What a week.  Thanksgiving.  Korean peninsular envy.  WikiLeaks.

By now, as the world is well aware, the website WikiLeaks released to major news agencies—and, really, though the stunning levelling of the web to everyone—a portion of nearly 250,000 diplomatic communiqués it obtained through gray channels.

The president and his secretary of state are nervously calling allies, warning them they might very well be offended by what the president and the secretary of state might or might not have said regarding allies and enemies.

[“Uh, I’m sorry to bother you, uh, I said some things about you I shouldn’t have.  I’m really, really sorry.  Will you still be my friend?”]

Republican Senator Lindsay Graham (SC) and Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill (MO) want to prosecute, and pro-Sinn Fein Representative Peter King (NY) hopes the U.S. State Department will classify WikiLeaks as a “Foreign Terrorist” group.

There’s no doubt, much of what’s been released so far makes the United States look very, very bad.  Not surprisingly, the press, the pundits, and the public are divided over how to respond.  The New York Times wants to release the information responsibly, while the Wall Street Journal will have nothing to do with the information or its dissemination.

The British news has been especially interesting, given the profound Anglo-American alliance.  According to the London Telegraph, “American Anger is Laid Bare in Leaked Papers.”

What anger you might rightly ask?  Well, if I’m a member of the British public (I’m not—I write from North America, south of the Canadian border, north of the Mexican border, somewhere in the vicinity of the western Great Lakes), I would assume ALL of America is angry and unified in its bitterness toward the world, at least given what cables have been released.

Upon a close reading of the article, though, the Americans are angry that the British have been too lax with Pakistanis living in the British Isles and Americans never really thought Gordon Brown was a strong prime minister.

I would like to be clear–no one (seven American citizens) in the Birzer household is really angry at all about any of these things. I, as a Roman Catholic, an American, and a person, love the British as much as I always have, no matter what their ethnic background.  Admittedly, I wouldn’t have voted for Gordon Brown or any member of his party, but, then again, I’m not English or Irish or Scottish.  What the Telegraph meant to write, I hope, was this: “Certain American Officials are Angry with Certain British Officials.”

And, yes, it should be noted, some private citizens are very angry as well—not at the British, but at WikiLeaks.  One of my colleagues posted the following on his Facebook page: “I think the folks at Wikileaks are scum sucking, bottom feeding, low life, good for nothing traitors.”

My colleague might very well be right, but I honestly have no idea.  I know no one at WikiLeaks, and I have no interest in getting to know any one there.  I very much doubt they are on the side of the angels, but I also doubt if they will one day reside the lowest level of the Inferno.  Thank God, I won’t have to judge such things.  Lives might be lost because of this release, and this, of course, would be horrible.  Alliances might fall.  This, too, might (possibly) be bad.

But, it’s worth considering three important issues.

1)   Someone in America leaked the information.  This someone is some one the U.S. government trusted, employed, and supported.  Without a doubt, this person (or persons) is a traitor, and he/she should be bound by law for acts of treason.  The leak also reveals that the United States government is incompetent.  It has been for a long time, and I doubt if any American is really surprised.  But, if the government (or members of it) are going to be nasty and keep so many secrets, perhaps these officials should be a little more wily about it.  I’m having flashbacks to Junior High School.

2)   One of the most important reasons Americans are angry is that these documents—none of which seem to be falsified, rewritten, or faked—make us look like arrogant, imperialist bastards.  And, maybe we are.  Not our best side, to be sure.  Here’s just one revelation from the Wikileaks as posted in today’s New York Times: “Bargaining to empty the Guantánamo Bay prison: When American diplomats pressed other countries to resettle detainees, they became reluctant players in a State Department version of “Let’s Make a Deal.” Slovenia was told to take a prisoner if it wanted to meet with President Obama, while the island nation of Kiribati was offered incentives worth millions of dollars to take in Chinese Muslim detainees, cables from diplomats recounted. The Americans, meanwhile, suggested that accepting more prisoners would be “a low-cost way for Belgium to attain prominence in Europe.”  If this isn’t pure arrogance, I’m not sure what is.

3)   In almost every area—foreign policy, domestic policy, etc.—our government is simply out of control.  While the leaker is certainly guilty of treason, we also have to have some checks on our government. Clearly, these—at worst, atrocities, at best, mistakes—secret actions and secretive words reveal our guilt as an American people.  Who watches the watchmen?  Especially when the watchmen seem as nasty as the enemies of civilization?  We—citizens of this republic—have allowed our government to expand well beyond anything the Founders envisioned.  We have, for all intents and purposes, made a false deity out of our government, rendering to Caesar what we should have been rendering unto God.

Our Catholic heritage has much to tell us about the nature of the state and the nature of power.  St. Augustine warned poignantly in the City of God that a state without justice is nothing more than a gang of robbers.  St. Thomas, following in the same vein, argued in On Kingship that the only good king is the king who would sacrifice himself for his people.

Considering what WikiLeaks has revealed—no matter how treacherously it obtained or disseminated the information—the United States government might very well have violated, repeatedly and heinously, the very things our Church Doctors and our Founding Fathers bequeathed to us—a just and noble commonwealth, built upon the dignity of the human person, a dignity that demands respect for all life and an openness of society.  From the brief things I’ve read about what’s been revealed, our government officials seem very, very far away from any of these things the West and Catholics have cherished for the last several thousand years.

