The really secret gun smoking in all those WikiLeaks leaks

December 14, 2010

Culture, Ethics

By Charles Redfern

Eben Harrell drops an irony on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange: “Little is known about his life: he has refused to confirm his age in interviews or give a fixed address.”

Come-come, Julian.  Tell us about yourself.   Your organization is blasting a thumb-drive full of 250,000 confidential State Department cables across the internet, possibly damaging US relations while revealing no genuine scandals (if anything, we see our foreign service officers earning every cent of their measly government paychecks).   If all secrets are bad and if all officials are nefarious and if everyone must know everything, then don’t hold back.  Scream every clandestine thought.  Spill the details on your attorney-client conversations as you face those sexual assault charges from Sweden.

Assange and his WikiLeaks volunteer partners seem to be practical anarchists: Governments are invariably wicked; their officials are always sinister; any secrecy involves a cover-up endangering freedom. It never crosses their algorithm-filled minds that we need diligent, wise confidentiality and that the answer to bad government is good government, not no government.   Holy Writ and theological precedent are probably off their grids, but Christian teaching has always seen a role for the State, with Romans 13:1 serving as the (knotty) launching pad for later public theology: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except for that which God has established …”

Like I said, it’s knotty.  What do we do with Peter and John’s refusal to obey authorities in Acts 4:1-22 and their statement in verse 19: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God”?  And what of Hitler, Mao, and Stalin?  No doubt we’re groping through foggy gray areas, but the fact is that thinkers from the Apostle Paul to Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to Luther to Calvin to Abraham Kuyper to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Jim Wallace to Ronald Sider to Gustavo Gutierrez have extolled the virtuous, just state.   And, contrary to prevailing myth, governments can be noble.

And that dredges up another WikiLeaks irony.  David Sanger of the New York Times writes: “While WikiLeaks made the trove available with the intention of exposing United States duplicity, what struck many readers was that American diplomacy looked rather impressive. The day-by-day record showed diplomats trying their hardest behind closed doors to defuse some of the world’s thorniest conflicts, but also assembling a Plan B … ‘When dysfunctional does not begin to describe our political system and institutions,’  Prof. Stephen Kotkin of Princeton concluded after sampling the cables last week, ‘something in the government is really working — the State Department — far better than anyone thought.’”

I’ve sifted through some of the cables, and I agree.  We’ve got good, smart people – and they should be free to express their thoughts without worrying about disgruntled army privates revealing them to the very dictators with whom our diplomats negotiate.  Take Christopher Dell:  The ambassador to Zimbabwe was leaving his post in 2007 and gave a frank assessment of President Robert Mugabe: “To give the devil his due, he is a brilliant tactician and has long thrived on his ability to abruptly change the rules of the game, radicalize the political dynamic and force everyone else to react to his agenda.  However, he is fundamentally hampered by several factors: his ego and belief in his own infallibility; his obsessive focus on the past as a justification for everything in the present and future; his deep ignorance on economic issues (coupled with the belief that his 18 doctorates give him the authority to suspend the laws of economics, including supply and demand); and his essentially short-term, tactical style.”  He then assesses Mugabe’s opposition, which is “far from ideal.”  Zimbabwe could have achieved more with better alternative leaders, but “you have to play the hand you’re dealt.  With that in mind, the current leadership has little executive experience and will require massive hand holding and assistance should they ever come to power … Morgan Tsvangarai is a brave, committed man and, by and large, a democrat.  He is the only player on the scene right now with star quality and the ability to rally the masses.  But Tsvagarai is also a flawed figure, not readily open to advice, indecisive and with questionable judgment in selecting those around him.”

There’s no scandal here.  Dell, who has an Oxford University Master’s Degree in international studies and is now ambassador to the Republic of Kosovo, was fulfilling his obligation.  WikiLeaks has armed Mugabe, the quintessential manipulator, with an excuse for convenient offense.  Both he and Tsvangarai have grounds to shun US officials, which does the people of Zimbabwe no favors.  Surprising as it may seem, the American Dell was the good guy – and the good guy’s successors have now been hampered.

