I'm going to depart from my normal practice of limiting this blog to Israeli-related matters, in order to take on a broader foreign policy issue. I differ from Steve Walt (and many others, of course) over the Wikileaks issue. I don’t doubt that from time to time the public good is served by the leaking of cables or other secret government documents. In particular, the publication of the Pentagon Papers was surely a good thing, because the country was caught in a mindless war and it was obvious that the government was routinely lying about it.
That said, on balance I can’t see how Wikileaks serves the public interest. If government officials—U.S. and others—come to expect that what they say in confidence may soon be revealed, perhaps very soon, what can be the consequence other than that they will simply talk to each other in private to avoid creating a public record on controversial issues. How can that be good for either rational or reasonably democratic policy making?
Moreover, not only secrecy but outright lying may sometimes be necessary to serve the public interest. Consider a hypothetical but hardly implausible case. Suppose the Obama administration concluded that the war in Afghanistan was lost or at least not worth its various costs, and decided there would be a complete withdrawal of U.S. ground forces within six months. On the other hand, for obvious reasons it did not want to tip off the Taliban that there was a date certain—and soon—for the withdrawal. Therefore, in public the administration would have to deny it had reached this decision—that is, it would have to lie. Would we want Julian Assange to reveal this? What would be good about that? Aside from the consequences on the ground in Afghanistan, it would create a field day for the demagogues and rightwingers in this country.
Anyway, no need for hypotheticals. In 1940 Franklin Roosevelt decided that for both moral and national security reasons, the U.S. could not stand idly by while Britain was in mortal danger from Nazi Germany. However, he was faced with a militantly isolationist Congress and public opinion. So, FDR bypassed Congress, defied public opinion, and took a variety of illegal actions--all the while lying about them--in order to provide military assistance to Britain and to deliberately but secretly propel the U.S. into the war against Hitler. Thank God.
So where does that leave us? Sometimes deliberate violations of government secrecy are necessary and serve the public interest—the Pentagon Papers—and other times they would be damaging not only to national security but to the very cause of more open and democratic control over foreign policy. I don’t feel comfortable about leaving the decision on where the balance lies to Julian Assange, or for that matter to anyone else who has managed to steal or hack into the U.S. government’s computer files.