In Defense of Secrecy
We’re going a little off topic here. This isn’t about smart aid, or peacekeeping reform, or economic development. But the entire world is talking about “Cablegate” today, and I can’t bite my tongue.
I used to be a diplomat. I was one of those guys who wrote secret cables. Lots of them. And I said some very frank and nasty things in those cables.
Why? Well, while posted in Jakarta, my job was to find out as much as I could about the human rights abuses being committed by the Indonesian government, and to help apply whatever pressure we could on Jakarta to make them stop. I wrote cables back to Ottawa that would raise the hair on the back of your neck. Describing abuses that make me sick even now to think about them. These cables gave my government the ammunition it needed to lean heavily on the Indonesian leadership at the UN and at summits like APEC.
Let me give you an example. Every few months, I would go visit a small white-washed school in the hills of Indonesian occupied Timor. The young teacher who ran the school would cheerfully bring me into her office, and we would chat about small things while her uniformed students would serve us strong coffee and homemade buns. Once the students left and closed the door, she would open her desk drawer and hand me horrifying photos of disinterred bodies. The Timorese resistance would dig up the fresh graves of torture victims, take photos for evidence, and pass them through their secret network to the teacher, who would then pass them to me and other diplomats. With that information we knew what the Indonesian military was doing and that the government in Jakarta was lying to the international community. And we could confront them, and we could pressure them to change. And ultimately, thanks to the perseverance of the Timorese and the efforts of thousands of diplomats and activists and politicians, this worked. The international arm twisting led to a referendum, and Timor is now independent.
When I sent my reporting cables back to HQ they were secret for a reason. If we had made the cables public, I would have been thrown out of the country in 24 hours and the Indonesian Foreign Ministry would not have permitted a replacement to continue my work. The Indonesian politicians would have hired a rent-a-mob to stone the Canadian Embassy. The Indonesian leaders would have told the local media that I was a liar (as most Canadians are) and would have blamed the Timorese for feeding me calumny. And before the week was over, the Indonesian police would put the young teacher in one of those graves she was so brave to tell us about.
The third most popular topic in the Wikileaks Cablegate database? Human Rights. Cables from American diplomats doing the same thing we were trying to do in Indonesia; American diplomats trying to make the world a little better. That’s hard to swallow for the cyber mob that is typing away in glee at the embarrassment and humiliation being inflicted on the US government this week. But that embarrassment and humiliation is nothing compared to the pain that is about to be inflicted on the State Department’s the confidential sources in Moscow, and Beijing, and Sudan. It’s not just the militant activist in Liverpool reading the cables. It’s the military dictatorships and the secret police in capitals all around the world. In the days and weeks ahead hundreds of people who dared to share information with American diplomats will be rounded up. And thousands more who would have been brave enough to pass on pictures of tortured bodies will keep them in their desk drawer.
Ironically, Wikileaks is inflicting the same collateral damage it so loudly abhors. The “Cablegate” release is not a real victory for a more open world. It will lead to a more closed world, where repressive governments will be more free to commit atrocities against its own people and the people who try to stop them will have even less information to work with.
UPDATE: And the mob speaks. 60 seconds after posting this, the verdict came back: