WikiLeaks has released a massive database of confidential US embassy cables, often detailing major discrepancies between what happens in the scrubbed version of government we’re privy to on our televisions and the reality of what’s happening behind closed doors. The Economist saw WikiLeaks’ most recent airing of dirty US laundry as a step down into the realm of “gossip” and “tattling,” and that publishing the cables en masse was socially irresponsible:
Diplomatic cables are something entirely different. It’s part of the nature of human communication that one doesn’t always say the same thing to every audience. There are perfectly good reasons why you don’t always tell the same story to your boss as you do to your spouse. There are things Washington needs to tell Riyadh to explain what it’s just told Jerusalem and things Washington needs to tell Jerusalem to explain what it’s just told Riyadh, and these cables shouldn’t be crossed. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s inevitable.
I completely disagree.
First, a brief history lesson. In 1971, a left-wing radical group broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania and made off with a few boxes of documents, documents which they then released to the media. In those boxes were uncensored communications that revealed the existence of a completely secret government program called COINTELPRO. Many of those documents were dry memos, boring FBI field reports, and uninteresting back-and-forths between agents in the field and the home office. But taken as a whole, the language of these documents demonstrated a disturbing and pervasive culture of fear that the government had allowed to grow unchecked. And if it weren’t for that break-in, who knows how powerful COINTELPRO would have become, without any of us ever knowing about it.
Now, I’m not saying that the contents of these cables amount to the same type of deception represented by COINTELPRO. But the similarities between stealing a box of papers from an FBI field office in 1971 and what WikiLeaks is doing right now seems worth putting on the table. The Economist argues “simply grabbing as many diplomatic cables as you can get your hands on and making them public is not a socially worthy activity,” but history has shown us that having access to too much information is not the problem. The problem is what we do now that the information is out there.
It’s not WikiLeaks’ job, as The Economist says, to “bring together a board of experienced people with different perspectives to review the merits of releasing that particular cable.” It’s our job.
So start reading.
This post originally appeared on the author’s blog, Matter Anti-Matter, and is republished here with her permission.
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