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In Defence of In Defence of Secrecy

That was unexpected. My hastily written blog post from two days ago, arguing that diplomacy is not Facebook, was up for less than an hour before I was asked to reprint it by a couple of newspapers. I opted for the Globe & Mail, where it became the most (un)popular article on their site, attracting over 300 comments.  Most of these were, er, negative. Delightfully negative. I mean, genuine bang-the-keyboard angry.

“Scott Gilmore sounds like an undercover spy, the kind that endangers real peace and justice workers.”

“Gilmore, you are full of it.”

“Mr. Gilmore’s arguments are really tired.”

“What a disgusting, self-serving apologist. You, sir, should be ashamed of yourself.”

“What a freakin’ fairy tale.”

“This is a shameful piece of apologia”

“Absolute nonsense.”

“If you can’t handle free speech and democracy, go live in Myanmar or North Korea.”

I’m almost positive this one is from my Mom:

“Scott. Did you notice that all your efforts didn’t make a bit of difference in that part of the world? You spent that part of your life wasting it in a futile effort to no appreciable difference.”

To be honest, this all put a bounce in my step.  Take from this what you will, but when something I’ve written angers the mob to this extent, I feel that was labour well paid.  (In fact, I’ve even inserted several of those quotes into my stock bio.) However, there were some more thoughtful points raised, and I’d like to respond to a few of them. If you’d rather see the moving/talking version, watch this:

A disgusting, self-serving apologist speaks

People didn’t know about the human rights abuses in Timor because diplomats kept them secret. Wikileaks would have changed that.

Not true. People did know. Ask the folks at ETAN or the protesters who were pepper-sprayed at the APEC summits. The public interest was one of the primary reasons I was assigned to cover East Timor.

Diplomats screwed East Timor over in the 1970s, so it’s hypocritical to say you were trying to help them in the 90s. (off topic from the wikileaks, but frequent)

True. And the Portuguese screwed over East Timor in the 1500s, so it’s hyprocritical for them to send aid in 2010?

What Wikileaks helps expose is the way governments use “national interest” or “geo-politics” to decide how to pursue a human rights agenda in the international arena.

I don’t think we needed Wikileaks to expose that. It’s a Hobbesian world. Even the “white hats” in the diplomatic corps, like the Norwegians or the Dutch, pick their friends and enemies pragmatically. We all know this.

But Wikileaks isn’t going to harm anyone because the newspapers have redacted the names of the sources.

If those cables could be stolen from the State department’s secure servers, how can it possibly be safe in the newsroom of a Spanish newspaper? If the redacted names aren’t already being read in Moscow or Beijing, they will be by the end of the week.

On  the original blog post itself, the always interesting Cynan Houghton raises some thoughtful points about the rise of Wikileaks and the decline of American soft power. I don’t have an answer to the questions he raises, but it’s worth thinking about. Over on Bill Easterly’s always formidable AidWatch site, his hackles are raised by the fact that Secretary Clinton has ordered her diplomats to collect personal data on other diplomats, in effect spying on them. His commenters do a good job refuting this, and it’s an interesting read. We’ve had some in-house discussions about how my views on Wikileaks jibe with my (and PDT’s) push for more aid transparency. In short, just because I push for more openness in one area does not mean I believe in a fundamental right to information everywhere all the time.

But to sum up, after spending two days discussing this issue on TV and on the radio I’ve reduced my thesis to the following points.

  1. This wikileaks dump is not whistle-blowing. It is not revealing any crimes or atrocities like other leaks did. It is simply vandalism on an industrial scale. Specifically, it is hurting two groups of people. First, it is hurting diplomats, the folks who prefer to “jaw jaw instead of war war”, the ones who argued against the invasion of Iraq, if you remember. Second, it is hurting the often brave people who talk to diplomats. The human rights activist, the opposition figure, the sympathetic bureaucrat. There will be direct consequences for these people. They will be arrested and worse.
  2. Diplomacy is not Facebook. It is willfully naive to think that we can negotiate with, pressure, influence, or understand foreign governments if we posted our every thought in public for the world to see. Human nature itself explains why this is impossible. If we want our diplomats to provide frank and fearless advice to our elected officials, then they must do this in private.
  3. Absolute transparency is not to be confused with accountability. Your diplomats are already being held accountable. By political assemblies composed of citizens like you, elected by you. By judges and courts and legislation. Wikileaks? Totally unaccountable. One man self-appointed himself the guardian of this data, deciding who gets to see it. As a result, the night editor of a French newspaper is taking life and death decisions on whether a cable should be redacted or printed in full. The public should be outraged that their power to elect people to take these decisions, to hold officials accountable, has been usurped by a hacker.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bone to pick with my mother….

