Cable News: What Is WikiLeaks Really Trying to Tell Us? We Asked Eminent Historians and Ambassadors to Take the Long View on These Startling Documents, Starting with a Short History of Secrecy

By MacMillan, Margaret | Foreign Policy, March-April 2011 | Go to article overview

Cable News: What Is WikiLeaks Really Trying to Tell Us? We Asked Eminent Historians and Ambassadors to Take the Long View on These Startling Documents, Starting with a Short History of Secrecy


MacMillan, Margaret, Foreign Policy


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WIKILEAKS IS SOMETHING NEW, but human beings have always been fascinated by secrets and what to do about them. According to Greek legend, King Midas's barber knew his master's shameful secret: that the king had been given donkey ears by an angry god. The barber, unable to bear the burden of his knowledge, whispered the secret into a bed of reeds; when the wind blew, the Greeks believed, you could hear the reeds telling of Midas's shame.

Those in power, not surprisingly, have tended to agree with Midas that certain things--military plans and international negotiations, for example--are best kept secret. Yet down through the centuries there have always been Julian Assanges too, arguing that secrecy is in itself bad. Neither side has ever definitively won, but powerful elites have lined up so consistently and effectively on the side of secrecy that calls for greater transparency have generally lost the argument. Are we about to see another revolt against government secrecy snuffed out, or has WikiLeaks ushered in a more lasting change?

Before the 19th century, when foreign affairs rested in the hands of a select few, secret deals and treaties were an accepted commonplace. Diplomats were expected to report frankly to their masters, hence the long-standing convention of the sacrosanct diplomatic pouch: No matter what, governments were not supposed to open the packages that foreign diplomats received and sent. But there was no shame in governments trying to spy on each other. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, agents of Prince Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, famously rooted through the wastepaper baskets of other delegates for compromising documents. Secrets were stolen for tactical reasons, however, not for sheer joy in exposure. And certainly no one in power wanted government secrets leaking out to the public.

Until recently, too, incriminating documents were more easily kept private. Without the mixed blessings of typewriters and then photocopiers, scanners, and today's easily reproducible electronic versions, governments often had only one or two handwritten copies of, say, secret treaties and could keep them safely locked up. Or so they hoped. The crucial treaty, the vital war plans stolen, are familiar elements in thrillers by Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and others, as is the anarchic Assange-like thief who threatens to steal and publicize them, at the cost of millions of lives.

He had another spiritual ancestor--in terms of transparent diplomacy, at least--in Leon Trotsky. After the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917, the new people's commissar of foreign affairs took delight in rummaging through the files and publishing secret czarist treaties, whether on carving up the Ottoman Empire or enticing Italy into the war on the Allied side. All this helped fuel a general revulsion against the "old diplomacy," increasingly seen as responsible for the war itself.

It was a feeling shared by many Americans, including President Woodrow Wilson. …

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