“Cablegate” by WikiLeaks Results in Mixed Feelings

On the one hand, citizens have a right to know what public officials do and how they do it, especially when they engage in misconduct or violate the law. For that right, access to information is essential to the functioning of oversight and accountability in any democracy. For example, the revelation that American diplomats were making efforts to "spy" on member countries and on the U.N. secretary general must be explained, because it is a reprehensible activity that Washington was trying to hide.

On the other hand, however, it is unclear to what extent it is necessary to know all the ins and outs of national and international public function. Like relationships between people, international relationships develop from gestures and actions aimed at cultivating openness, intimacy and trust, for which private communication is an important pillar. There is concern, for example, that by including the names of confidential sources, the cables are a source for retaliation by some governments, which will make discrete purges of those who were too open with their foreign counterparts.

The 250,000 cables, which will be progressively published and analyzed by five world-renowned newspapers, are field reports depicting "everyday life" in various U.S. diplomatic missions. They are used to describe meetings with governmental and nongovernmental actors, to analyze the political leanings of the host country and to make recommendations, among other functions. The level of candor is credited precisely to their confidential nature; customarily, cables are declassified only after 25 years, allowing diplomats to share views with Washington without fear that they will be made public.

It is an exaggeration to say, as has the White House, that publication of the cables threatens the United States' national security. Some 3 million civilian and military officials had access to them. And though some carry the classification, "Not for foreign governments" (NOFORN), none are classified as top secret. The revelations that some Middle Eastern leaders took a harder line against Iran than they revealed in public; that the U.S. discusses with South Korea its future unification with the North, pressures Pakistan or bargains with third countries to accept Guantanamo prisoners; and that China is distancing itself from North Korea, are hardly state secrets.

Nor is it likely that the leak will generate a massive diplomatic crisis, despite considerable discomfort. Representations of various world leaders are quite crude: Medvedev is described as the Robin of Batman Putin, Merkel as risk-averse and unimaginative, Sarkozy as easily influenced and authoritarian, and Cristina Fernández as emotionally unstable. But as Secretary of State Clinton said, worse things have been said about her in private!

Although everyone knows it exists, the "dirty laundry" of diplomacy is messy, which is why the diplomatic community can react to leaks with solidarity and empathy, instead of anger. However, by laying bare diplomatic practices, "cablegate" can start a new era in international relations in which secret information is summoned to take