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  1. Janet says:

    I can appreciate your points here. But I still do not think the case of 1975 is irrelevant. If I were Timorese, and I had the choice between high profile leaks of Kissinger-Ford wink to Suharto in 1975 (drawing global attention to little Timor earlier on) and secret, well-meaning cables about human rights after twenty years of the most brutal occupation… I would pause at this choice, not dismiss it.

  2. CJ says:

    God Bless you, whichever one you worship, and if you don’t well, then, You tell ’em.

    Thank you for saying these things, over and over and over. Someone has to be intelligent, and hopefully, you might be able to get some understanding into some other pig headed, ill thought but otherwise intelligent people.

    But I’m an optimist. Keep it up!

  3. Your diplomats are already being held accountable. By political assemblies composed of citizens like you, elected by you. By judges and courts and legislation.

    Are they? Really? I wish I could share your optimism.

    One other point that seems to be a bit snowed under: American diplomats are not being held accountable by assemblies elected by me or, for that matter, by Assange, for the very simple reason that neither he nor I are America citizens or even residents. Why should non-Americans show any reticence in the interest of the US? Clearly, the US (and, by extension, its diplomats) shows precious little regard in the opposite direction.

  4. Wendy Gilmour says:

    Hey Scott – your three key points have got me thinking …. about ATIP rather than Wikileaks. Are they not equally valid for much of the work of public servants engaged in ‘telling truth to power’? (Add in the principles of anonymity and parsimoniousness, and you will find yourself in company of Donald Savoie’s book “Breaking the Bargian”.)

  5. Antony says:

    I see the issue as the conservative world of diplomacy finally confronting modern 21st century realities.

    Arguing the pros and cons of Wikileaks is pointless since there’s nothing that will stop this type of leak happening in the future. If Wikileaks is shut down there will be other organisations to take it’s place, just like there is nothing that the music industry can do to stop online music piracy.

    It would better that instead of fighting it the diplomatic world adjusted to this new reality. Just because diplomacy has been conducted in secret in the past, doesn’t mean it always must, despite the hand-waving about ‘human nature’.

  6. Hi Scott

    I just read an op-ed piece of yours in the Jakarta Globe anbd here I find myself. I suppose that governments and journalists are similar in that they like to protect their sources. After all, who confides in a gossip?

  7. Toby says:

    It’s all nice and dandy to say:

    “If those cables could be stolen from the State department’s secure servers, how can it possibly be safe in the newsroom of a Spanish newspaper? If the redacted names aren’t already being read in Moscow or Beijing, they will be by the end of the week.”

    What makes you think that if the State department’s “secure” servers are so easily subverted by a simplistic script kiddie (and make no mistake, this was the work of a script kiddie), that the nation states, such as China and/or Russia, don’t already have the information (and more) in their hands? Are you really that naive to think so? While I may not agree with the “media whore” atitude of some wikileaks associates and their antics, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    Either the leak is inconsequential and irrelevant because the data is such, or it is important data, and someone managed to subvert the most powerful nation’s security infrastructure to get it. That in itself should be where the focus is. Unless the wikileaks people themselves were involved in the break in, I don’t see what they did as illegal. Immoral, possibly yes. But I suppose it is easier to go after a public asshole, rather than a quiet, tiny kid in some mother’s basement, masturbating to the incompetence of the people running the State department’s “secure” servers.

  8. Sander Robert Thoenes z"l says:

    What the cables you claim to have sent really proves is that diplomats play zero role in foreign policy. You sent notes saying people were being tortured? Uh huh. You sent notes saying Suharto was heaping abuses? Okay. You sent notes back saying the Timorese trusted you and the UN and the election process. So?
    And how did that help them when the Indonesians played security forces and the Australian civilian police who wanted to help were told to back down? Yeah, they trusted you, and you sent cables back probably saying the Indonesians were killing Timorese inside churches and intimidating them not to vote. How did that stop anything that happened.
    It didn’t. In fact Clinton and Chretien and the UN and the Aussies let the Indonesians rape, pillage, plunder, raze, murder and torture for 21 days after the election.

    What saved the Timorese was a small group of journalists and aid workers, many of whom had been evacuated from Rwanda and weren’t going to let another massacre happen. So they defied Ian Smith, embarrassed the UN and forced them to stick around.

