You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Wikileaks and the Art of Shutting Up

Our classification system is terrible—but our gossipy diplomats might be worse.

The public disclosure of some quarter million State Department cables (e-mails with multiple recipients, in essence) raise ethical and legal issues that I won’t discuss. Nor will I try to estimate the net harms (or maybe benefits) of making the cables public. I will address other questions: I’ll call them communication discipline, a culture of self-display, the technology of snooping, media desperation for content, and the social costs of overclassification. They are all closely related. (Click here to read all of TNR's obsessive coverage of the juicy State Department cables.) 

It is remarkable how often businessmen, public officials, celebrities, and, for that matter, nobodies, get themselves into trouble by indiscreet e-mailing. They can’t control themselves. It is partly because e-mail feels private—you’re all alone with your laptop or your handheld device. But it’s also because modern people in rich countries cannot shut up. They are constantly communicating, usually banally, because in America everyone is a king and thinks that any thought that occurs to him or her is worthy of being communicated, preferably to many people. They blog, they tweet, they post random thoughts on their Facebook wall—and, if they’re diplomats, they send undiplomatic cables to their colleagues and superiors. (Click here to view a slideshow of the silliest, scariest, and most NSFW Wikileaks.) 

All of us should know that anything communicated over the Internet, or any other electronic network, however “secure” the network is believed to be, can be hacked, and, if the senders are public officials, celebrities, etc., it will be, sooner or later. Maybe a lot of people still don’t know how vulnerable the Internet, the telephone (including cell phone) network, etc., are. But if they are public officials, they have the additional, erroneous assurance of “classification,” which could in principle open the hackers to heavy criminal penalties and should therefore deter them. No doubt it deters many of them. But the ranks of the hackers, the disaffected, the spies, are very dense. Meanwhile, the media, desperate for content, cannot resist publishing juicy secrets, whether they are the secrets of individuals or governments; and the U.S. government is reluctant to alienate the media by bringing criminal or civil actions against them.

Our process of classification is undisciplined, because the incentives of public employees in sensitive positions are distorted from an overall social standpoint. Information in government is power, and public employees, like other employees, like to cover up their mistakes. They are in a better position to do so, they think, because they can classify documents—which are then rarely declassified until long after they have ceased to hold any interest for anyone—so they overclassify.

As we’ve seen with Wikileaks, a danger of this rampant classification is that it invites bizarre schemes by limiting the number of people who know about them. The most amusing State Department cables so far reported by the media, besides those describing the Dagestan wedding, are the ones about offers to pay little countries in cash or in kind to take in prisoners from the Guantánamo Bay prison so that we can close it. It seems a ridiculous project, though maybe not, at least insofar as the focus is on prisoners who have been ordered released from the prison but cannot be returned to their country of origin because of concerns that they will be tortured there. It is the payments that give the project a comical air, and the attempt, suggestive of desperation, to export some of the prisoners to a tiny Pacific island nation that no one has heard of (Kiribati, population about 100,000). (One is put in mind of the Bounty mutineers on Pitcairn Island.)

But a bigger problem than our undisciplined classification system may be our undisciplined diplomats, which returns me to the issue of our culture of self-display. Most of the cables that have been publicized were not classified; they were just intended to be private—in the same sense in which a person who disparages one of his friends to another would like and even expect the disparagement to be kept private from the person disparaged. Often this fails and there is embarrassment all around. Likewise, an official of one nation trashes an official of another and this is reported with glee by a U.S. foreign service officer to his superiors, and the report is now public, thanks to Wikileaks. 

One would think that the antidote would be a measure of discretion on the part of our diplomats. Diplomats are supposed to be diplomatic, not to be gossips. If it’s really important for a diplomat to pass on a piece of nasty gossip to his superiors, he ought to do it in person—and, at the very least, dissociate himself from the content of the gossip, rather than endorse it.

A striking parallel to Wikileaks is Bob Woodward’s recent (and very interesting) book Obama’s Wars. Almost everyone involved in our Afghanistan war planning seems to have spoken freely to Woodward. Much of what they said either was classified or should have been kept private, for much of it is personal backbiting. Moreover, some of the contents of the book might actually be thought to give aid and comfort to the enemy. Yet the book is popular, Woodward has not been seriously criticized, and its publication is not regarded as scandalous, though the idea of publicizing current U.S. war planning would have struck an earlier generation as treasonous. It’s as if people have simply given up on trying to keep secrets secret. 

The recent Wikileaks are more embarrassing mainly because foreigners are involved and because diplomats are expected to be respectful in their treatment of foreign dignitaries. The leaks are also informative, because, if the authors of the cables expected them to remain secret (or private) until the information in them had become thoroughly stale, then what they said was what they actually believed. So we learn something of what our diplomats (and some of our foreign friends and enemies) really think, and that’s eye-opening—but quite possibly inimical to U.S. interests. 

All foreign governments have intelligence agencies, and so, for all I know, they were well-aware of the views of their officials expressed by American diplomats in private (the diplomats thought). But there is a difference between knowing that someone thinks ill of you and learning that the whole world has been made privy to that knowledge. Even (or perhaps especially) world leaders have thin skins. 

Richard A. Posner is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. 

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.