December 5, 2010

Am I a Criminal?

The US government and particularly the Department of State is in the midst of a futile effort to close a barn door thrown open by WikiLeaks, which dumped an enormous collection of documents into the internet. The government is taking the position that these are still classified documents, so (1) no US official or contractor can download them unless they have the proper clearance; and (2) private individuals, e.g. students, who download such information may jeopardize their chances of future government employment.

I do not believe that the WikiLeaks dump served any larger purpose than perhaps an ego trip for Julian Assange. The messages are indiscriminate, lack context, and fail to accomplish the classic whistle-blower function of revealing unethical or criminal behavior being conducted behind closed doors.

The messages do have voyeuristic appeal. We are given a chance to peek behind the curtain of diplomatic activity and be titillated at hearing the actual words of leaders who normally talk only in diplo-speak. They also, in some cases, confirm facts that close observers suspected but could not prove.

They are, of course, embarrassing to some of the participants, and a few of the cables may in fact put at risk individuals whose identification could result in severe consequences. The latter is a measure of the indiscriminate and unprincipled nature of this vast dump of intra-government communications.

The real culprit here, however, is not a government contractor with a Confidential clearance who downloads a cable marked Secret. It is not a university student — possibly a future Foreign Service Officer — who has a chance to see what the inner workings of diplomacy actually look like.

The culprit is the government security system that utterly collapsed and permitted this unprecedented breach. The answer is to fix that system, not to criminalize those who merely receive the information in their inboxes.

Permitting us to discuss issues that have passed through the editorial processes at the New York Times or Fox News, but not to permit us to examine the original texts on which they are based is not only absurd, it is contrary to the most fundamental tenets of scholarship and research.

Note to the US government: We know this is bad for you. Don’t make it worse by criminalizing everyone who studies international politics.

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