• September 4, 2015

Why WikiLeaks Is Bad for Scholars

Drezner WiliLeaks illustration

Chronicle illustration by Scott Seymour

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Chronicle illustration by Scott Seymour

Let me share one of my recurring nightmares with you. I'm delivering a paper on why the United States pursued a particular strategy during an international negotiation. Suddenly a former policy principal, groaning with gravitas, emerges from the shadows and declares, "You lie! We did that for another reason entirely." Then, with a dramatic flourish, the person raises a wadded piece of paper and shouts triumphantly, "And I have the document to prove it!" The audience gasps; my shoulders slump. My career in ruins, I wake up in a sweat.

I'll bet I'm not the only one who has this nightmare. International-relations experts writing about recent events suffer a handicap that other scholars avoid: Information that can make or break our arguments is often classified. Most governments keep foreign-policy memoranda classified for decades. We can and do rely on other sources to "process-trace" decisions on foreign policy, including news reporting, interviews with policy makers, memoirs, and the occasional Bob Woodward book. After 25 years or so, most of the key documents are declassified and published in Foreign Relations of the United States, a many-volume compendium of primary-source documents. Until then, however, scholars wonder if there are top-secret memos somewhere that vindicate or vitiate our hypotheses.

Seen in this light, WikiLeaks clearly has the potential to be a game changer. The organization's latest document dump contains 250,000 U.S. State Department cables, to be released over the next few months. The bulk of the cables were written in the past five years, and will be available far earlier than political scientists or diplomatic historians ever expected. In the short term, this is a potential gold mine for foreign-affairs scholarship. In the long term, however, what WikiLeaks wants to call "Cablegate" will very likely make life far more difficult for my profession.

For now, things certainly look very sweet. Timothy Garton Ash characterized the documents as "the historian's dream." Jon Western, a visiting professor of international relations at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, blogged that WikiLeaks may allow scholars to "leapfrog" the traditional process of declassification, which takes decades. While the first wave of news reports focused on the more titillating disclosures (see: Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's Ukrainian nurse), the second wave has highlighted substantive and trenchant aspects of world politics and American foreign policy. The published memos reveal provocative Chinese perspectives on the future of the Korean peninsula, as well as American policy makers' pessimistic perceptions of the Russian state.

Scholars will need to exercise care in putting the WikiLeaks documents in proper perspective. Some researchers suffer from "document fetishism," the belief that if something appears in an official, classified document, then it must be true. Sophisticated observers are well aware, however, that these cables offer only a partial picture of foreign-policy decision-making. Remember, with Cablegate, WikiLeaks has published cables and memos only from the State Department. Last I checked, other bureaucracies—the National Security Council, the Defense Department—also shape U.S. foreign policy. The WikiLeaks cables are a source—they should not be the sole source for anything.

For example, some cables from 2009 and 2010 suggest that Chinese officials were growing weary of their North Korean allies and even envisioned a reunified Korea run by Seoul and allied with the United States. The Guardian, in Britain, hyped those cables as a signal that China would rein in North Korea's bellicose behavior. Those Chinese sentiments, however, usually came second or thirdhand, via South Korean diplomats. The Chinese officials, moreover, were talking primarily about the far future rather than the near term.

Most important, Chinese actions over the past six months do not match the views that appear in those cables. China's muted responses to the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, to North Korea's development of a light-water nuclear reactor, and to the latest exchange of artillery fire between North and South Korea hardly suggest that the leadership in Beijing will soon abandon its partners in Pyongyang.

As confused as the early analysis of the WikiLeaks cables has been, it is in the long term that their effect will be most negative for political scientists and diplomatic historians. In his public statements, the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, has evangelized for transparency. In July he said, "We are transparency activists who understand that transparent government tends to produce just government. And that is our sort of modus operandi behind our whole organization."

Assange's hypothesis may or may not be true, but his belief that WikiLeaks will lead to greater government transparency is blinkered in the extreme. Governments do not respond to security breaches by surrendering themselves to the fates. American foreign-policy bureaucracies have and will continue to respond to WikiLeaks by clamping down on the dissemination of information.

That means more compartmentalization, to make sure that someone like Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst suspected of disclosing documents to WikiLeaks, can't download classified files from multiple agencies. It means that more cables will be classified, reducing the number of people who can access them and delaying their release to the public. Most important, a lot less will be written down. State Department officials will opt for telephones over e-mail. As a result, future data dumps from WikiLeaks or its imitators are less likely. The cumulative effect of these measures will make it much harder for political scientists and diplomatic historians to piece together how decisions were made.

