Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Embarrassing Indeed

By David G. Young

Washington DC, December 14, 2010 --  

WikiLeaks' release of secret diplomatic messages may be embarrassing, but not half as much as America's heavy-handed response.

When Vladimir Putin lectures a country for its democratic transgressions, it should raise an eyebrow. The Russian strongman has spent the past decade dismantling his country's post-Soviet democratic experiment, replacing it with one-party rule, jailing challengers, and invading or threatening to invade neighboring democracies.

So when Putin's democratic criticisms turn out to have merit, and the target of his comments is the United States, you know that something has really gone wrong: "If they have full democracy, why have they hidden (WikiLeaks founder) Mister Assange away in prison? Is that what democracy is?"1

Putin's comments were made in response to questions about his own transgressions against democracy, specifically comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said in a message from earlier this year published by WikiLeaks : "Russian democracy has disappeared and the government is an oligarchy run by the security services."2

As mad as this statement made Putin, it is nothing compared to the fury the American government has unleashed on WikiLeaks for revealing such candid comments. Yet America's reaction has compounded this embarrassment many times by a heavy-handed response that is not in keeping with American values.

Even if you accept the dubious claim by Swedish officials that the American government has not pressured them to prosecute Julian Assange in two shaky rape cases3, and that the complainants were not directed by American security services, American officials have gone way too far in other incidents. kicked WikiLeaks off its hosted servers shortly after being contacted by the office of Senator Joe Lieberman, Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.4 Lieberman also urged the Justice Department to investigate the New York Times for publishing material released by WikiLeaks.5

The U.S. government was also widely speculated to be behind two separate denial of service attacks against the WikiLeaks website, and one credible claim of responsibility was made by a former U.S. military operative.6

These are exactly the kinds of bullying behaviors we expect from Putin's Russia, or from the People's Republic of China -- not from the country that is supposed to be a beacon of democracy in the world. By engaging in such embarrassing behaviors itself, the United States undermines its own moral authority.

Similar arguments were made about the excesses of the Bush administration during its "War on Terror". By kidnapping suspects, holding and torturing them without trial, it did serious damage to America's democratic credentials around the world. A big part of Obama's electoral mandate was to undo this damage, and to restore America as a democratic model.

How disappointing then, when U.S. government officials cause new and deeper damage to America's reputation over something so trivial as leaked diplomatic messages. Even if many of the most egregiously excessive responses to the WikiLeaks releases were initiated from officials outside the Obama administration, the failure of President Obama to correct the heavy-handed tone makes the president complicit.

In some ways, the new damage to America's reputation is worse than that from the Bush years. At least the Bush administration could claim to be protecting thousands of civilian lives with its anti-democratic actions -- today's officials are willing to do so just to avoid diplomatic embarrassment and to protect the careers and immediate safety of its agents and spies.

What's worse is that there will be absolutely nothing to show for the new damage to America's reputation. It's difficult to imagine a scenario where all the diplomatic messages in WikiLeaks' hands will not be released. It is apparently not rational thought, but vengeance that is motivating thuggish attacks on WikiLeaks and its founder. And, as a result, America is justifiably on the receiving end of lectures on democracy from the likes of Vladimir Putin. That is embarrassing, indeed.

If America's officials and right-wing citizens are really so angry about this situation, then they should reconsider the target of their furor. Instead of WikiLeaks, it should be Bradley Manning, the American intelligence analyst suspected of stealing and releasing classified information7.

So far there has been no evidence of major government malfeasance in the messages -- the most interesting excerpts have been little more than gossip. Unless this changes, Manning's alleged actions cannot be justified. If found guilty of releasing classified information he swore to protect, he should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Until then, U.S. officials' pressure and vitriol aimed at stopping WikiLeaks are completely inappropriate and counterproductive. In an age where the U.S. government stamps the most trivial documents classified and hides them from the public it is supposed to represent, the democratic interest is well served by the extra openness, even if it does make Hillary Clinton red in the face.


1. Reuters, Russia's Putin Raps U.S. Over Leaked Cables, December 9, 2010

2. Ibid.

3. Reuters, No WikiLeaks Plot or Pressure-Swedish Prosecutor, December 7, 2010

4. The Guardian, Amazon UK Goes Offline Amid Threats of Cyber Attacks, December 12, 2010

5. CBS News, Charge The New York Times With Espionage? Sen. Lieberman Says, "Look Into It", December 7, 2010

6. Los Angeles Times, 'Hacktivist' Takes Credit for WikiLeaks Attacks via Twitter, November 30, 2010

7. Washington Times, Data-Sharing Tools Exploited in Leak, November 30, 2010