No, WikiLeaks didn’t create a “trust deficit”

An envoy from the U.K. recently opined that WikiLeaks has created a “trust deficit,” and that the modern age’s increased transparency and openness has hindered diplomatic relations and caused diplomats to rethink how they handle certain things. While this claim is not dishonest – I have no doubt that she and other politicians believe this – it is inaccurate and historically ignorant. Of the various sins and damage that could potentially be laid at the feet of WikiLeaks, this isn’t among them.

The Guardian‘s coverage of the comments was fair and accurate, the problem lies with the comments themselves, and the attitude and ignorance they result from. In summary, The Guardian quotes Menna Rawlings, UK high commissioner to Australia since 2015, thus:

Since the WikiLeaks [Cablegate] dump, “there’s a real challenge for us when we report what people say to us”, Rawlings says. “I always think to myself: how would I feel if this leaked? Twenty or 30 years ago, you probably didn’t have to think about that.”

“I think it’s very important that we can speak truth to power, and if you inhibit yourself too much in terms of your analysis or the extent to which you report private conversations, then you are not doing your job as well as you need to.”

She says diplomats just need to adapt – take greater care, limit circulation of sensitive information if necessary. “If you are really worried about it, you pick up the phone and give the message verbally. There is more of that than there used to be.”

“I think we have to work harder to define the boundary between what is private and keep that tighter, versus what we can be more open about, because in general I think there is scope to be more open about what we do.”

“In the era of the trust deficit issue that we all face, getting that right is really important,” Rawlings says. “Diplomacy can seem very highfalutin’ and intellectual and some of it is quite secret and private, but [consular work] is a real opportunity to engage with the British public.”

Moving past the irony of claiming that transparency is counter to the ability to “speak truth to power,” many of her comments ignore the historical reality. According to Rawlings, “I always think to myself: how would I feel if this leaked? Twenty or 30 years ago, you probably didn’t have to think about that.” This is plainly false, as many historians can attest. I spent the month of November reviewing tens of thousands of pages of Henry Kissinger’s documents and hours of recordings, all of which make it clear that this attitude has existed for decades. Kissinger conducted many of his phone calls under the assumption they could leak or be released. His words were often carefully chosen – sometimes explicitly– whether on the phone or in a memo. Even then, Kissinger went to extreme measures to ensure his records were kept from the public – including hiding them in a SCIF under a barn owned by the Rockefellers.

WikiLeaks is merely the latest excuse. Before WikiLeaks, it was Ellsberg. Before Ellsberg, it was Sy Hersh. Before Hersh, it was Atlee. Before Atlee, it was Philby. And all the while, it was Congress (a perennial source of leaks). Various governments have long learned the lessons that records will leak or be released. Discussions are conducted with this in mind, and records destroyed to prevent even the possibility of full transparency. If Rawlings was immune to this awareness and consideration, she may have been cured of it by WikiLeaks – but that doesn’t mean WikiLeaks is responsible for the decades old “trust deficit.”

The true architects of the “trust deficit” are the governments themselves. Through excessive secrecy and too-frequent lies to the public, the governments of the world have trained both the public and civil servants to not trust them. The culture of leaks is created by government secrecy and dishonesty, to claim it is the other way around is either disingenuous or ignorant.