Julian Assange and other true believers in transparency argue that they have discovered the very crowbar to pry open the U.S. government. Unfortunately for them, WikiLeaks will be more like a boomerang—and the next generation of scholars are the ones who will be hit on the head.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His next book, Theories of International Politics and Zombies, will be published by Princeton University Press in February.


1. dank48 - December 06, 2010 at 08:37 am

Mr. Drezner seems to me to have shown that WikiLeaks will end up making some things harder for scholars. I don't see that this means it will be bad for scholars. Is research of this sort really supposed to be easy?

2. eperramond - December 06, 2010 at 09:52 am

If this is only about "ego" then I have no problem with my ideas being disproved or easily countered; this is supposed to be about knowledge, wisdom, and shedding light on murky processes. Right?
So it's not a nightmare; uncomfortable for some (like Drezner), but not for many of us.

3. 11121641 - December 06, 2010 at 09:57 am

You'll just have to work harder in the future.

4. nx_ie - December 06, 2010 at 09:57 am

of course speculation is easier and more fun than documentation, which leaves less room for high-brow idealized intellectualizing and requires a bit more analysis and real-world savvy... perhaps this new media requires an updated professoriate?

5. misstrudy - December 06, 2010 at 10:58 am

Getting a clearer view of the reality of any given situation, especially when it comes to politics and decision-makers, is complex and messy. With the discovery of more documents, it follows that one must dig through more facts, more points of view, all of which muddy a clear understanding of any situation. As scholars, we shouldn't shy away from it. In fact, the documentation exposed by Wikileaks adds to scholarly discussions, rather than it being "bad" for scholarship.

6. cwalcott - December 06, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Some comments seem to miss Drezner's main point. It is not that the current leaks will somehow be "bad" in the short run, but that in the longer run governments will take measures to make secrets more secure. Rather than more transparency, we'll see less of it. There is reason to believe that, for instance, investigations of White House decision making have had such an effect. It's just another instance of observation affecting the phenomenon that is observed.

7. nacrandell - December 06, 2010 at 01:13 pm

The author is correct - sadly correct. If the Pentagon Papers were released today, then Daniel Ellsberg would be arrested. The government has moved to punish whistle blowers.

The author, however, takes a passive and wistful tone when he suggests that truth would have easier to find without these leaks.

A true scholarly piece on the Bush decision to go to war, twice, will not be able to begin until our unborn grandchildren are middle-aged.

The problem is not the leaks but the acceptance of secrecy in a democracy/republic.

8. ellenhunt - December 06, 2010 at 02:10 pm

In the arms race between governments and technology that lowers the bar for moving information around - sorry, bu governments haven't got a chance.

We are seeing the watershed event of the century. And all this silly person can do is wuffle in muddy, short-sighted thinking?

Governments can't do that. We just have to adjust to a new reality which is an extension of the experiment in democracy and transparency which underlies the mocdern world.

Embrace it and we thrive. Wall ourself off to it, and we imprison ourselves in the same governmental nightmare that dictatorships the world over live in.

Fact - Our system can deal with "nightmare transparency". The dictatorships and satrapys of the world can't survive it.

9. anon1972 - December 06, 2010 at 02:36 pm

This is a basic misattributuion of causality. It's not Wikileaks that is "bad for scholars," but government secrecy.

10. star_eater - December 06, 2010 at 03:14 pm

The govenment will really use this to censure the internet and we will all lose if we roll over and allow it.

11. madame_furie - December 06, 2010 at 04:51 pm

@nacrandell comment #7
Daniel Ellsberg was arrested - there was a warrant out immediately upon the first stories being published in the media - as he had expected. He hid out until he surrendered, after he could distribute all the documents to a variety of news organizations.


I'm of two minds about cablegate - governments are too secretive, but they do need some confidentiality in order to be effective, especially in foreign affairs and diplomacy.

Wikileaks is miles away from the Pentagon Papers. I haven't worked out my argument cogently yet, but it seems to me there is a fundamental difference between the two. Fundamental qualities of discernment, of service to the public, and yes loyalty were lost between the time of Ellsberg -> Assange.

