It is symbolically appropriate that among other charges in Sweden WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is accused of having unprotected sex with two women in Stockholm. I don't know whether the world-famous Internet whistleblower is guilty or not, but the allegation certainly fits his reputation for world-class recklessness.
Known for releasing hundreds of thousands of pages of classified documents on the doorstep of the New York Times and other major media, Assange, who was arrested earlier this week, is praised by some as a courageous whistle-blower and truth-seeker. I see him as a narcissistic glory-seeker whose lawbreaking occasionally serves a larger good. Occasionally.
It is easy for liberty-loving, government-suspecting Americans to romanticize the mischief WikiLeaks commits in the name of the public's right to know -- at least until you consider all of the consequences.
On the good side, WikiLeaks has provided an extra, if illegal and highly unorthodox check on lies and deceptions by several governments, including ours. Much of what they have released tends to support the cynical view that documents are classified not to keep them from the enemy but to control the news narrative that is consumed back home by Americans.
But Assange's big document dumps pose big problems for the traditional ways that governments do business and diplomacy with one another. As Amazon.com Inc. explained after dumping WikiLeaks from its servers this past week for violating the company's terms of service agreement, "it is not credible that the extraordinary volume of 250,000 classified documents that WikiLeaks is publishing could have been carefully redacted in such a way as to ensure that they weren't putting innocent people in jeopardy."
In many ways, the new documents mostly confirm what we already knew in three main categories:
There are some new insights on the private behavior of prominent newsmakers, although no one should be surprised by now to hear that President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is "hyperactive" and impulsive or that Italy's President Silvio Berlusconi has a lusty interest in sex.
It was a much bigger deal to hear that cables show Arab leaders like Saudi King Abdullah and King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. 5th Fleet, have lobbied the United States to strike Iran, which one Saudi official said the king called "the head of the snake" that he wanted the U.S. to "cut off" before it was too late.
And it was no small deal to hear that Secretaries of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Condoleezza Rice had signed orders for United Nations diplomats to gather biographic and "biometric data" on other diplomats working there, including the secretary general.
Predictably, Clinton and others face a big task in rebuilding diplomatic confidence behind these disclosures. But the question of what can be done beyond that raises familiar three-way conflict between First Amendment freedoms, the government's need for secrecy and the public's right to know in our democracy what their government is up to.
Congress and the Justice Department will investigate what to do about Assange, but he has shown us how tightening laws will not stop leaks in the Internet age and multiple servers in multiple countries. The best that can be done is to tighten up the security that allowed Private First Class Bradley Manning, 23, to be accused of downloading thousands of classified documents for WikiLeaks onto a Lady Gaga CD.
The irony is that this scandal may have resulted from an excessive amount of information sharing between departments that was encouraged as a reform after the Sept. 11 attacks. Sometimes departments can over-share.
But the biggest irony is how the consequences of Assange's nosy revolution undoubtedly will be quite the opposite of what he says he wants. Instead of opening up the world to more private information and honest views, he will make leaders and diplomats more cautious and less candid.
With fewer guarantees of secrecy in this Internet age, it will be more difficult for national leaders and diplomats to gain the confidence that can lead to frank discussions and useful ends. It will be more difficult, for example, to conduct the secret back-channel negotiations that lead to public peace talks. Even if less secrecy means fewer avenues for war or evil conspiracies, it also means fewer avenues for peace.