International scandals—such as the one precipitated by this week's WikiLeaks cable dump—serve us by illustrating how our governments work. Better than any civics textbook, revisionist history, political speech, bumper sticker, or five-part investigative series, an international scandal unmasks presidents and kings, military commanders and buck privates, cabinet secretaries and diplomats, corporate leaders and bankers, and arms-makers and arms-merchants as the bunglers, liars, and double-dealers they are.
The recent WikiLeaks release, for example, shows the low regard U.S. secretaries of state hold for international treaties that bar spying at the United Nations. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, systematically and serially violated those treaties to gain an incremental upper hand. And they did it in writing! That Clinton now decries Julian Assange's truth-telling as an "attack" on America but excuses her cavalier approach to treaty violation tells you all you need to know about U.S. diplomacy.
As WikiLeaks proved last summer, the U.S. military lied about not keeping body counts in Iraq, even though the press asked for the information a million times. Indeed, the history of scandal in America is the history of institutions and individuals routinely surpassing our darkest assumptions of their perfidy.
Whenever scandal rears its head—Charles Rangel's financial dealings, the subprime crash, the Valerie Plame affair, Jack Abramoff and Randy Cunningham's crimes, Bernie Kerik's indiscretions, water-boarding, Ted Stevens' convictions, the presidential pardon of Marc Rich, the guilty pleas of Webster Hubbell, the Monica Lewinsky thing, the Iran-contra scandal, the Iran-contra pardons, the savings-and-loan fiasco, BCCI, and so on—we're hammered by how completely base and corrupt our government really is. *
We shouldn't be surprised by the recurrence of scandals, but, of course, we always are. Why is that? Is it because when scandal rips up the turf, revealing the vile creepy-crawlies thrashing and scurrying about, we're glad when authority intervenes to quickly tamp the grass back down and re-establish our pastoral innocence with bland assurances that the grubby malfeasants are mere outliers and one-offs who will be punished? Is it because our schooling has left us hopelessly naïve about how the world works? Or do we just fail to pay attention?
Information conduits like Julian Assange shock us out of that complacency. Oh, sure, he's a pompous egomaniac sporting a series of bad haircuts and grandiose tendencies. And he often acts without completely thinking through every repercussion of his actions. But if you want to dismiss him just because he's a seething jerk, there are about 2,000 journalists I'd like you to meet.
The idea of WikiLeaks is scarier than anything the organization has leaked or anything Assange has done because it restores our distrust in the institutions that control our lives. It reminds people that at any given time, a criminal dossier worth exposing is squirreled away in a database someplace in the Pentagon or at Foggy Bottom. Assange's next stop appears to be Wall Street. According to the New York Times' DealBook, WikiLeaks has targeted Bank of America. Assange foreshadowed this scoop by telling Computerworldin 2009 of the five gigabytes of data he'd acquired from a B of A executive's hard drive; this month he told Forbesof an "ecosystem of corruption" he hopes to uncover. Today, he reiterated his intention to take on banks in an interview with Time.
As Assange navigates from military and diplomatic exposés to financial ones this year, his Wall Street targets won't be able to shield their incompetence and misconduct with lip music about how he has damaged national security and violated the Espionage Act of 1917 and deserves capital punishment. But I'm sure they'll invoke trade secrets, copyright, privacy, or whatever other legal window dressing they find convenient. Rather than defending their behavior, they'll imitate Clinton and assail Assange's methods and practices.
As the Economistput it yesterday, "secrecy is necessary for national security and effective diplomacy." But it "is also inevitable that the prerogative of secrecy will be used to hide the misdeeds of the permanent state and its privileged agents."
Assange and WikiLeaks, while not perfect, have punctured the prerogative of secrecy with their recent revelations. The untold story is that while doing the United States' allies, adversaries, and enemies a favor with his leaks, he's doing the United States the biggest favor by holding it accountable. As I.F. Stone put it, "All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out."
Slate V: Julian Assange
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Correction, Dec. 1, 2010: This article originally misspelled Monica Lewinsky's last name. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)