12. sand6432 - December 06, 2010 at 04:59 pm

Is government secrecy always bad, as some of the commenters seem to be suggesting? Would the country be better off without any intelligence services, for example, like those that have uncovered a number of plots by domestic and foreign terrorists since 9/11? Can a crisis like the Cuban Missile Crisis be resolved with no secret negotiations being held? I share Professor Drezner's concern about the future effects of Wikileaks. The lack of documentation will make it even easier for the writers of memoirs to create the kind of history they want future generations to remember.---Sanbdy Thatcher

13. trevorgriffey - December 06, 2010 at 06:22 pm

The only way you'll ever get the documents you most want from the government is via leaks and litigation, especially when it comes to issues of "national security." The stuff that is made public through official channels has already had sensitive information scrubbed, omitted, or destroyed.

To worry what the government wants to officially release after Wikileaks misses the point entirely. Every current high ranking government official already knows how to avoid having one's communications be made public. The only times that you can get a fuller and less flattering picture of how government operates is when the rules of the game are changed-- as when the courts ruled in response to Watergate that all of a sudden Presidential papers were public records and not private ones, or when it became possible to leak vast electronic archives. So what if there will be new rules? The challenge is to anticipate new ways to seek public accountability so that certain groups' self-interest does not stand in for the public interest.

14. campusoil - December 07, 2010 at 12:26 am

Might we presume that the ur-source of the juiciest State docs, e.g. the embassy generated cables, were drafted or written by experienced FOs, so experienced that even pre-Wikileaks, these professionals were well aware of the disclosure vulnerability of cable communications, and thereby, interpreting such texts calls for a double dose of care and skepticism. My point is not that cable texts may be unreliable, incomplete or equivocal; rather, my point is that in the age of easy access or release of digital, sound, and video information, the experienced FO should regard any written communications of critical or sensitive information as foolish. My speculation would apply to FOs of all nations, and I wonder if one might gauge the relative weight and importance of an FO in the service by the rarity of their written texts on any topic. Perhaps some cross training in Biblical scholarship, might be useful here: the layers of meaning and implication, the varied approaches, the culture of the word written, spoken, or revealed from afar -- and that's just weight of scholarly generations upon a text of many colors.

15. arrive2__net - December 07, 2010 at 03:01 am

Obviously organizations, government or not, need to be able to keep some secrets. If this were not so then obviously Julian Assange would publicly reveal all his sources, applying his priciple of openness to himself and his own organization. Obviously he can't do that...so he believes the principle of openness is for others, not him.

There may be instances where some government secrets should be revealed where some overriding moral or ethical situation demands it, but the Wikileak idea seems to be to reveal whatever they can...about governments, but not about themselves. It a very dangerous idea because it invites selective leaks performed by people with agendas, I am reminded of Oliver North's selective leaks that were designed to distort the truth rather than to provide "openness".

Will Wikileaks reduce government record keeping thereby making it more difficult for scholars to discover the inner workings? The potential for leaks has been there for a long time prior to Wikileaks, yet the info revealed by Wikileaks was still in an electronic form, so it seems to me that a temporary caution will ultimately be replaced by business as usual. I think the river of records will ultimately continue to flow, unabated.

Bernard Schuster

16. lairdwilcox - December 07, 2010 at 04:10 am

The title of this article is misleading. It is the government's response to WikiLeaks that is bad for scholars, not the WikiLeaks documents themselves or the guy who published them. The documents should help scholars and researchers develop a much broader and more balanced understanding of recent history, and that it what genuine scholarship is all about.

Selective leaks by people with agendas are like selective articles, books or other political activities by people with selective agendas, which is most people. Everyone has their motives and it is a free society. As long as this is clearly understood it can be taken into account.

Of course some government secrets need to be kept and there is a "Top Secret" category for these. None of the WikiLeaks documents were top secret or anything like it. I think the Republic will survive these leaks and perhaps be better for them.

All attempts to censor and restrict information are bad for scholars. I think the crusade against WikiLeaks and its founder is an attempt to divert attention from the content of the leaks by focusing on that naughty fellow who made them public. This suggests an organized disinformation campaign.

17. nonymous - December 07, 2010 at 05:34 am

Professor Drezner suggests that Assange's "belief that WikiLeaks will lead to greater government transparency is blinkered in the extreme. Governments do not respond to security breaches by surrendering themselves to the fates. American foreign-policy bureaucracies have and will continue to respond to WikiLeaks by clamping down on the dissemination of information."

I wonder, though, whether this properly represents Assange's position. There's a short note, apparently by Assange, entitled "Non linear effects of leaks on unjust systems of governnance" (see, for instance: http://p2pfoundation.net/Non_Linear_Effects_of_Leaks_on_Unjust_Systems_of_Governance).

