In Other Words

A Short History of Secrecy

Think Julian Assange is sui generis? He's just one in a long line of agents provocateurs, stretching back through Trotsky to the Greeks.


WikiLeaks is something new, but human beings have always been fascinated by secrets and what to do about them. According to Greek legend, King Midas’s barber knew his master’s shameful secret: that the king had been given donkey ears by an angry god. The barber, unable to bear the burden of his knowledge, whispered the secret into a bed of reeds; when the wind blew, the Greeks believed, you could hear the reeds telling of Midas’s shame.

Those in power, not surprisingly, have tended to agree with Midas that certain things — military plans and international negotiations, for example — are best kept secret. Yet down through the centuries there have always been Julian Assanges too, arguing that secrecy is in itself bad. Neither side has ever definitively won, but powerful elites have lined up so consistently and effectively on the side of secrecy that calls for greater transparency have generally lost the argument. Are we about to see another revolt against government secrecy snuffed out, or has WikiLeaks ushered in a more lasting change?

Before the 19th century, when foreign affairs rested in the hands of a select few, secret deals and treaties were an accepted commonplace. Diplomats were expected to report frankly to their masters, hence the long-standing convention of the sacrosanct diplomatic pouch: No matter what, governments were not supposed to open the packages that foreign diplomats received and sent. But there was no shame in governments trying to spy on each other. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, agents of Prince Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, famously rooted through the wastepaper baskets of other delegates for compromising documents. Secrets were stolen for tactical reasons, however, not for sheer joy in exposure. And certainly no one in power wanted government secrets leaking out to the public.

Until recently, too, incriminating documents were more easily kept private. Without the mixed blessings of typewriters and then photocopiers, scanners, and today’s easily reproducible electronic versions, governments often had only one or two handwritten copies of, say, secret treaties and could keep them safely locked up. Or so they hoped. The crucial treaty, the vital war plans stolen, are familiar elements in thrillers by Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and others, as is the anarchic Assange-like thief who threatens to steal and publicize them, at the cost of millions of lives.

He had another spiritual ancestor — in terms of transparent diplomacy, at least — in Leon Trotsky. After the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917, the new people’s commissar of foreign affairs took delight in rummaging through the files and publishing secret czarist treaties, whether on carving up the Ottoman Empire or enticing Italy into the war on the Allied side. All this helped fuel a general revulsion against the "old diplomacy," increasingly seen as responsible for the war itself.

It was a feeling shared by many Americans, including President Woodrow Wilson. In the very first of his famous Fourteen Points, he called for "open covenants of peace, openly arrived at" and for a diplomacy in full public view. But soon after his arrival for the World War I peace conference in Paris, he was brought up short by the practical difficulties of conducting tricky discussions in the open. He and his fellow statesmen almost immediately reverted to private, confidential talks. Wilson, to his credit, did not resort to making secret promises and agreements. But his successors have not always been able to resist the temptation. With a wink and a nod, Franklin D. Roosevelt let Stalin understand at Yalta that the United States would not go out of its way to counter the spread of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. And Richard Nixon promised much more to the Chinese, in aid and military support, than he was capable of delivering.

The WikiLeaks cables, interestingly, show us that diplomacy in its essence remains much the same; it is, after all, as much about the personalities and foibles of those whom diplomats encounter as about grand strategy. Today’s accounts of U.S. officials suffering for the cause recall centuries of such encounters. Think of the unfortunate U.S. ambassador to Eritrea and his wife who were treated to "grilled sheep innards served with honey and chili sauce (but no silverware), washed down with a sour, semi-fermented traditional drink called, aptly, ‘sewa.’" Libya’s dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi is described as "notoriously mercurial," veering between taciturn and sullen and "engaging and charming" — an evaluation that reminded me of diplomatic depictions of Czar Nicholas II of Russia, who, one German ambassador reported in the 1890s, changed his mind "like a reed in the wind." French President Nicolas Sarkozy is described as rude, impatient, hyperactive, and infuriating, with "few restraints — political, personal or ideological — to act as a brake on his global ambitions." The description surely resembles the reports British diplomats used to send back to London before 1914 about Kaiser Wilhelm II, "William the Fidgety," as his cousin King George V of Britain nicknamed him.

During the 20th century, most democracies developed protocols and laws both for classifying government documents and for releasing them, opting for a safe 30 years after the fact. In the age of WikiLeaks, however, even these protocols begin to seem outmoded. We are getting the raw material of history right now rather than decades later.

And what is our response? To blame Assange, or to try to drive diplomacy back to the days of fountain pens and carbon paper? That probably won’t happen, but WikiLeaks will surely have consequences. Who is going to be reckless enough to record honest opinions now?

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