Should no public official ever have a private communication?
That’s the question raised by the release of a quarter million diplomatic cables by the shadowy group Wikileaks.
“To read through them is to become a global voyeur,” the New York Times wrote, “immersed in the jawboning, inducements and penalties the United States wields in trying to have its way with a recalcitrant world.”
Very cool. Or is it?
As a journalist, I’ve spent years trying to figure out what was really going on in government offices. I’ve requested documents, plied sources, and waited in hallways trying to get the truth.
And as much as I want to know everything, I’ve concluded that we as citizens are sometimes better served if we don’t know it all.
Many have made the point that releasing sensitive information can endanger lives and undermine national security.
I’m thinking of something more mundane, and yet critical: the need to let people in government brainstorm, consider new ideas, propose something that may make them sound stupid.
From the township hall to the Oval Office, I want a government where people think outside the box and look at every decision from every angle.
If everyone knows anything they put in a memo or e-mail may someday be used to embarrass them or undermine their careers, we’ll get orthodoxy and group-think. Agencies won’t share information or propose collaboration.
We’ll get scared little bureaucrats keeping their heads down and doing things as they were always done.
Having said all that, I have to say that the aggressive scrutiny government gets from journalists has been well-earned by officials who’ve manipulated information, lied to their citizens and stonewalled the media.
One of the most disturbing videos you’ll ever see depicts a U.S. Army helicopter in Baghdad in 2007 firing on a group of men that included a Reuters photographer and his driver, and then on a van that stopped to rescue one of the wounded men.
The video was passed to Wikileaks after the Army refused to release it to Reuters. You can see it here.
I think we should err on the side of disclosure, because in the long run we’re better off knowing more than less. But everybody who gets information should think responsibly about what they do with it.