Assange seems to embrace the consequence that leaks will lead to clampdowns on access to and dissemination of information, but wants to suggest that this clampdown will, in the long run, lead to more transparent government.

What's the thinking behind such an extraordinary idea? Well, the theory seems basically to go like this (my gloss): the more secretive a government is, the more inefficient it becomes -- its internal communications and information processing become inefficient; there is "system-wide cognitive decline". This makes that form of government less competitive against other forms of government and also more vulnerable to attack.

I think it's worth mentioning that this sort of argument has been used elsewhere, with acceptance in some contexts and skepticism in others. Perhaps it could be labelled the "something rotten in Denmark" argument. For instance, Marxists argue that there are inherent contradictions in capitalism that will in the long run lead to its demise. Historians in general seem sometimes to employ something rotten in Denmark to explain the decline of empires -- that there was some sort of internal contradiction, that what ensured success also led to downfall, that the demise of this or that regime was more a matter of implosion than destruction by outside forces, or that various internal factors led to vulnerability to those outside forces, etc.

18. alanvanneman - December 07, 2010 at 06:24 am

The search for reasons why Wikileaks is "bad" appears to be never-ending. Elitists like Mr. Drezner hate Wikileaks because it reveals their secrets, and their incompetence, to the common people. This is somehow "bad."

19. beingbeowulf - December 07, 2010 at 08:44 am

It's impossible to know how this will affect historians/scholars in the future. Surely govt's will make documents more secure and make punishment more severe for the leakers. But there will always be leaks. And now there will always be something like WikiLeaks. There's no going back. It's highly doubtful that phones will replace written communiques on any large scale. Phones calls are no more secure and would create all sorts of obvious problems (identity confirmation; messages of complexity & length, etc.). Also, the comment about China not behaving in a way that accords with the leaked docs is bizarre. That's the whole point of these leaks. There's world-stage appearance and then there's what's really going on in the back rooms.

20. texastextbook - December 07, 2010 at 08:50 am

If Drezner is happy to write this article, he'd be divinely orgiastic were the suspected source a member not of the US Military, but of the private military ("contractors") operating out the US for the benefit of private individuals.

21. texastextbook - December 07, 2010 at 09:49 am

How is Daniel Drezner like Dick Durbin?

I loved it when the subject was tax cuts for the wealthy, and when Dem member of Congress (and multimillionaire) Durbin was crying no, no, no to tax breaks that he wanted, wanted, wanted. If I'd been a Republican, I'd have pulled out...just to see what Durbin would do, do, do.

22. goxewu - December 07, 2010 at 01:58 pm


If Governments were trying to keep their stuff secret before WikiLeaks, and scholars of international relations such as Professor Drezner gained access to the secret stuff they needed without WikiLeaks (albeit more laboriously), didn't Governments--when books by scholars such as Professor Derzner came out--tighten up on secrets anyway?

So, Professor Drezner and other scholars were causing the same thing Wikileaks is supposed to be causing--making secrets harder to get for scholars who came after them--only more slowly and piecemeal.

One suspects that Professor Drezner's real complaint is not a selfless one on behalf of scholars in general, but a selfish one that WikiLeaks is making it possible for other scholars, pundits, and mere reporters to more easily compete with him in writing about the real reasons things happened in international relations.

23. pl___ - December 07, 2010 at 06:25 pm

Assange is for transparency, but his whole enterprise depends on guaranteeing his informants secrecy. Imagine him totally successful: instead of our elected govt deciding what's to be known when, we shall have un-elected Assange the master of all information. Talk about megalomania!

24. via_fch - December 07, 2010 at 09:04 pm

Mr. Drezner begins by lamenting the fate of scholars-hip, yet somehow ends up making inferences about Assange, the behavior of governments, etc.

In other words, he's already theorizing, albeit it's all at the stage of pessismist hypothesizing.

No, I don't think we can tell how much of a game-changer Cablegate is going to be until more documents are released. So far, I haven't learned much of interest, other than the directive to spy on the UN personnel.

In fact, I think that Cablegate, even at this early stage, shows us some systemic vulnerabilities. Once the horse is out of the barn, let's skip the indignation and turn this into an opportunity for introspection! Otherwise, it's akin to covering mirrors in the house after someone died.


25. goxewu - December 08, 2010 at 09:16 am

Re pl___:

Notice the sly slippage: The Government "deciding what's to be known" vs. Assange as "master of all information." pl___ couldn't say "Assange deciding what's to be known" because Assange isn't in the business of PREVENTING information from coming out. Only the Government is.

