The release of a quarter-million secret U.S. diplomatic communiqués could lead to serious misunderstandings in some of the most sensitive parts of the world, but it can't be allowed to change how American diplomats gather and report information, current and former diplomats said Monday.
Publication of the documents by WikiLeaks.org was dangerous not so much because of what was in them — many are unclassified and none are labeled "top secret" — but because the breach of confidentiality complicates the U.S. government's gathering of "hard-hitting analysis" from its personnel around the world, said Carey Cavanaugh, a former U.S. ambassador and special negotiator for conflicts in Eurasia.
"It's a horrible thing that has happened" because foreign officials and other sources of information may be less willing to trust that what they tell the United States will remain confidential, Cavanaugh said, adding that "very frank, candid" cables are necessary "to make the world work."
Michael Sheehan, a former ambassador-at-large and assistant U.N. secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, saw a different potential problem, saying he feared that the WikiLeaks release would "make a lot of conversations go offline."
Reluctance to put diplomatic information in writing " increases the chances for a misunderstanding in some of the most sensitive discussions" around the world, said Sheehan, who cited negotiations over the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran as especially critical.
"These are very important, sensitive issues," he said. "We cannot afford to have a misunderstanding."
New restrictions under consideration
In a memo circulated Monday by its Office of Management and Budget, the White House said it was ordering a review of safeguards that could shut down some users' access to classified information.
That would further limit diplomatic communications that have been restricted in response to earlier disclosures by WikiLeaks. The Defense Department has already limited the number of computer systems that can handle classified material and made it harder to save material to removable media, such as flash drives, on classified computers.
Bryan Whitman, a Defense Department spokesman, said Monday that it was inevitable that steps like that would " compromise ... efforts to give diplomatic, military, law enforcement and intelligence specialists quicker and easier access to greater amounts of data."
But current and former ambassadors said the United States should do whatever it could to avoid that outcome.
Unvarnished analysis in secure diplomatic cables is vital to informing U.S. policy on " nonproliferation and arms control, addressing violent extremism and promoting the spread of democracy and human rights, to name just a few," Louis Susman, the U.S. ambassador to Britain, said in a statement.
And in a commentary Monday in the Pakistani newspaper The News, Cameron Munter, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, wrote that "honest dialogue — within governments and between them — is part of the basic bargain of international relations; we couldn't maintain peace, security and international stability without it."
That's because cables like those released Sunday are the way diplomats tell policymakers what they really think is going on, which often isn't what they're telling their foreign counterparts or the public, Cavanaugh said.
'It's not helpful to have it out on the table'
"At the end of the day, everyone acknowledges that these are the kinds of reports that governments need to advance the interests of their people," said Cavanaugh, who is now director of the Patterson School of Diplomacy at the University of Kentucky.
"If you think of it like a family," people always have conversations about their parents "that are important and valid and needed, but if they were fully public could also be hurtful," he said. "The kids will talk about this — they'll talk about it in frank terms — but it's not helpful to have it out on the table."
In this case, Cavanaugh said, the United States appeared to dodge a bullet, as there didn't seem to be anything seriously damaging in the new documents.
Diplomatic cables are how the United States and the former Soviet Union resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis 37 years ago this month, and if secret deals discussed in those cables had been disclosed to the public, "it could have taken both nations to the brink of nuclear war," Cavanaugh said.
To resolve the standoff over the Soviet construction of nuclear missile bases in Cuba, the United States withdrew its naval blockade of Cuba and promised never to invade the island.
President John F. Kennedy also agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey, but "a condition of that agreement was there would be no reference to it in the Cuban context," Cavanaugh said. Had that agreement been made public by a 1963 counterpart to WikiLeaks, "it would have been a disaster," he said."I don't see things like that" in the new documents, Cavanaugh said, "but I do see where there's information about current issues under negotiation — six-party talks in North Korea, efforts to deal with nuclear proliferation, concerns in Iran, a new START treaty. Those could become impediments."
Countries like Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea know the United States makes judgments they wouldn't like in its diplomatic cables because "if you were to get the same things from other countries, you'd find the same types of discussions."
It's when such assessments become public that nations are forced into a diplomatic corner, as Kennedy would have been in 1963.
"It's a little rougher than people expected, but if you think of countries being like people ... you do have those conversations," he said.