    And boy, all those testimonies you took — you know, where the Timoreses trusted the process… they’ve certainly been put to good use. have really been put to good use. Uh huh. Those Tribunals in Jakarta were .. well what exactly were they? A joke? Pretend? A giant middle finger to the world? Did you cable back about those too? Did you demand justice? I don’t think it helped much.

    Then there is the question of those boxes and boxes and boxes of testimonies that people took. When the world screwed the Timorese who trusted you and your cables it looked like those people for whom those cables were directed were about to let all those boxes be handed over to Jakarta.

    In fact, last I knew, “no one seemed to know where those boxes were….”

    In your defense of why these leaks shouldn’t happen, you prove my most salient point about these leaks. We should get rid of diplomats, stick some consular and bizness people in embassies and save lots of money. Our foreign policy decisions have nothing to do with your “big secrets” (the same ones everyone could read from ETAN) Our foreign policy is decided by doctrine and your work is superfluous.

    Sorry Scott. You really didn’t make your point at all.

    Maybe one day we’ll find out WHY justice has nothing to do with how governments make decisions.

  9. Scott Gilmore says:

    In regards to that last comment, Sander Thoenes was a friend of mine, and he was killed by the Indonesian military on September 21st, 1999. His killers, Lt. Camilo dos Santos and Maj. Jacob Djoko Sarosa, have yet to be held accountable.

    If anyone on this blog would like to learn more about Sander, his excellent work as a journalist, please take 2 minutes to read this:

  10. SRT z"l says:

    SRT z”l — “Died In Search of The Truth.” Not half truths or buried truths.

    It might be important to note that Jacob Djoko Sarosa, trained by the Americans at Fort Benning Georgia was not indicted for crimes against humanity. He was promoted.

    I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry when I think how Cdn and Amer. diplomatic notes would have been received back home back in ’99.

    Cable: “Help help… these guys are being tortured.”
    Home: “Of course, we’re the ones that trained the guys who are doing the torturing. We’re the ones that armed the guys that are doing the torturing. We’re the ones that are tacitly approving of the torturing because Indonesia is the power we have to support. Hey, we’re the ones that put the fox in charge by allowing the Indonesian militia to provide ‘protection.'”

    Sander, the king of cynical Real Politik wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised by the Indonesians throwing his case out of court on the grounds of “not enough evidence,” –despite there being more evidence on Sarosa, dos Santos and Battalion 745 than anyone else in the country. Nor would he have expected anything different from the diplomats and foreign policy mavens who did zippo to protest that decision.

    (I wonder. Did anyone send back secret cables that said “it’s outrageous what is happening in Jakarta right now? It’s preposterous that we are allowing the Indonesians to run their own trial?” If yes …. please fill me in
    on how they had any impact.)

    He would also be APPALLED, although not surprised that the United States has once again re-instated aid to the Indonesian military. Something activists had worked so hard and so long to put an end to.

    (Any insight on what those secret cables between diplomats and their gov’t might have said before that decision was made?)

    Sander would have called for those cables to be opened up warts and all.

    Scott, I’m sure you and I would have much in common and much to talk about if we were to ever meet, and yes, I understand that is a more profound argument here about human rights and secrecy. (In fact, I happen to know a couple of truly secret incidents of help on the part of Cdn diplomats in the name of human rights — obviously none of which I would write on a blog— BUT.. that stuff is NEVER written down or cabled. It is not even referred to directly by people taking part in it as it is happening.)

    Honestly, I’m open to a more valid argument about the danger of these leaks. So far, I haven’t heard it.

  11. Alex Bowles says:


    I suspect you’re overestimating the Americans. Specifically, you say that the government *is* accountable, and that people should simply rely on the (presumably) perfectly good channel they already have in the ballot box. What you probably don’t realize is that the US, unlike any other reasonably advanced nation, has a horrifically warped electoral system.

    Voting means something quite different in a country that actually respects the vote. But down here, it’s a charade. Every ten years (following each Census), whichever party happens to be in power is given control over the redistricting process, which they promptly use to secure their own seats, and neutralize those previously secured by their opponents. They are – quite literally – allowed to choose who gets to vote for them. They do this by identifying neighborhoods that lean in their direction, combining them into friendly districts that will vote as block, while splitting pockets of the opposition into groups small enough to tack onto what are (for them) unfriendly districts. It’s a process known as ‘cracking and stacking’. By leaving a few unfriendly concentrations in enemy hands, they ensure that the number of hostiles who can vote as a block always remain below 50%. Indeed, the folks who handle redistricting professionally have demonstrated that there’s such thing as a ‘mathematically perfect gerrymander’ in which a party can preserve their advantage with a mere 26% of the vote.

