Wednesday, December 1, 2010


It's amazing the variety of responses to the Wikileaks. There's one from a former Canadian diplomat who thinks they are mighty dangerous. If diplomatic information gatherers are to be of use, he feels, then they must be able to pass on in a forthright fashion, any information, however ugly and compromising, that they may discover. They must be free to communicate, as he once did, things that "would make your hair stand on end." (I think that's how it went.)

And this communication has to be privileged and private, and so secret.

Further, he argues that to compromise this information flow by subverting its secrecy is only one aspect of the danger. Worse is the fact that the leaks lead not to a freer but a more repressive world, by means of the retribution that will follow and be visited on local populations. Local people, activists or not, who supply info-gatherers from
foreign embassies and covert agencies with information about human rights abuses will be at risk because oppressive regimes will round them up and there will be repercussions – presumably, threats, torture, maiming, imprisonment and maybe even death.

An ex-diplomat I know (not Canadian) pooh-poohs that. "Oppressive regimes always know who the informers are," he says. Presumably they have also already jailed or killed or otherwise dealt with the ones they consider truly dangerous. (One thinks of Aung San Suu Kyi, who makes a good case for that argument.)

He also repeats some sound coaching he received many years ago, from a senior civil servant, about writing memos and advices for senior politicos and government decision-makers.

"Draft everything as though you are going to see it next day on the front page of the newspaper!"

Is it possible to do this? Be cogent, comprehensive, bald and – well, I guess, diplomatic?

On the one hand, code names, and codes and hieroglyphs are the order of the day. Texting and the net have manufactured their own lingo. HTML, anyone? On the other hand, there is all of literature and fable and song to draw analogies from, a host of languages to forge into pastiche
and bricolage, a panoply of imaginative stuff to creatively deploy to send messages across.

A good example (sourced from the other Wiki, Wikipedia) is the apocryphal story of General Sir Charles James Napier's terse (one-word) communication of his fall from grace

In 1842, Napier was appointed Major General to the command of the Indian army in the Bombay Presidency. Here Lord Ellenborourgh's policy led him to Sindh Province in order to subdue the insurrection of Muslim rulers. Napier's campaign against these chieftains led to victories in the Battle of Meanee and the Battle of Hyderabad, and then to the subjugation of Sindh Province and its annexation by its eastern neighbors. Having conquered Sindh, Napier was supposed to have dispatched to his superiors the short, notable message, Peccavi, the Latin for "I have sinned" – a pun of course, on "I have Sindh."

Any good English or civics teacher would already have taken the problem for discussion and action to her class! What would you, if you were a diplomat, communicating sensitive, even explosive information, do?

All that said, is it safe, let alone wise for everyone to know everything about everything?

Here's counsel for all seasons and servants and souls from Bernard of Clairvaux:

Peace within the cell: fierce warfare without.

Hear all; believe a few: honour all.
Don't believe everything you hear;
Don't judge everything you see;
Don't do everything you can;
Don't give everything you have;
Don't say everything you know…


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