WikiLeaks, Secrets, and Lies

SINGAPORE – The latest information dump from WikiLeaks offers fascinating insights into the workings of the US State Department that will keep foreign policy wonks and conspiracy theorists busy for months. Much of what has been reported is not “news” in the traditional sense, of course, but a series of embarrassing gaffes: truths that were never meant to be said aloud.

Underlying these various, and often banal, tidbits of information – it should be no surprise that Americans found Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi “vain,” or regarded Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as a “crazy old man” – is the larger question of whether governments should be able to keep secrets.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange argues that the answer is no, and that greater transparency “creates a better society for all people.” This raises the question of why governments keep secrets at all, and whether those reasons are justified.

The task of keeping a state’s secrets frequently falls to its intelligence services, which tend to focus on the protection of three types of information.