Personally, I'm less interested in "gotcha!" on Assange for creating transparency by guaranteeing his sources secrecy than I am in knowing what awful stuff my supposedly democratic Government is perpetrating. The latter is a mountain; the former is a molehill.

26. trendisnotdestiny - December 08, 2010 at 12:18 pm

What I take in from your article is that not only are you being scooped, but shut out of further processes for a short term gain in knowledge.

Goxewu is right here... The standard channels of who writes history is morphing in the information age. For some, it no longer requires a PhD and an elephantine memory. It is not a slow-paced arena from which to endlessly ponder and contemplate. It is a competition for narratives (one which american academics have historically had a monopoly upon). One which our (academia's) complicity with power is more transparent as well!

Did we really think there wasn't going to be a price paid for our national actions in foreign policy over time? I mean, Dr. Drezner may be correct about the reaction to Wikileaks leading to greater censorship and more difficulty mining classified data for historians/scholars, but I find this to be a so what moment? The gains from the knowledge disseminated far outweigh the potential problems from future scholars....

In fact, this leads me to think that these events should shape scholar's behaviors to get ahead of the curve and develop strategies to deal with greater restrictions rather than sit passively on the side line lamenting the fact that other's are doing the work that is needed to be done better.

27. kenskorner - December 08, 2010 at 03:41 pm

The Job of uncovering truth has always been challenging, but also extremely important. Take for example........people were looking for Professors, paper print news papers and felow intelligentsia to stop two idiotic wars from gripping our society. As we can see they were powerless before the mobs of idiots ruled by our political class. Now we worry the job has gotten too hard. Anyone else seeing the real problem here??

"The problem is not the leaks but the acceptance of secrecy in a democracy/republic."

28. redcarnation - December 09, 2010 at 01:40 pm

If the normal course of events holds true I believe the author makes a good and logical prediction of what the future will be like. Privacy and secrecy are jealously guarded by people with power and money and invaded and taken away from people with less power and money. Governments have a lot of both and will use it.

I have wondered if I was the only one who has seen a link between the USA and other governments recent willingness to ignore citizens rights to privacy and a shift in attitudes that has allowed the disclosure of this vast number of government documents. Perhaps to change the future what we need is a broader discussion on the issues related to privacy and secrecy.

29. rambo - December 09, 2010 at 06:14 pm

why can academia released the whole tenure votes? Or the draft papers?

30. tcli5026 - December 09, 2010 at 08:20 pm

I wish people would take more time and care in their reading. The author is being accused of all sorts of things he did not say, or he said only with tongue firmly planted in his cheek. There are certainly some points of contention in the article, but most fo the criticisms here are way off base.

31. ufenglish - December 13, 2010 at 11:49 am

Sorry, the criticisms seem totally spot on to me. Wikileaks is a goldmine for historians young and old. The NY Times has already done an article about the treasure trove the leaked cables constitute for these scholars. Daniel W. Drezner will simply have to take some Xanex and work harder. He might even start thinking about a new topic: state secrecy. Or he might resign and get a new job.

32. sgreen49 - December 15, 2010 at 01:28 pm

Whether or not Wikileaks is good for scholars is rather besides the point. At issue is a free and open society versus one that hides in secrecy and starts wars and implements policies based upon lies and false premises. What of Viet Nam if the Gulf of Tonkin lie were leaked? The wars in Iraq of course were built on secrets. I only wish that some of the leaks were from Dick Cheney's energy planning meeting. Were that the case, the entire middle east war for oil strategy would have been exposed as well as the oil and car industries collusion to maintain their economic subsidies and tax breaks at the cost of building a sustainable society.

A scholars gain from wikileaks would be to enhance their ability to contribute to meeting the goals of openness and transparent democracy. Of course, all diplomacy cannot be revealed. But as the leaks show, most of the secret cables etc. were either not classified or deserved not to be classified.

The impact of the leaks on scholars is not the point - if they are "hit on the head" as Dr. Drezner notes because of a backlash by governments, would be a rather benign consequence compared to the 100,000's of lives that would continue to be lost and damaged by running a country via a government hidden behind a virtual wall of secret cables.

The goal for scholars should be to vet the leaks, put them in context,and fight to keep government from maintaining or increasing its secret ways.

33. trendisnotdestiny - December 17, 2010 at 09:03 pm

On further thought, one might consider joining Wikileaks' organization if you are so concerned about getting access....

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