their country.
Whoever they are, the diplomat said, these people need to be reassured that their information, analyses or comments will be treated with discretion, particularly when meant to be passed on to decision makers in foreign capitals. Without that kind of discretion — yes, secrecy — there can be no trust, he said.
“We are entrusted by our governments to be discreet, not to divulge our sources, to stay informed, for the sake of the security of our countries,” said the diplomat. “We are not out there with poison-tipped umbrellas.”
Assessing the damage caused by Private Manning and WikiLeaks is hard to do, said Patrick F. Kennedy, the U.S. under secretary of state for management, in testimony at the Manning trial. “It is impossible to know when someone is not sharing information with you.”
There have been reported cases of people — generals in Zimbabwe, a journalist in Ethiopia, for instance — who have been targeted because of the exposed cables. Contacts in tricky places have become warier, the diplomat said. The fact that newspapers like The New York Times or The Guardian did their best to shield the names of informants is hardly comforting.