One solution to WikiLeaks: classify less
The latest WikiLeaks furor seems likely to produce precisely the wrong outcomes: security controls on U.S. government information will increase; the candor of U.S. diplomatic discussions will decline; the pressure to say nice things about foreign leaders, as opposed to the truth, will grow.
It may sound like heresy, given the new Wiki-mania, but the United States could reduce the flap over leaks of classified information by limiting what it classifies -- and working harder to put more of the information gathered by the U.S. government online as a public resource. That shouldn't include an ambassador's candid assessment of the personality defects of the local prime minister, obviously, but it should encompass a lot of what's now routinely stamped "secret."
The U.S. government's ability to gather accurate information about the world is one of our national resources. It drives out rumor and deception and substitutes fact. I'd like to see a government version of Wikipedia, to be honest: A much bigger, broader expansion of the CIA Factbook, which has become a global standby for basic demographic and political information.
That applies even to the squirrely documents highlighted in the latest WikiLeaks dump. The references to Muammar Gadhafi's "voluptupous blonde" nurse from Ukraine are merely titillating gossip. But it's important to know that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and most other Arab states want the Iranian nuclear program stopped. It's useful to have that information on the public record.
Intelligence professionals say that there's a "tear-sheet version" of almost everything. That means a summary of the information, shorn of the sources and other damaging details, that can be clipped on the dotted line and handed to a foreign government official. That's what should have happened with these documents; the tear-sheet summary should have been disseminated long ago.
What's striking about the WikiLeaks material isn't the information -- in almost every case, the cables express pretty much what you would have guessed -- but that it's said openly, with names and titles attached. It's embarrassing to have it said out loud, for sure. But this seems closer to Michael Kinsley's famous definition of a "gaffe" ("when a politician tells the truth") than a national-security flap.
What worries me is that post-WikiLeaks, high-level dialogue will become even more arid, and security procedures even more onerous -- so that we squeeze out what little life is left in diplomacy. That would be the perverse accomplishment of the WikiLeaks disclosures: That nobody will talk to anybody about anything, for fear it might get leaked.
So, prosecute the Wiki-leakers, by all means, if there's evidence they have violated U.S. law. But let's not freeze the very process of dialogue we need to get out of out international troubles. We need more open flows of information, not a new clampdown.
| November 29, 2010; 3:01 PM ET
Categories: Ignatius | Tags: David Ignatius
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