Unintended consequences? Collateral damage? Transparency?

Unintended consequences? Collateral damage? Transparency?

November 29th, 2010 // 2:45 pm @

Wikileaks released what they say is the first round of Cablegate releases – leaked United States Embassy Cables.รก Over the next several months, Wikileaks says that they’ll release about 251,000 cables – communications among United States Embassys.

With curiosity, I browsed through the cables – I was just casually curious. It took some time to figure out the structure of a cable, gain an understanding of the tags and other details that provide context when browsing through the data. As I read most of the cables, they struck me as rather commonplace. I always suspect that embassies engage in the sort of documentation in the cables, yet the ones I read added substance. I was surprised at the level of detail that the cables provided about issues: they provided background, talking points, and context. Some cables requested action – for example, a few requested that China look into some companies that wanted to sell some things to other organizations that the US believes are linked to Iran. Nothing really stood out – until I saw a name.

One of the cables includes a name (the link goes to the cable’s summary paragraph). The cable, sent from the Embassy in Ankra, Turkey, describes how an elderly man escaped from Iran to Turkey – the cable includes the man’s name, year of birth, occupation, and state of residence in the US. The story is itse;f intriguing, yet might leave you wondering why it’s considered Confidential. Why, for example, do stories like this not get published – stories like this are probably interesting to a lot of people.

Consider this one sentence from the cable (direct link to the paragraph):

“To protect his family and friends from retribution by the GOI after his absence was noted, he spoke to none of them of his escape plans.”

[GOI = Government of Iran]

So, he makes the difficult decision to leave, taking a risky route, and without telling his family to protect them. Now that this is out:

  1. His name is known
  2. The date and details of the event are known
  3. The route that he took is now more commonly known
  4. The options that were open to him are now more commonly known
  5. The criteria for choosing his route is now more commonly known
  6. The family in Iran likely has a real problem on their hands now

Granted, Wikileaks asked the US Government if they wanted to redact any content to protect people, yet there was no reply by the time Wikileaks published the cables.

While transparency is good, institutions like the US Government are not yet ready for this degree of scrutiny and we need to ask if this level of transparency is even necessary. Diplomacy is a delicate art and science – much of diplomacy is based on (possibly perceived) trust and (likely perceived) discretion. How can sovereign nations communicate among themselves, coordinating activities and exchanging information, when it’s all done in public? The consequences of public scrutiny are clear with this one example – how much damage this does is likely to be unknown for a long time.

While I support Wikileaks, I also support a level of appropriate restraint. Would it have been so difficult to release cables that include only publicly known names, when names are in the cables?


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