An expert's point of view on a current event.

How Disastrous Is WikiLeaks for the State Department?

Very, says a 30-year veteran.


In the days of crisis following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many experts criticized the failures of the U.S. intelligence community to share information regarding the threat posed by al Qaeda and its confederates. Since then, much work has been done to improve the flow of intelligence among U.S. governmental agencies as they work to disrupt terrorist organizations worldwide. Now, in a classic case of unintended consequences, we have discovered the enormous potential downside to aggregating large quantities of sensitive information in digital form. One low-ranking Army intelligence specialist with the proper clearance and sufficient guile has allegedly undermined this enhanced mode of coordinating classified information, inflicting serious harm to the conduct of American diplomacy.

The ongoing release of more than a quarter-million State Department reporting cables by WikiLeaks highlights the risks involved in broadly sharing classified information. Transferred to the custody of the U.S. Defense Department under the Net Centric Diplomacy program, the cables leaked to WikiLeaks and passed on to El País, Le Monde, Stern, the Guardian, and the New York Times provide a wide sample of the contemporary diplomatic communications of the United States. Their release will negatively affect the business of diplomacy conducted by America’s foreign-affairs professionals, inhibiting the candor, frank assessments, and policy recommendations that its decision-makers need. An ambassador in the field who is involved in providing the secretary of state and the president with sensitive insights in the course of delicate peace negotiations must have the confidence and trust in the system that what he is reporting in a cable will not be disclosed publicly. And embassies must be able to report candidly on the internal political situation in a given country without fear of unauthorized disclosure harming official state-to-state relations. Self-censorship by U.S. diplomats and intelligence personnel will diminish the country’s capacity to engage in foreign affairs immeasurably.

The leaked cables constitute a serious breach in the system to protect the sensitive communications of American diplomats. And for what? To learn that U.S. allies in the Middle East are seriously concerned by Iran’s nuclear ambitions? To find out that there is contingency planning in case North Korea collapses or that North Korea is a matter of serious concern to China? To gawk at the personality quirks of foreign leaders? As the Times itself admits, "to read through them is to become a global voyeur." The Times also states that the cables illuminate "the inner workings, and sharp elbows, of diplomacy."

But what of these "sharp elbows"? Isn’t this the sort of straight talk that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama need to hear? Across the span of America’s rise to prominence on the world stage, no-nonsense political and economic reporting has been an invaluable tool of statecraft. Vital in its utility has been assurance that it would be held in confidence for sufficient time to protect the delicate workings of U.S. foreign relations. The reported cables characterizing the contingency-planning discussions between Washington and Seoul about China’s position in case the North Korean regime collapsed, for example, is just prudent policy planning. Likewise, it is not irrelevant to provide information on the personalities of foreign leaders in order to have a better grasp of their decision-making. These diplomatic cables later on serve as the bedrock of U.S.diplomatic history: the volumes of the Foreign Relations of the United States that are produced by the State Department’s Office of the Historian and are available through the Government Printing Office, usually after a 25-year interval.

Their revelation brings to light detail on the many relationships constructed and maintained by the U.S. Foreign Service, which we served over three decades, to further the interests of the American people on the global stage. While the Times has worked with the Obama administration to remove information of potential harm to national security, unredacted release of the cables by WikiLeaks may hold a cost measured in lives as sources of valuable information become public knowledge.   

Furthermore, the leak of U.S. diplomatic cables may well produce an environment in which American diplomats will be shut out of confidential exchanges and the decision-making processes of U.S. allies and friends around the globe. U.S. diplomats spend years building effective professional and personal relationships with their foreign counterparts in order to promote national security interests and values. This breach of information can seriously impair and hinder that capability.

No policy, domestic or foreign, is sustainable without the support of the American people, and U.S. administrations already make a major effort to inform the public of their policies. But U.S. diplomacy cannot become a town-hall exercise.

Edward P. Djerejian is the founding director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel. Christopher Bronk is the Baker Institute's fellow in information technology policy.