As one of my former students, now a star journalist, Chase Purdy, tweeted yesterday: “WikiLeaks is what happens when the entire US government is forced to go through a full-body scanner.”

The federal government through a myriad of agencies from the IRS to the EPA to the TSA probes, gropes, and limits us as American citizens minute by minute, hour by hour.  It demand to know and regulate our most intimate information and traits.

Before the various official that make up the U.S. government blame one another or a website for harming the world by publishing true things, just remember—these things are TRUE.  Who created the greater harm?  He who revealed the truth, or he who erred and needed to have his error(s) made public?

The watchmen must be watched, and they must be held to a very high standard.

Bradley J. Birzer is Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies, Hillsdale College.



  • Chase

    1. Through this whole debacle, I think The New York Times has managed to produce some great in-depth, thoughtful and responsible pieces regarding the WikiLeaks situation.

    I’d recommend checking out Executive Editor Bill Keller’s letter to readers, in which he does a good job explaining to readers how painstaking his staff was at sifting through and choosing what information to reveal.

    Newspaper people love transparency, which is probably why I appreciated Keller’s last paragraph:

    “As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.”

    How true. At least, I feel that way.

    2. Additionally, I felt Simon Jenkins, a columnist for The Guardian, wrote an interesting piece that put much of the latest WikiLeaks situation in perspective. He said:

    “The revelations do not have the startling, coldblooded immediacy of the WikiLeaks war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, with their astonishing insight into the minds of fighting men seemingly detached from the ethics of war. The disclosures are largely of analysis and high-grade gossip. Insofar as they are sensational, it is in showing the corruption and mendacity of those in power, and the mismatch between what they claim and what they do.”

    Jenkins went on to defend journalism’s role in helping to digest and disseminate the massive amount of information released by the stateless website.

    “Clearly, it is for governments, not journalists, to protect public secrets. Were there some overriding national jeopardy in revealing them, greater restraint might be in order. There is no such overriding jeopardy, except from the policies themselves as revealed. Where it is doing the right thing, a great power should be robust against embarrassment.”

    Finally, I’m highly skeptical of anyone (especially a congressman) willing to fight a vigorous fight against WikiLeaks and shove the website under a banner of terrorism.

    A little more transparency might actually help the United States.

  • Howard

    An American who, in violation of an oath, leaks this information may or may not be guilty of treason, but I can think of no reason to accuse non-Americans of treason for publishing US government documents. Julian Assange, for example, is Australian.

    • Brad Birzer

      Howard, agreed, completely.

  • Brad Birzer

    Brian, I think the question is very relevant. According to CNN, the documents range in date from 1966 to February 2010.

  • Scott W.

    When American diplomats pressed other countries to resettle detainees, they became reluctant players in a State Department version of “Let’s Make a Deal.” Slovenia was told to take a prisoner if it wanted to meet with President Obama, while the island nation of Kiribati was offered incentives worth millions of dollars to take in Chinese Muslim detainees, cables from diplomats recounted. The Americans, meanwhile, suggested that accepting more prisoners would be “a low-cost way for Belgium to attain prominence in Europe.” If this isn’t pure arrogance, I’m not sure what is.…………………………….Me either. This is a real jaw-dropper up there with a recent blogger’s call for Westerners to resist airline profiling because “it is more important to you to preserve an open and tolerant society than to survive this trip.”

    Granted, the leakers ought to be prosecuted. On the other hand, as Davy Jones would say, “The cat’s out of the bag Mr. Turner!”

    • Brad Birzer

      Scott, it is rather disturbing. You have a great website, by the way.

  • Brad Birzer
  • Brian C

    Sorry, I must be living in a cave, but your article is the first I’ve heard of this. What is the time period if the information leaked? Was it all from the current administration, or does it involve some correspondence from the previous presidency as well?

    • Thomas Peters

      Brian –

    • Rod

      Why does it matter which administration it involves? As if this administration was any better or any more sophisticated than the last?

      • Brian C

        I thought the question was relevant because, if the leaked information was completely from a time when one party was in power, then the other party would likely just use the information to discredit that party in the public’s eye. If the information spanned a time period when both parties were in power, then both parties would have egg on their face and the chance of real reform (both in how information is protected and the aspects of life that government is involved in) would be greater. So far, it seems most of the leaked information being discussed occurred under Obama, but Thomas’ post regarding the most recent papal election suggests some information was from Bush’s time.

        • Pamela

          They have a span that covers from 1966. They are just going to release it over time. So it may be Obama’s stuff this time around, and it may be stuff from a Republican administration at another time. So when the bloggers start writing about what the Obama Administration has done, just remember, you better be ready to say the same thing when it comes time for the revelations about Bush, or other Presidents and their Administrations.

          • Brad Birzer

            Pamela, this is totally fair. From what I read today (assuming it’s accurate) in the mainstream media, the previous secretary of state acted in the same fashion as the current secretary of state. I have a sad feeling this kind of behavior has been going on since at least 1989.



Receive our updates via email.