The brouhaha over the latest (and impending) WikiLeaks disclosure of U.S. diplomatic cables and other classified data will play out over a long time and will involve many tangled issues of national security, official secrets, and misinformation.
But one topic of immediate interest will be the political use of some of the WikiLeaks content to grind particular axes, most notably the conservative claim that the entire Middle East is privately clamoring for Israeli or U.S. military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. In that connection, Matt Yglesias makes a very important distinction about the credibility of “secrets:”
There’s often a conceit in both the world of intelligence and the world of journalism that “secret” truths are somehow better than ordinary ones. That the truth is necessarily hidden, and that hidden facts therefore are especially important to know.
But what do we really know about the leaders of the Gulf states? I mean, suppose you were an envoy from Qatar Ministry of Defense and you’re in a meeting with someone from the Defense Department and your private view is that Israel should be pushed into the sea and the United States is the “great satan.” Well, you’re certainly not going to say that in a meeting! So what will you say? You’ll tell your interlocutors something you think they want to hear, and you’ll try to get then to give you advanced military equipment. So there you are, “privately” very concerned about Iran.
Which isn’t to say Gulf officials are in fact lying when they privately say they’re very worried about Iran. If you look at the objective situation, it’s reasonable for the Gulf states to be worried about Iran. So it’s reasonable for us to assume that the Gulf states are in fact worried about Iran. But this is a surmise we can reach based entirely on publicly available information. Their private statements are just private statements. They could be true or they could be lies. Our best guide to their accuracy is what we know about the objective situation.
And what we know about the objective situation vis a vis Arab states and Iran really isn’t changed by WikiLeaks, so far at least.