The Pros and Cons of WikiLeaks Disclosures

While the release of confidential embassy cables is harmful to international relations, scholars should use them.

In a post on The Monkey Cage, Josh Tucker invites colleagues to debate the pros and cons of using the classified documents posted on WikiLeaks in their research. For various reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue over the last few days, as well as in the aftermath of previous releases of documents over the last few months.

While I was initially torn about the extent to which the first two sets of leaks (the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs) actually harmed American national security, I firmly believe that the leaking of the diplomatic cables is a horrible act that will damage not just American policy but will actually harm international relations and increase the likelihood of conflict in the world in the future.

There are two obvious harms:

  1. American diplomats will fear that their cables will be leaked in the future and will be less forthright in their assessments.
  2. Leaders and diplomats around the world will fear future leaks and will be less candid in their private conversations — preventing potential future diplomatic breakthroughs.

Having said this, I think it would be silly to avoid using the data now that it has been released.

This would be kind of like the official position of the Defense Department, which states that the material found on WikiLeaks is still considered classified and therefore should not be accessed from an unclassified computer by anyone with a United States security clearance.

It seems to me that this puts such people, all of whom can freely access these documents (and many others just like them) on their classified computers, in the slightly silly position of being the only people around who cannot actually look at the documents. I wonder if they should also skip reading the front page of The New York Times for the next two weeks?

One might argue that there is a moral hazard issue — if one uses the data, it would encourage WikiLeaks to release more data. But I think that the extent to which the data is used is irrelevant to the motivations of Assange and Co.

They believe that America is “essentially an authoritarian conspiracy and […] that the practical strategy for combating that conspiracy is to degrade its ability to conspire, to hinder its ability to ‘think’ as a conspiratorial mind.”

Given this mentality, they are going to post anything they can get their hands on, regardless of whether academics use it in their analysis or not. So we might as well make the best of it.

One excellent example of the kind of work that can be done with this data can be found in a recent article by the political geographer John O’Laughlin using the Afghanistan war logs data to perform a geospatial analysis of where violence has occurred. It seems to me that this type of analysis will benefit not just scholarship, but also the American military operation itself, allowing it to better understand trends in violence, etc.

Perhaps there would be benefit from the government releasing this type of information in a controlled format — a database of events, without the sensitive personal information that puts people in danger or has a negative effect on various diplomatic efforts. This would address the argument of many critics of the American government’s tendency toward excessive secrecy and overclassification of documents whose release, many argue, would not actually harm American security.

Of course, this seems highly unlikely in the current political environment, where the WikiLeaks disclosures are likely to prompt more secrecy on the government’s part. Of course, greater secrecy will likely make it more difficult for those who have a legitimate reason to access classified documents in the course of their work to do their jobs, thus potentially making the United States less secure…

This story first appeared on Russian Military Reform, November 29, 2010.