But if the U.S. government returns to old ways of hoarding secrets, it could inflict more damage on itself than the WikiLeaks disclosures have, according to Burkle Center Fellow Amy Zegart. She joined a panel discussion with UCLA's Robert Trager and Dalia Dassa Kaye of the RAND Corporation, with Burkle Center Director Kal Raustiala as moderator.
Although it may be too early to tell, the massive release of secret diplomatic cables by the organization WikiLeaks seems not to be a national security disaster for the United States, and has revived legitimate questions about how the U.S. keeps it secrets, according to a panel of experts assembled Tuesday (Jan. 4) by the Burkle Center for International Relations.
However, the disclosures have provoked overreaction by Washington and also may have encouraged misunderstanding of foreign policy issues, the panelists told a crowd of more than 100 people in a Bunche Hall conference room. WikiLeaks shared more than 250,000 cables with an international group of newspapers and began publishing them on its website in November.
"In the immediate term, it appears that the Obama administration's reaction may be the most dangerous aspect of the WikiLeaks episode," said UCLA Associate Professor of Public Policy Amy Zegart, a fellow at the Burkle Center and an authority on the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy.
More than 100 people crowded into a conference room to hear the discussion. A follow-up talk will be set for Jan. 20.
The leaked cables could pave the way for future prosecutions of journalists if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange were to be charged under the Espionage Act of 1917. But, more to the point, the disclosures could lead U.S. officials to "undo many of the good steps that have been taken, very difficult steps taken, to try to improve information-sharing across our 17-agency-wide intelligence community," Zegart said.
"Already we can see a tamping down of sharing information," she said.
Zegart and the two other political scientists on the panel, UCLA Assistant Professor Robert Trager and Dalia Dassa Kaye of the RAND Corporation, cautioned that diplomatic cables, like other historical documents, are raw data requiring context and careful interpretation. In other words, it is easy to take false lessons from them about a government's or an official's intentions, they said.
"The most misleading narrative coming out of these leaks is the notion that our Arab allies in the region … are aligned in a unified front and would support a U.S. or Israeli military attack on Iran," said Kaye, a Middle East specialist. "If the United States bases its policies in the region on this premise, we're going to be in trouble," she added.
While acknowledging that regional Sunni Arab governments are alarmed about the expansion of Iranian influence since the Iraq war, Kaye said that their differing perspectives on Iran and strong anti-American sentiment among populations complicate the picture. Meanwhile, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains a key issue, she said, in spite of some reporting in the U.S. media suggesting otherwise.
By contrast, reporting on the leaked cables by Middle Easterners, said Kaye, "has really focused on how corrupt, authoritarian governments are completely subservient to U.S. interests. This has only reinforced the vulnerability of regimes that are very important to the United States: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia."
Trager, who has followed the disclosures closely as a student of how states form beliefs about one another's intentions, said that the leaked documents have not produced any "sea change" in well-informed people's views of current events, even in light of the "more sensational" cases.
"So, for instance, we learned that the U.S. was responsible for some of the bombing in Yemen that the Yemeni government had been taking credit for," something that regional specialists strongly suspected, Trager said.
Although commentary on the WikiLeaks website itself described the cables as exposing U.S. duplicity, Trager observed, few of the nearly 2,000 cables published so far could be described as damaging to the government.
"The fact that the sky is not falling … probably indicates that a little less secrecy in diplomatic practice is possible and even desirable," Trager said.
One of the most obvious flaws exposed by the cables, according to Zegart, is in the U.S. system for classifying secret documents. The system needs fixing, and prohibiting government employees from logging onto websites that published the cables, as the U.S. Air Force tried to do, won’t help.
"The idea that you can have an air force that is not allowed access to information that is in the public domain — so that a first-year undergraduate has better information, better intelligence, than somebody in the U.S. Air Force — tells you that our classification system is a 20th-century system in a 21st-century world," said Zegart.
On Thursday, Jan. 20, the Burkle Center will host a follow-up discussion focusing on the impact of the WikiLeaks disclosures on American diplomacy. Go here to check on the time and location of the event and to RSVP.