Intellectual debate over dinner

Published: 05 December 2010

Inevitably, our conversation about all things journalism drifted to the Wikileaks, around the same time main course arrived. I was fascinated to know more about this experienced journalist's opinion on the leaks, as they have been holding Britain in rapture.

The latest WikiLeaks revelations involve more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, leaking information about everything from China’s frustration with North Korea, Arab states pleas to the US to take military action against Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme, to fears that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of terrorists.

The information has been passed to five of the world’s most influential newspapers (The GuardianThe New York TimesDer Spiegel in Germany, Le Monde in France and El País in Spain), who are tantalising readers with a drip release.

On Saturday, US state department legal adviser Harold Koh wrote in a letter to Wikileaks that the most recent document dump “could place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals” as well as “ongoing military operations”.

There are massive implications for international relations, however, as Marie-Laura pointed out: did the leaks tell us anything we didn't already know?

Do we really need to know that one ambassador thought Prince Andrew is cocky and rude? Or that another described Putin as an “alpha dog”.

These matters are more “of interest to the public” than in “public interest”.

However, Maria-Laura drew my attention to another similar case back in 1992, which happened before I was old enough to understand. A disgruntled Russian anarchist, Vasili Mitrokhin spent years smuggling secrets out of the KGB's foreign-intelligence headquarters in Moscow. He then painstakingly hand-copied thousands of classified files covering the period from the Bolshevik Revolution to the 1980s. The notes, which chronicle Soviet disinformation, smear campaigns and the Russian penetration of Western intelligence, were then hidden in bottles beneath his floor.

The details of the notes are expanded in "The Sword and the Shield", written with intelligence expert Christopher Andrew. I am adding it to my reading list.

I am surprised that the UK media have not drawn more of a correlation between the two stories. Perhaps Mitrokhin was the first 'Julian Assange', and started the ball rolling for citizen journalism.

It can only remain to be seen how damaging the Wikileaks will be for international relations. However, when asked her opinion on the concept overall, Maria-Laura was positive in saying, "Oh I would have Wikileaks every day if I could. But only if they have something worth saying."