Why WikiLeaks could be great news for the White House

First published in the Telegraph on 14 December 2010

”I know in the Ten Commandments it says ‘Thou shalt not lie’. But if the Elephant Man came in here now, with some lipstick on, and a nice dress, and said, ‘how do I look?’ would you say, Lynn – bearing in mind that he’s depressed and got respiratory problems – would you say, ‘take that blusher off, you ugly, misshapen-headed, elephant tranny’? No. You’d say: ‘you look nice… John’.”

I’m Alan Partridge, Series 2

I’ve been searching for a demure quote to sum up the issues raised for global diplomacy in the wake of the WikiLeaks cables, but I couldn’t better this one from Alan Partridge. Leaving aside specific details, what the cables have consistently exposed in rather brutal detail is the significant disparity between what US politicians say publicly about issues and fellow statesmen around the world, and what they think privately. This is deeply embarrassing and may in some cases damage US standing. There are also some major questions about the degree to which the cables might endanger American troops, or spark rebellion from those disgusted by their contents.

As Partridge wisely counsels, lying is an important part of life – not just in the foreign policy arena. I challenge anyone out there to tell me they have always been 100pc truthful with a boyfriend or girlfriend when they decided to end the relationship (for an amusing take on what break-up explanations really mean, see here [http://meniwishihadntsleptwith.blogspot.com/2010/03/break-up-excuses-translated.html]). I’m not trying to belittle the WikiLeaks issue, merely to point out that, deplore it as we may, society rightly condones lying if it is necessary to promote social, international and marital harmony – though the extent to which this deceit is acceptable is subjective and prone to change.

Clearly, there are questions WikiLeaks raises about the degree to which information producers and disseminators should have to obey national security strictures (in other words to be complicit in this lying if it helps ensure their fellow citizens’ welfare). In some senses, it is a surprise we have taken this long to get around to doing that. Because of the gradual evolution of a press and a public sphere over past centuries, governments have never properly confronted such questions, instead dealing with press freedom on a slightly chaotic ad hoc basis. There has never been a clear, internationally-recognised definition of what good press behaviour entails, and if that is what the is episode elicits, so much the better (though I don’t particularly like the look of Joe Lieberman’s proposed SHIELD law (Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination)).

But those who use this as an excuse to bash the media or, more nebulously, the Internet, forget that the primary fault lies with the US administration itself for allowing this information to leak.

Having been a journalist for the best part of a decade, I increasingly hear the complaint, mainly from policymakers, that it is impossible to keep secrets these days. Absolute nonsense. It is certainly getting more difficult, because it is comparatively so much easier, and far quicker, for anyone to post something online. But this is no excuse for trying to blame leaks on those who promote them (WikiLeaks or the traditional press) rather than the leaky department or individuals therein.

During my time at the Telegraph I worked with a number of different governments and non-governmental institutions around the world. Some were extremely leaky; others were completely and utterly watertight. During the height of the financial crisis, the Bank of England had to extend an enormous emergency loan to HBOS and Royal Bank of Scotland [http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/finance/edmundconway/100002192/how-the-bank-of-england-made-62bn-disappear/]. This happened at a time when all eyes were on the financial system and the economy, and the best minds in the City and around the world were scrutinising the British banks. And yet the news was kept a complete secret from the press and the public for well over a year. Compare and contrast this with the Northern Rock emergency loan in 2007, which was leaked to the BBC’s Business Editor, Robert Peston, which in turn sparked a run on the bank.

The lesson is that if you really want something to remain secret, you can – but it takes effort (the Bank, Treasury and FSA informed barely a handful of people about the RBS/HBOS loans – this paranoia paid off).

In the wake of 9/11, the US authorities opened up many of their previously-highly classified secret files (including cables) across all relevant branches of government – the idea being to have more eyes looking out for future terrorist attacks. This enormously increased the likelihood of a leak such as the one we’ve seen. In future, it will have to be more careful. Despite the rather hysterical responses from those in and around the diplomatic community, this ought not to change the nature of US foreign policy: diplomats will still cultivate relationships and try to build up their best picture of the reality in a foreign land, before sending their findings back home. They just need to be more sensitive to the risk of information leakage – just as every teenager around the world is getting more sensitive to the risk of being snapped in compromising positions on Facebook.

And a good thing too. For the problem isn’t just unintentional leaks. There has been a secular decrease over recent decades in governments’ (and for that matter companies’) watertightness. It is one thing for a whistleblower to leak information because he or she disagrees with official policy; there is an unfortunate pattern of leaking to friendly journalists in an effort to “control” the news agenda. This long pre-dates the advent of the internet, so should not be confused with technological trends (that the Internet makes it easier to disseminate leaked information, ergo WikiLeaks).

As a journalist, I personally found this extremely frustrating, since it made it increasingly difficult to distinguish between genuine investigative journalistic stories and those which were simply spoon-fed to friendly reporters. It also potentially undermined journalistic integrity in some cases, giving the impression that some reporters were merely mouthpieces for particular politicians.

If WikiLeaks is the nasty one-off shock that reverses this broader long-term trend in leakery (both intentional and unintentional), so much the better. It should help foster a media which is less incentivised to try to build up cosy relationships with policymakers in the hope of being fed juicy stories occasionally.

Provided the US administration can mop up the one-off mess left by Wikileaks, it should learn from the lesson, become discreet, more aware of the implications of information technology, and more able to carry out its job of fostering good relations, ensuring military and financial stability and, yes, occasionally lying.