The WikiLeaks may have serious impact but some were in public interest

A revelation that the US asked its diplomats to gather intelligence is clearly in the public interest. Suggestions that millions of dollars are simply being flown out of Afghanistan are equally important.

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As his wife fights the political firestorm provoked by the biggest release of diplomatic traffic in recent history, the former US president Bill Clinton has been speaking about their human cost. "I'll be very surprised if some people don't lose their lives," Mr Clinton said this week. "And goodness knows how many will lose their careers."

At least he is right about the second. There will be many diplomats and sources - many of them named - who will face difficult conversations about the revelations this week. Not many people could stand to see old messages they thought would remain private splashed across the front pages of newspapers.

In particular, the often blunt assessments of world leaders - Russia's Vladimir Putin is an "alpha-dog", while the Afghan president Hamid Karzai is "driven by paranoia" - may sting a bit and will cause some sheepish looks the next time American diplomats are hosted at dinners in those capitals. But as one Russian politician shrugged: "Reagan gave us a much harsher rating when he called our country 'the evil empire'". In the grand scheme of diplomacy, this is mere gossip. (That said, it would be interesting to read the cables in Moscow and elsewhere discussing US leaders. Indeed in an interview this week, the now-hunted founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, said he thought secretive countries such as China and Russia could benefit from more whistle-blowing.)

But are the leaks, as Mr Clinton and others have claimed, dangerous? Start with the quantity. WikiLeaks, a website that allows whistle-blowers to anonymously post material, has posted more than 250,000 diplomatic cables from 250 US embassies around the world and a number of newspapers, led by Britain's Guardian and The New York Times, had advance access and have published daily extracts all this week. There is so much material that most will be lost in the media cycle.

It is true that some of the cables were secret - but not very secret. The documents were on a US military internet system called Siprnet, designed to share information across government agencies. The Guardian estimated three million Americans were cleared to access such 'secret' information as far back as 1993. Since then the number must have increased significantly. (Even though some of the material was marked secret, that is still two rungs below the most confidential ranking of information.)

That explains how the junior soldier suspected of originating the leak could have accessed it. With so many millions of people around the world able to access this material, parts of it were bound to leak out. Much of the US's embarrassment and anger will be caused by not doing a better job guarding their private information. In particular, rival states that might wish to access more such information might see this as a valuable seam for further mining.

So some of the outrage from the US appears manufactured to remind its allies that they take this security breach seriously. But the document dump is embarrassing for America, as any equivalent release would be for most governments. For one thing, America's strong-arm tactics have been made plain, something Washington would probably prefer to keep hidden: we learn that the US had no qualms about threatening Armenia with serious sanctions because an arms shipment to Iran went via its territory, nor with pressuring the Pakistani government to make sure [the former president Pervez] "Musharraf should have a dignified retirement".

Worse, some of the information is not merely embarrassing but potentially illegal. The revelation that US diplomats were asked to spy on the leadership of the United Nations is deeply concerning and may violate international treaties. That Washington could ask its representatives to provide credit card numbers, e-mail addresses and - most concerning of all - "biographic and biometric information" on members on the UN Security Council crosses the line between diplomacy and espionage. The UN should be asking the US some hard questions.

Given all of that, should the information have been published? The answer, I would argue, is yes, some of it.

A revelation that the US asked its diplomats to gather intelligence is clearly in the public interest - Americans need to know what their government officials are doing in their names and with their taxes. Suggestions that millions of dollars are simply being flown out of Afghanistan are equally important. Even what seem minor pieces of gossip have democratic implications: revelations about Britain's Prince Andrew or Italy's prime minister matter because of how the diplomatic corps of a main ally see the country's elite.

There is even the chance it may reduce harm to people. In an interview, a New York Times reporter defended his paper's decision to publish by pointing out the elephant in the room of backstage decisions - that if the US public had better information, the chaos of Iraq might have been avoided. "Perhaps if we had more information on these secret internal deliberations of governments prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we would have had a better understanding of the quality of the evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destructions," Scott Shane, a New York Times national security reporter, said.

In fact, the newspapers worked with US officials to minimise the potential impact.

The Guardian pointed out that it had given early warning to US officials of its intention to publish, along with the general subjects that would come up. US officials even went back and reviewed thousands of cables to highlight areas of concern and alert those around the world it considered relevant to warn. So it was hardly a shock.

Still, the scale of the revelations are unprecedented, even from a country like the United States that makes public a significant amount of government data. There is so much material that the media can only focus on fragments of it: historians will pore over this material for some time to come, although, given the paucity of bombshells, probably only as corroboration.

Previous WikiLeaks documents focusing on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contained potentially much more damaging information, even naming informants. But the Pentagon later admitted it had no evidence that anyone in Afghanistan had been harmed because of the leaks.

So it is likely Clinton is over-stating the case. It is possible that some people may be hurt as a consequence of these leaks, but not as a direct consequence. Perhaps he was influenced by his own experience with online whistle-blowing. It was only 12 years ago that a (then) little-known website called the Drudge Report reported rumours about the US president's affair with a White House intern. Then, as now, the consequences were extremely serious, but were clearly in the public interest, even if Clinton, then as now, disagrees.

Faisal al Yafai is a journalist. He is a Churchill Fellow for 2009-2010