Have you heard the joke about the family who invited the husband’s boss over for dinner?
When the boss arrived the parents greeted him and made sure he was comfortably seated in the living room. While Dad went off to fix his boss a drink, the wife introduced their son to the visitor.
After shaking hands with the man the young boy stared intently at his face, tilting his head from one side to the other, not saying a word. The mother, becoming embarrassed, asked the child what he was doing.
“I thought daddy said his boss was a two-faced jerk,” said the boy. “I was looking for his other face.”
That is not unlike the situation in which the United States finds itself in the wake of the most recent dump of purloined government documents by the muckraking website Wikileaks.
Like the words of an overly honest child, these documents contain information and opinions never meant for public consumption.
For instance, one leaked document described Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev as Robin to President Vladimir Putin’s Batman, labeling Medvedev “pale and hesitant.” Another called Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi “feckless, vain and ineffective.” One leaked document called Ahmed Wali Karzai, half brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, “corrupt and a narcotics trafficker.”
Think of international diplomacy as a big dance, with countries wheeling around the floor, seeking various partners, holding hands with some merely for a quick turn and clutching others until the music stops, and beyond.
Consider that not all the potential partners at a large dance are necessarily the ones we would choose if we had our druthers. The prudent, discreet dance partner keeps those thoughts private. But this latest document dump by Wikileaks has put all those innermost thoughts out for all to see.
At best the revelations are embarrassing, making the jobs of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and her diplomatic colleagues uncomfortable. Imagine breaking up with a boyfriend and texting unflattering comments about him to a girlfriend. Then imagine you and said boyfriend get back together, but your so-called girlfriend decides to share said unflattering comments with him. That’s what Clinton and her State Department will be facing as they try to mend fences with some of those world leaders impugned by the leaked documents.
Some of the revelations we don’t necessarily care about. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was called a “flabby old chap.” For Kim, that’s a compliment. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was compared to Hitler. That’s about right. Lybian leader Mohammar Gaddafi was called “strange.” So what else is new?
But some of our strongest allies came under fire. Like French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The documents called him an “emperor with no clothes.” Ouch.
Leaking is a time-honored tradition in Washington, D.C. It is used by government organizations as a way to get their point across without sticking their necks out, to spin a story or a situation without having their organizational fingerprints all over the news item.
If you read a story that quotes “sources close to the White House,” or a “high-ranking official in the Defense Department,” read between the lines. These stories were, more than likely, leaked on purpose.
Occasionally leaks are used for more nefarious purposes, such as the leaking of a covert CIA operative’s name by a high-ranking White House official. The official, Scooter Libby, leaked Valerie Plame’s name to get back at her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, who alleged the George W. Bush White House manipulated intelligence to make the case for invading Iraq. Libby was tried and sentenced, but his jail term was commuted by Bush.
That leak might have gotten covert operatives killed, but it also caught the attention of Hollywood, which has told its version of the story in the film “Fair Game,” starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts.
The impact of the most recent Wikileaks document dump, involving more than a quarter-million U.S. diplomatic cables, is being called “fairly modest,” by U.S. officials. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the revelations embarrassing, but said they will have little impact on U.S. relations with other countries.
Gates goes on to say foreign governments “deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us and not because they believe we can keep secrets.”
“Every government in the world knows the U.S. government leaks like sieve,” Gates went on to say. He should know, since he used to run the CIA.
This is the time to put a stop to that. All of the information released by Wikileaks, including an earlier dump of documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, allegedly came from Bradley Manning, a fresh-faced Oklahoma native who, as an intelligence analyst, had access to sensitive documents he had no business seeing.
How does a lowly Army private warrant such access to sensitive material? This is the question the government needs to be asking, along with the obvious follow-up, “And how do we prevent this from happening again in the future?”
The U.S. really can’t do much to Wikileaks or its founder, Julian Assange. The Australian native has reportedly gone into hiding. But prosecuting him under our espionage laws will be problematical anyway, since they date back to World War I.
Our espionage laws need to be reformed, to be sure, to reflect the realities of the Internet age. As for Manning, he already is in a military jail, facing charges of providing the information to Wikileaks.
But the government’s primary focus should be on ensuring this nation’s most sensitive, classified documents do not become fodder for anyone with a grudge, a laptop and a memory stick.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.