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How to Read WikiLeaks

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
November 29, 2010

How to Read WikiLeaks - how-to-read-wikileaks


The latest unauthorized release, i.e., leak, of some 250,000 documents by WikiLeaks does not appear to constitute a national security crisis, although it will cause more than a little near-term awkwardness and create some longer-term problems for the United States and its partners.

Much of what we have seen thus far confirms more than it informs. We are not surprised to read U.S. diplomatic cables reporting that corruption in Afghanistan is rampant; that prominent Sunni Arab leaders are more worried about Iran and its nuclear program than they are about Israel; that it has been difficult to get other governments to accept Guantanamo detainees; that Syria's government maintains close ties to Hezbollah despite assurances to the contrary; or that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a man of questionable character.

In some cases, though, the publication of these documents will likely cause immediate problems. Working with Pakistan's weak government to ensure that its nuclear materials remain under tight control--a process described in the WikiLeaks papers--will prove even more difficult. Counterterrorism efforts in Yemen might also be set back as the leadership there might well feel the need to distance itself from the United States.

In still some other cases, though, we should be reassured. For example, it is good to know that the United States and South Korea are holding serious discussions about how to reduce Chinese unease about the dissolution of North Korea and the unification of the peninsula. This is the only way to end a situation that, as recent events demonstrate, threaten not just regional but world peace.

The longer term damage may be more real. Foreign governments may think twice before sharing their secrets or even their candid judgments with American counterparts lest they read about them on the Internet. And American diplomats may be less willing to commit their thoughts to paper. Such reticence will deprive policymakers of an important source of information and make decisionmaking more ad hoc and less systematic than it needs to be.

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