The same is true of a 2009 cable describing a meeting in which a Chinese Foreign Ministry official summoned a US diplomat to ream him out.   Our ambassador, Jon Meade Huntsman, wrote a letter raising concerns about imprisoned activist Liu Xiaobo and others, including Huang Qi (Liu recently won the Nobel Peace Prize despite the regime’s vehement protests).  It seems the official, Ding Xiaowen, got emotional after assuring the diplomat he would “attempt to refrain from ‘becoming emotional.’”  China was “strongly dissatisfied” with Ambassador Huntsman, said Ding.  He claimed “China was a country ‘ruled by law’ and the cases in question would be handled according to law … The United States had no right to ‘point fingers’ at China and interfere in its internal affairs … In order to avoid harm to bilateral relations, China called on the United States to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and to cease using human rights as an excuse to ‘meddle’ in China’s internal affairs.’”

This is classic bullying: Ding legitimizes his government’s oppressiveness (“judicial sovereignty”), issues a threat (don’t harm our “bilateral relations”), and portrays his government as the victim (the US is interfering in China’s internal affairs).  Sanger points out that China views America as a “fading power,” which comes through loud and clear in this conversation.  We might want to think about all those treasury bonds in China’s possession.

But our man in Beijing did not back down.  He “noted that the Ambassador’s letter reflected the degree of (our government’s) concern over the cases of Liu Xiaobo (and others).  He further noted that, as the Secretary [Hilary Clinton] had made clear in her December 14 speech, human rights remained a key component of US foreign policy.  Human rights has also been addressed in the joint statement by President Obama and President Hu with both sides acknowledging internationally recognized rights.  The cases of Liu Xiaobo and Huang Qi were clear violations of those internationally recognized norms.  While the US was willing to address these issues quietly through diplomatic channels, little progress had been achieved and China had not acknowledged US concerns.”  Ding was told the ambassador would continue “to meet freely with a range of Chinese citizens.”

There are better-known cables featuring Mohammed Karzai’s idiosyncratic leadership and Qadhafi’s strange fears of flying over water with his all-female body guard and Ukrainian nurse – and then there are the Arab leaders hinting we should strike Iran.  I hooted over the please-don’t-take-this-too-seriously summary of anti-US programming from Canada.

In each case, our diplomats toil with persistence, dedication, sophistication and aplomb.  Displaying their communications, however, is roughly on par with disrupting the attorney-client privilege.  Secrecy is often the only ethical option: Employees are fired for revealing trade secrets; doctors do not betray physician-patient confidentiality; and do not ask me about my pastoral counseling sessions.  You’ll hear crickets.  And then there’s everyday secrecy for which there is no written contract:  You don’t need to know about my little snit-fit with my wife the other night (we worked it out: “honey, I was an idiot …”); I don’t need to know how your teenage daughter was, well, a teenage daughter two weeks ago – especially since she’s since apologized. 

Our government officials are not cloak and dagger when they practice reasonable confidentiality while negotiating with dictators and power-mongers, who twist information to their advantage.    WikiLeaks cynical view of America has revealed, once again, that cynicism itself is only a brand of harmful, dark naiveté.  The naïve have done their damage; it’s time we let the diplomats reassemble the pieces so they can do their jobs once again.

For further reading:

Brackney, William, “WikiLeaks Brouhaha Raises Ethical Issues,” Ethicsdaily.com, http://www.ethicsdaily.com/wikileaks-brouhaha-raises-ethical-issues-cms-17145

Harrell, Eben, “WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange,” Time, July 26, 2010,

http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2006496,00.html

Kucer, Joshua, “U.S. Diplomats Aren’t Stupid After All: How WikiLeaks Restored One Journalist’s Faith in the State Department,”  Foreign Policy, December 1, 2010,  http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/12/01/the_state_department_i_never_knew?wpisrc=obinsite

Dell’s cable:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/11/28/world/20101128-cables-viewer.html#report/cables-07HARARE638

Selection of the cables on the New York Times web site:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/11/28/world/20101128-cables-viewer.html#report/karzai-09KABUL1892

Packer, George, “The Right to Secrecy,” Interesting Times, 11/29/2010, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2010/11/the-right-to-secrecy.html

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is an ordained clergyman specializing in healing and conflict transformation. He lives with his wife and son in Connecticut.

View all posts by Charles Redfern

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