What makes WikiLeaks so dangerous?

Misguided, irresponsible, reprehensible—these are just some of the ways in which the latest set of releases on WikiLeaks has been described by its critics. But is this more than hurt pride and should we really care one way or another?

At some level, probably not: thus far, for anyone following international affairs, there is very little surprising or new material beyond what most of us either already knew or suspected. There is a problem with organised crime in Russia? The Chinese are fed up with North Korea? The Saudis are opposed to an Iranian bomb? The Iraqi government are more scared of the Saudis than the Iranians? The US is too laissez-faire about the crisis in Georgia in the run-up to the 2008 war? Chris Patten is sceptical about the EU ever becoming a real power? It does not take a genius to figure any of this out.

But publicly confirmed knowledge of these issues is only half the story, for putting this knowledge in the public domain has consequences. On the one hand, it makes the stand of those who go against the grain much harder, including in their own societies or cultures. How is exposing leading Arab politicians for taking a rather grim view on the Iranian nuclear programme going to help to prevent a very dangerous escalation in the Middle East and beyond? Will North Korea now suddenly play nice knowing that its only real supposed ally has had about enough?

Perhaps more importantly, and contrary to all WikiLeaks assurances, the release of confidential diplomatic cables puts at risk the lives of people who are the source of the information that is being released. While it is difficult to see how Chris Patten might come to serious harm at the hands of a staunch Europhile, sources in authoritarian regimes do not have this luxury. Even if their names are erased from the cables before their publication, often it will be relatively easy to determine who potentially could have passed on information discrediting an already insecure and paranoid “dear leader” or “father of the nation”. Their wrath may hit the ‘right’ or the wrong person, but people will suffer the consequences—not because someone had the courage to speak to American diplomats, but because someone else, operating in the comfort of democratic Iceland, Sweden or Switzerland, all governed by clear rule-of-law and abiding by the highest standards of human rights, where nobody is threatened by state-sanctioned torture, death penalty, or assassination, sees it befitting his personal agenda to put their lives at risk.

In the anti-American worldview of its founder, Julian Assange, the latest WikiLeaks releases prove again that the US, as demonstrated by its diplomats, are arrogant, ignorant, ruthless imperialists and neo-colonialists seeking world domination. The irony and absurdity of this agenda is that the US and its allies also stand for the very system that enables WikiLeaks to make this knowledge public—both technologically and by protecting the freedom of information. Even if one were to agree with such a disillusioned view of the United States or ‘the West’ more generally, it takes no heroism to say so.

But it does take a very different kind of courage to expose and address crime and corruption in authoritarian regimes—the courage displayed by those who say things that might be unpopular or controversial in their own circumstances in an effort to stand up to injustice and oppression. The latest self-serving stunt by Julian Assange has done nothing to honour such courage, but everything to make it shorter-lived and in shorter supply. Tragically, the better world for which Assange allegedly crusades is now a good deal farther off.

Also published as Birmingham Policy Brief.