Anyone who has spent any time in presidential libraries, reading copies of State Department cables, knows their gossipy appeal. When I was doing research for my biography of the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill, I found some rich little morsels, like this one:
“As near as I can tell,” wrote one U.S. ambassador, when Tip, Dan Rostenkowski, and 10 other golf-loving members of Congress toured the Mediterranean on a fact-finding mission in 1980, “they are mostly interested in large expanses of green with tiny holes in them.”
Embarrassing? Sure. Damaging? No.
Now that WikiLeaks has dumped tens of thousands of U.S. diplomatic messages into the public domain, we all get to play voyeur at our desktops. There were few state secrets, and not a lot of news, in the disclosures. But the world won’t soon forget the image of the aging Muammar Qadhafi, and his “voluptuous blonde” Ukrainian “nurse.”
Here in Washington, the official reaction is to harrumph and tut-tut. Secrecy is a requirement for a full and frank exchange of views, etc. There are dire warnings that American interests will be compromised if foreign leaders have to worry that all they say will be splashed across the front page of the Guardian or Le Monde. There is talk of dusting off the atrocious century-old Espionage Act, passed in a moment of national hysteria, to put WikiLeakers behind bars. [What do you think? Should WikiLeaks be shut down?]
I have a different suggestion. We should smile bashfully, explain to the world that this sort of thing is an occasional byproduct of freedom, and encourage WikiLeakers around the globe to do to their governments what WikiLeaks is doing to ours.
Surely, the Army should take steps to make sure that disgruntled 22-year-old privates don’t get access to top secret documents (Which the WikiLeaks were not). But there must be tens of thousands of young Chinese, Iranian, Venezuelan, Russian—maybe even North Korean—computer nerds, chafing at the lack of freedom in their countries, who might be seduced by the joyful anarchy and join a WikiLeaks crusade. [See a gallery of political cartoons on North Korea.]
The widespread dissemination of embarrassing information—like sex tapes, police mug shots, and other viral sensations—is a feature of our age. Regretfully, old virtues like privacy are a casualty. And deviancy gets defined downward.
But if there is one thing that despots crave, it’s the control of information. Which is why so many Russian journalists are murdered, and why China censors the web. If there is anything dictators hate, it’s sunshine. And if there is something that really, truly hurts them, it’s laughter.
One fine result of this episode in the WikiLeaks saga was the sputtering reaction of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the public revelation that his Muslim neighbors are not merely opposed to Iran’s nuclear program, but urging the United States to launch military strikes to “cut off the head of the snake.”
If you are Ahmadinejad, it’s not impossible to persuade your people that your nukes are a holy Muslim weapon when the custodians of Mecca are calling for your head. The Persians and the Arabs have longstanding differences, and Iranian pride is strong.
But for a day, at least, Iran and the rest of the Muslim world received a compelling glimpse of truth. The Iranians saw the extent of their isolation. And Ahmadinejad looked like a fool, going on television and calling his Arab neighbors his “brothers.”
Brothers like Cain and Abel, maybe.