By Kevin Meyer
I've been mulling this latest WikiLeaks controversy for a few days and there's an aspect that really troubles me. I'll stay away from the political aspects, although I find it amusing that some of our friends insist that we're a nation of laws and no one is above the law… ie asking for investigations into President Bush and such… except when it comes to illegal immigrants or WikiLeakers. And vice versa for some of our other friends. And don't get me started on senators with cash in freezers, husbands on bank boards, or rental property in the Caribbean. It's sort of nice being in the middle and being able to see that both sides are equally hypocritical.
On a similar note perhaps those proponents of big government and especially single-payer healthcare should wonder if they really want the government handling their (achoo!) confidential (achoo!) medical records. Gesundheit! Hmmm…
No doubt nefarious things do happen in our government as they do in all organizations, no doubt they do cozy up to some bad guys on occasion, but is it the exception or the rule? And do we have all the facts, especially the larger context of very complex interrelated facts?
But here's what is bothering me. Secrecy does have a place in any organization, like it or not. Even in a government supposedly for the people by the people. Secrecy is sometimes needed to protect, not to hide.
An easy example is with something most of us managers unfortunately have to deal with at some point: sexual harassment. A person being harassed must feel comfortable going to their manager for support and to start the investigation process – and that requires an assurance of secrecy and confidentiality.
If the leaked cables included that form of confidential information, would those on the left be as jubilant in exposing the obviously devious secrecy of the evil military-industrial-McDonalds-Disney complex? Conspiracies obviously await! Oh wait – these cables exposed diplomatic, not military deviousness. Diplomacy is always the answer, even if thumbed in our nose year after year after year, right? Hmmm…
More enlightened leaders understand the importance of open and honest communication in order to get all perspectives and facts on issues. We ask our teams to be blunt and forthcoming. Even if it's painful to hear, deflates our egos, and condemns our plans.
As one response to the breakdown of communication that led to the intelligence failures of 9/11 we asked diplomats, government officials, military agencies, and yes even spies to be more open, honest, and interconnected. We asked for blunt opinion, differing perspectives, gut intuition. We wanted more as opposed to less, knowing that there would be more to sort out but also knowing that more might lead to the nugget that gave us a clue, warning, connection or insight that let us prevent another event or create a positive diplomatic coup.
Now those confidential communications were stolen and distributed to the public as individual points of data, without the larger context – be it positive or negative. Of course the database and information should have been more secure. That is the government's fault. It is still stealing and disclosing with an intent to harm – sounds like a couple of crimes. If we're a nation of laws, that is.
But what will happen to the quality of communication? Foreign sources will no longer feel secure in providing us with confidential information – and intuition. Our own diplomats will no longer feel secure in providing their teams and our key decisionmakers with their honest perspectives, thoughts, information, and gut feels. Once again we will be relying on highly formalized and scrubbed communication, devoid of anything that could create the slightest risk to the person, source, or government.
A pathetic quality of communication that most of us leaders would never put up with in our own organizations, but now it is being forced upon those that govern us.
Some claim the leaks are a good thing and Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is a hero. Let's remember that the next time we have a threat or missed diplomatic opportunity and wonder why we didn't have all the information – why we couldn't connect the dots.