Monday, November 29, 2010


Is Wikileaks an embarrassment for the U.S. government and nothing more? Well...

Look at this article, for example. It uncritically lists two of the things we've learned from the Wikileaks release of diplomatic cables as "North Korea supplied Iran with long-range missiles" and "Iran used the auspices of the Red Crescent to smuggle spies and weapons into war zones." True, the text of the article uses more accurate "the U.S. government believes that" language. But that subtlety appears to have slipped the minds of many of the commenters, who are now musing that here is new information that they didn't know.

If only Wikileaks had been around before the Iraq War. Then it could have been leaked that the U.S. government believed that Iraq was stockpiling biological weapons, and funding the 9/11 terrorists. And it would have been a leak, something that they didn't want people to know -- so of course it's correct, right?

Lest people think that I'm positing some conspiracy theory, I'm not. But diplomats and other spies routinely write back things that they confidently believe that are in fact not true. Diplomats and other spies who want to rise through the ranks also develop a talent for writing back things that they know that the politicians in charge want to hear. These leaks are pretty much worthless from the point of view of determining whether the events in question actually took place.


  1. But these leaks include not only the conclusions, but also the evidence used to reach those conclusions. Whether or not you consider them definitive evidence, they are more detailed and properly evaluatable evidence than we previously had. We can look at the authors, their careers, their sources, in a critical light.

  2. John Marshall really is becoming a mainstream journalist. That's too bad.

    Thanks, Ahist. In the post on Doctorow's book below, I refer to Wikileaks as being a good resource for historians, and sure, people can eventually study these writings in detail and compare what the diplomats thought (or, more accurately, what they wanted their bosses to think that they thought) with what was known to have actually happened from other sources. But do you really think that people have already done that?

    This is the initial news hit that the release is getting. Do you think that the journalists releasing the "North Korea sent missiles to Iran" story really evaluated any kind of evidence? I do not. I think that they are typing up press releases, effectively -- leaked documents, in this case, but the basic activity is the same. Has anyone other than the journalists even seen the cable(s) in question? The NYT didn't release the text of them, and Wikileaks hasn't yet.

    I've already seen the first people, in comments over at John Cole's blog, talk about how Red Crescent convoys are going to get bombed. This gets back to my basic skepticism about techno-libertarianism. What if you release the secret documents that the government was trying to hide and people immediately seize on whatever parts of them confirm their existing bloodlust? You haven't exactly done bad, in that case -- they would have seized on anything -- but you haven't really done much good either.

  3. And as I thought, the "North Korean missiles to Iran" story is already unravelling. Not that the same number of people will ever see the unravel as saw the initial claim.

    Government propaganda will seize on anything, even leaked documents of that same government.