    I don’t know if the conviction of Tom DeLay registered up there, but this is what is was related to. Not the gerrymandering itself, mind you, since that’s perfectly legal. He got busted for money laundering in relation to a quid pro quo arrangement with the people doing the actual redistricting. If this is news, than I promise you have absolutely no idea how despicable it’s all become – and that’s *before* you factor in the oceans of cash offered up as campaign donations to complicit representatives.

    Yes, you read that right. American politicians depend not on the people they represent, but the industries they ‘regulate’ for their election finance. If you ever wondered how our banks managed to wreck the global economy in the world’s largest control fraud without a single perpetrator even being accused of a crime – let alone convicted – wonder no more. Just know that our Senate minority leader (Eric Cantor) was going around in public, telling banks to favor Republicans with their largess, and not Democrats, since the Republicans would (he promised) “offer a better return on investment”.

    I agree – it’s a national disgrace. It also explains why our domestic politics have become so galacticly dysfunctional. Real accountability has become a distant memory. And that’s why so many people are far more sympathetic to Assange than they would have been, say, 10 years ago. As Clay Shirky pointed out, in a more just situation, a law-unto-itself like Wikileaks would be intolerable. But right now, when the legitimate source of our power has become far less so, Wikileaks is the kind of thing that’s likely to do more good than harm. Much more.

    In truth, the Pentagon and State Departments were just the opening acts. The headline event is the bank details. The fervent hope is that the suppression of evidence against them will end, and that the government will (finally) be forced to bring charges in open court. This matters enormously, since it would demolish the bank’s political power – power that is being used, specifically, to block rules that would force them to properly account for housing losses by writing down values of foreclosed on properties to their actual market levels. Not only would this mean a failure to maintain their capital reserve requirements (triggering insolvency, followed by a richly deserved shareholder and management wipe-out), it would also allow the housing market to clear. In other words, it would remove the single biggest impediment to recovery that we’re currently facing, while removing the most dangerous actors from the stage.

    So this really is an extraordinarily big deal, and a substantial majority of Americans absolutely, positively do not trust the people who have been handling it to date. On this point, Obama has adopted a position of almost vicious contempt for his (increasingly former) supporters, accusing those who demand the restoration of the rule of law (one of his big campaign promises) as demanding ‘abstract idealism’ in favor of the ‘pragmatism’ he prefers. Given that his idea of ‘pragmatism’ looks more like rank incompetence, this isn’t going over well at all. And that only strengthens the growing belief that an external catalyst is worth tolerating if – and until – we can get our house back in order. Because right now, it’s not.

  12. SRT z"l says:

    Today (12/2/10) the New York Times has another report based on the latest WikiLeaks cables. The focus is on U.S. policy toward the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and the upshot is that diplomats based there exercised little to no scrutiny of the claims made by Georgian government regarding South Ossetia and Russia. The conflict there led eventually to a brief war in 2008, which was often inaccurately portrayed in U.S. media as unprovoked Russian aggression against a U.S. ally. The Times reports:

    The cables show that for several years, as Georgia entered an escalating contest with the Kremlin for the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway enclaves out of Georgian control that received Russian support, Washington relied heavily on the Saakashvili government’s accounts of its own behavior. In neighboring countries, American diplomats often maintained their professional distance, and privately detailed their misgivings of their host governments. In Georgia, diplomats appeared to set aside skepticism and embrace Georgian versions of important and disputed events.

    By 2008, as the region slipped toward war, sources outside the Georgian government were played down or not included in important cables. Official Georgian versions of events were passed to Washington largely unchallenged.

    The last cables before the eruption of the brief Russian-Georgian war showed an embassy relaying statements that would with time be proved wrong.

    The conventional storyline at the time was that Georgia was attacked by South Ossetian forces, and thus forced to retaliate, which brought a Russian onslaught. The U.S. embassy’s line–that the Times says “would with time be proved wrong”–was echoed in the media, as FAIR documented at the time. There was little skepticism shown toward Georgian claims, or its shelling of civilian areas of South Ossetia (which Russia pointed to as a justification for its military intervention).

    The fact that U.S. diplomats and U.S. media were mostly in step is not a coincidence. It reminds me of that Karl Kraus quote: “How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print.”

    In this case, the WikiLeaks cables provide the basis for a useful corrective. And anyone who thinks the WikiLeaks cables mostly show that U.S. diplomats are doing good work should note this story as an example of just the opposite.

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