Secret Diplomatic Communication and Peace in Ireland

Regarding the WikiLeaks affair, I wish to associate myself publicly with the wise comments (posts below) of the Senators from the University of Chicago and UCLA. Let me give a concrete example of why they are correct about the value of secret government communication.

A few months ago, I had the honor to meet Lord Trimble, after he had given a candid account of his Nobel Peace Prize-winning work helping negotiate an end to the Troubles. He maintained that the IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday agreement would not have happened had not the groundwork been laid through secret communications between the subset of IRA leaders who wanted peace and Prime Minister Major. Had those communications been dumped onto the Internet by WikiLeaks, the IRA members concerned would almost certainly have been murdered, and the peace-seeking members of PM Major’s administration would have been eviscerated in the press and had their careers ruined (possibly bringing down the government in the process). That would have killed the Irish peace process for at least a generation — what IRA member or British politician would dare to re-open “secret” communication once the likelihood of public exposure was made so plain?

Some of the pro-leak comments I am seeing around the web seem to stem from an (not entirely unhealthy) instinctive suspicion of the motives of powerful government actors. But those actors don’t just communicate to their peers in other governments, they communicate with quite vulnerable people, for example, pro-democracy groups in Iran, human rights activists in Burma and dissident nuclear scientists in North Korea. Siding with Wikileaks is not therefore logically equivalent to opposing concentrated power and central government authority…in some cases it can effectively mean sentencing grassroots activists either to persecution or complete exclusion from diplomatic contact.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “Secret Diplomatic Communication and Peace in Ireland”

  1. I agree that secrecy is necessary under some conditions. If our government were less inclined to use secrecy to hide its own malfeasance, I would have much greater sympathy for those who oppose Wikileaks. But it isn't so. Given the general attitude that I, as citizen, can't know what is being done in my name, I applaud these dumps of information. Will they cause harm? I'm sure they will. Until someone comes along and cleans the Augean stables, I guess that is the price of some further information. I've read the painful criticisms of the security dump, I wonder why no one decries the absolute loss of transparency – transparency promised explicitly by our current president. Until there is a change in how information is handled, let the leaks continue.

  2. I'm not at all sure I'm in favor of the Wikileaks leaks – but I do think that we need less reflexive classification, and we need more reliable eventual declassification. I do believe secrecy has its place, and I'm sure it was a good thing in the Northern Ireland talks. But I note that you're untroubled by Lord Trimble now breaking that secrecy, once it no long has a useful purpose, and rightly so. I'd be more certain in a condemnation of Wikileaks if I thought more of this stuff would have eventually been released.

  3. Clearly, there are many conflicting considerations and interests, where secrecy is concerned

    I'd note that secrecy serves many of the same purposes as censorship, for good and ill. Censorship tends to get out of hand, because it is so cheap for the government to do; the costs are largely externalized onto journalists and publishers. Secrecy, on the other hand — if it is genuine secrecy and not the thinly disguised censorship of Britain's Official Secrets Act — internalizes the costs of secrecy to the government. To keep something secret, the government must organize accordingly, and deploy significant resources.

    The premise of efficient secrecy, though, is that secrecy is costly, because leaked secrets will be published or broadcast. It is not that the broadcast of secrets makes secrecy costly, directly, but the expectation that a leaked secret will be broadcast is what motivates taking genuine administrative and organizational effort to maintain secrecy.

    There's a kind of an analogy lurking, here, to the banksters and the "moral hazard" problem attendant on bailouts.

  4. In the other thread, John articulates the problem with this argument. It's a false choice. Assange takes a pretty radical position against government secrecy, but even he isn't advocating that all secrets must be revealed indiscriminately.

    It's a bit disappointing that several threads by different authors here have failed to deal with basic objections made in comments.

  5. Actually the the Northern Ireland example seems to me to show the opposite of what Keith Humphreys says. If communications (or the fact of communications) between IRA moderates and the british government had been circulated throughout the government and military, with access available to 100,000 or more people, you can be quite sure it would have been leaked, with the devastating results he retrospectively predicts. This isn't so much about whether government should have secrets as about whether government should have open secrets that everyone pretends are secret.

  6. "Siding with Wikileaks is not therefore logically equivalent to opposing concentrated power and central government authority…in some cases it can effectively mean sentencing grassroots activists either to persecution or complete exclusion from diplomatic contact."

    Last I heard, Wikileaks made sure that no such information was released.

  7. KH: "…the IRA members concerned would almost certainly have been murdered.." The way I heard it, it was the hardline opponents of Gerry Adams within the IRA who had a habit of running into unfortunate accidents. Adams appears to be that rare creature, a ruthless moderate. Adolphe Thiers and Augustuc Caesar also come to mind. Barack Obama does not.

    I don't disagree with the argument that real secrecy is necessary in some (not all) negotiations. I hope that European central bankers are discussing the conditions in which they might shut down the markets to stop a panic, and I hope they are are not telling. But the point is not very relevant to the low-level WikiLeaks material, accessible pre-leaks to a ridiculously large number of US government officials. Much of it reads like stuff that the State Department could post on the Internet after 12 months.

  8. I am no more comforted in relying on Assange's discretion than on the Dept. of State's. He strikes me as a self-righteous egomaniac.

Comments are closed.