Nothing is secret.
The recent stream of confidential American foreign policy documents revealed on the website WikiLeaks confirms that we are living in a world that is more open and transparent than ever.
And the simple function of WikiLeaks seems to be the new premise of the 21st century: Once published, nothing disappears. If something turns up on a computer screen, it will likely be saved somewhere. In this digital era, even an intimate text can become, with a mere click of a mouse, a public matter. Future presidential candidates are disqualifying themselves from office today when, two or three decades from now, the provocative photos and statements they shamelessly and thoughtlessly post on Facebook and Twitter resurface.
Essentially, what we thought was once private is no longer so. No one is immune. And these days, anyone armed with a computer can dig up and display a state secret.
The publication of more than 250,000 U.S. State Department documents and diplomatic cables from embassies and consulates all around the world allows us to inspect the internal gears of American diplomacy. What makes these documents so intriguing is the fact that we get to see that which is forbidden.
This is a dream come true for any political voyeur. When we read these documents on WikiLeaks, we are there, seated next to an ambassador, speaking with the prime minister, with the leader of the opposition or with a general. Though we were not invited to the party, we can hear the music and see the guests through the window. And we can listen in on the conversations.
Of course, many of these confidential cables and memos are full of unflattering descriptions of world leaders. Others feature advice and proposed policy changes; some highlight threats (some veiled, some practically overt); some are merely gossip following a drunken evening.
But they all have something in common: an air of authenticity, of truth. As a reader, one is left with the impression that the actions and conversations summarized within these documents are uncensored accounts of what really happens between politicians and diplomats — as opposed to what is reported in newspapers, on TV or the Internet.
And that is an important distinction, since worrisome issues were revealed by WikiLeaks. Some examples: the Mexican government’s fear of losing territory to violent drug gangs; the allegations that Cuban spies are operating within the Venezuelan government; and the fear that nuclear material in Pakistan might end up in the terrorists’ hands.
Medical concerns are also brought to light, such as the supposed nasal tumor of Bolivian President Evo Morales, and speculation over the emotional stability of Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez. Rumors about the heavy-partying habits of the prime ministers of Italy and Kazakhstan are reported. A directive for U.S. diplomats to collect the credit card numbers of United Nations officials is detailed.
This intimate glimpse into the private worlds of influential people is not something that pleases them. Julian Assange, the 39-year-old Australian founder of WikiLeaks, has already found himself in the crosshairs of the powerful. He faces allegations of sex offenses in Sweden and was arrested and denied bail by a court in London on Dec. 7. Assange denies the allegations, saying they are a reprisal for the impact WikiLeaks has had. But regardless of what happens to Assange, the crystal bowl of secrecy has been shattered, and there is no way to put it back together.
Even if Assange and WikiLeaks disappear, others will surely follow in his steps. Why? Because there is an urgent need for more transparency with regard to the actions of governments — especially in Latin America. I would like to know, for example, why so many former presidents and top-level government officials in Mexico end their elected tenures as multimillionaires, since the rather modest salaries for officials cannot lead to such wealth. How did they manage to amass these fortunes? I am sure the answer is hidden in some government computer — all that is needed is the click of an informer to reveal all.
WikiLeaks-type disclosures fill a void. Public officials are, after all, employees answerable to the people, and it is their duty to disclose their expenses and actions. If they don’t do it voluntarily, WikiLeaks (or someone else) will do it for them. Is it legal? That depends on the laws of the nations involved. But I suspect that, in the same way that Napster changed the music industry in 2000 when it insisted that MP3s should be free and shared online, WikiLeaks is changing world politics by insisting that nothing, not even the most confidential of matters, should be kept secret.
We really are living in the connected, interdependent “global village” foreseen by author Marshall McLuhan half a century ago. Of course, the walls around the village are becoming more transparent, and now no one can hide behind them.
By Jorge Ramos Avalos
© 2010 Jorge Ramos
(October 25, 2010)