No More Secrets

To hear the White House and State Department tell it, WikiLeaks’ publication of sensitive diplomatic documents will undermine the war on terror, jeopardize relations with allies and give hope to the nation’s enemies.

Talk about an overreaction. In fact, the controversy should remind us that government officials, especially those engaged in international affairs, have gotten far too comfortable with secrecy, skullduggery and a general lack of accountability. History shows that secrecy only encourages governments to do what it knows, down deep, that it shouldn’t be doing. Remember the Bay of Pigs? The Kennedy administration persuaded the media to keep quiet about that ill-starred adventure, and we all know how well that worked out, Years later, the Pentagon Papers ought to have proven once and for all that bad things happen when democratic countries plot overseas adventures in secret.

The information in these documents may be embarrassing, but not especially shocking. The Saudis are worried about a nuclear-armed Iran? That doesn’t qualify as news, but the leaked memos to that effect at least remind us that Iran’s madmen are a threat not just to Israel, but to regional and even global peace.

Woodrow Wilson’s formula for a better world order was simple: Open covenants openly arrived at. Wilson’s grammar wasn’t perfect, but his sentiments are worth revisiting. Wilson, ever the idealist, wanted to see fewer secrets and more open government, even in the dark arts of international diplomacy. He’d understand why the WikiLeaks documents deserve to see the light of day.

The White House seems to think that these leaks will make it harder for U.S. diplomats and military chiefs to give candid advice and frank assessments. There’s no question that the men and women who keep tabs on the world’s bad guys need to be able to deliver bad news or unpalatable options to their bosses.

But a democratic nation with too many secrets is a democratic nation that may have lost its way.