x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

WikiLeaks' error highlights its irresponsibility

As the whistleblower website suffers a leak of its own, its detractors should not be celebrating news that may put people's lives at risk.

We can easily imagine hollow laughter echoing down the corridors of the US State Department, now that current and former leaders of WikiLeaks are squabbling about who failed to keep what secret. The notion is droll, but the new WikiLeaks headlines should remind us that sometimes secrecy isn't the worst possibility.

Now that the decryption key for an online cache of encoded documents has been leaked, it might be tempting to say that the organisation has tasted its own medicine. But there is no room for schadenfreude. The State Department files can now be viewed in their totality - names and details that had been redacted to protect the subjects are now public.

Last November the US was embarrassed after sloppy data security allowed a low-ranking soldier, Corporal Bradley Manning, to illicitly copy and send WikiLeaks a trove of hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables dating back to 1966.

The leaks turned into a maelstrom of diplomatic gaffes and debates about journalistic ethics. Like every news outlet, The National reported on the data after they were already made public. At the same time, in these pages, we commented on correspondents whose colleagues in Afghanistan were receiving death threats, presumably from the Taliban, because the leaks had identified them as "US collaborators".

New communiqués have continued to be leaked, although it was striking in many cases how little was new: politicians are perfidious, diplomats are two-faced, soldiers sometimes kill wantonly, the US made a mess of Iraq and allies squabble behind the scenes.

There is little doubt that the United States, to its abiding regret, handled State Department data with an astonishingly shoddy security protocol. The damage to Washington's diplomatic efforts has been incalculable.

While WikiLeaks has a different standard of responsibility than a sovereign government, its subsequent treatment of the data was cavalier to say the least. The organisation swept aside criticism that the leaks might endanger lives, saying that it had relied on the State Department redactions. Except the US government had never planned to make the data public.

WikiLeaks has styled itself as a watchdog, keeping the United States and other governments accountable. But it has been neither responsible nor competent in handling the secrets on which people's lives depend.