Imagine starting a book on chapter 10 and trying to make sense of it.
This lack of understanding is analogous to the circumstances that surround the WikiLeaks cables, according to David Kaye, executive director of the UCLA School of Law’s International Human Rights Program.
When WikiLeaks released 250,000 cables from the Department of State in November, it created a diplomatic maelstrom. These secret documents detailed classified information about U.S. efforts overseas.
“The way the cables are lifted out, they risk not telling the full story. They’re not giving the full impression that people should get,” Kaye said.
With this issue in mind, the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations will be hosting the third and final part of its WikiLeaks discussion series today at the law school. Kaye and other members of the law school will address what government officials should do to respond to the leaks.
The previous Burkle Center panels on WikiLeaks attracted a mixed audience, with scholars of all ages overfilling the small lecture room.
Since the founders of WikiLeaks launched the organization in 2006, the “leaks” have created a divide between those who support its celebration of transparency and those who accuse it of endangering the security of the state and its citizens.
The Department of Defense stated that the service endangered people but has not revealed any significant intelligence secrets, and the leaks are considered “embarrassing but not damaging,” according to State Department officials, as reported in The New York Times.
Although the repercussions from WikiLeaks have not been severe so far, potential long-term harm is unknown, said Amy Zegart, associate professor at the UCLA School of Public Affairs and advisory board member for the FBI Intelligence Analysts Association.
She added that there has been only one clearly damaging consequence of the leak: the defensive response and uncertainty of the Obama administration, and the weakness of “a 20th-century communication and classification system in a 21st-century world.”
Geoffrey Cowan, communications professor at the University of Southern California, framed the debate as part of the ongoing conflict between the government and the media.
“It’s a conflict between the need of the public to be informed and the need of the public to be kept safe,” Cowan said.
People around the world are interested in learning what diplomats are really saying about each other’s countries and conflicts, said Robert Trager, professor of political science at UCLA. But the leaked cables are not an accurate representation of foreign dynamics, and the public may not be aware of the context in which they were written, he added.
Zegart specified that the documents are not facts, only personal observations.
“Ninety percent of the cables are not even written by the ambassadors themselves,” said Derek Shearer, Stuart Chevalier professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College and former ambassador to Finland.
Shearer said cables represent one of the lowest levels of communication, and they are usually written by junior officials and read by desk officers. Vital secrets of state would never be in such documents.
Cowan and Zegart agreed that what makes WikiLeaks possible and relevant is the scale of the leak and the inability of the diplomatic system to adapt to the new possibilities opened up by the Internet era.
With reports from Kelly Zhou, Bruin senior staff.