Leak Embarrassments
By Tibor Machan - December 06, 2010

My newspaper carried the AP headline the other day, "U.S. cuts access to files after leak embarrassment," and the body of the article reports that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks is now on a most wanted list in Europe.

I do not have the time or even the curiosity to figure out if the leaks contain anything that would be criminal to steal – such as genuine national or military secrets – but I am told they do not and I also recall that when Daniel Ellsberg sent similar materials to The New York Times many moons ago, which The Times then published, a great many people in the American media defended him despite the fact that those at the Pentagon who were responsible for the material were very upset with him and with The Times about revealing stuff to the world they would just as soon have kept secret. There was a big brouhaha about this back then and my recollection is that many people, especially on the political Left including liberals and critics of the administration, defended Ellsberg and The Times. "How dare anyone try to stop this good man from telling us what we all had a right to know?" was the mantra then.

Today, however, I hear nothing much other than, gasp, on Fox TV, in defense of Julian Assange despite the fact that most of what he has put out there for us to check if we'd like to is by all reports quite innocuous and, in any case, ought to be available for us to find out about in this new era of government transparency. Indeed, all the materials WikiLeaks revealed seem to be no more than simply embarrassing and probably have no business being secret. Transparency, I was made to understand when the Obama administration took office, would be the order of the day, not secrecy. Yet didn't the president go on record condemning the WikiLeaks revelations? Curious.

I am not sure just what makes something an "important diplomatic message" but the number of individuals, the AP article reported, who are permitted to read them will soon be "significantly reduced." Is this really right? Unless it is shown that people are put in harm's way it seems to me nothing coming out of the government of a free country should be kept hidden. How can the citizenry judge the conduct and ideas of members of the administration, the president and his team and all those in Congress who support them, without having access to their work? Must I trust these folks just for the asking? Are people in governments all that trustworthy?

My strong impression is that free men and women must never trust those in government very much, given that such folks have immense power and unless they and their works are watched carefully they are likely to abuse it – to quote the famous English political theorist Lord Acton, "Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely."

So there is good reason to applaud WikiLeaks' efforts to inform us about how the governments of the world go about their business. The excuse that such knowledge may be embarrassing seems to me quite irrelevant since governments simply ought not to engage in conduct that embarrasses them. It is no fault of a news reporter that the transparency that he or she achieves has that effect. If the citizens have the right to know, to avoid embarrassment requires acting decently in the course of doing government's work. If other countries rely on secrecy to do business with the American government maybe it is high time this stops and they, too, confront the reality that the people they supposedly represent in diplomatic negotiations have the right to know.

Had WikiLeaks stolen a bunch of private information, say from banks or doctors' offices and computers, the charge that it was acting criminally would be credible. But since the information it is letting everyone have bears on public affairs, I do not see that any breach of privacy is involved. Embarrassing just doesn't matter here.

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