WikiLeaks' release of a quarter of a million confidential diplomatic cables will embarrass Washington -- but in all probability will not have more serious policy consequences for the United States.
After all, to describe Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as an alpha male is hardly sensational information; neither is describing President Dmitry Medvedev as playing Robin to Putin's Batman.
Nor for that matter is the fact that the U.S. Embassy in Bejing suspects the Chinese leadership of trying for years to hack into computers of the United States, its allies, and the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
As so far examined, the documents are full of such material, most conclusions of which could be arrived at by any careful reader of world affairs.
But there are also a few revelations. They include reports that some Arab leaders -- including Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah -- urged the United States to attack Iran and end its nuclear program. The released cables also include details on the very close relationship between Putin and his Italian counterpart, Silvio Berlusconi, and alleged links between the Russian government and organized crime.
Among the first international reactions to WikiLeaks' latest disclosures was from Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who downplayed the event.
"First, let's see what WikiLeaks has in hand and then we will evaluate whether the disclosed documents are reliable. At the moment, WikiLeaks' reliability is dubious," Erdogan said, speaking at a news conference in Istanbul. "Therefore, we will wait until WikiLeaks discloses all the information that it obtained. Then we will evaluate and comment on it."
But still the political establishment in Washington is angry at having its private correspondence strung out on a washing line, as it were, for all the world to see. Even if major policy areas remain unaffected by the disclosures, there remains the question of heightened risk for the writers and subjects of the reports.
A statement issued by the White House says the disclosures put at risk U.S. diplomatic and intelligence staff but also individuals who live and work under oppressive conditions and who may have approached the United States for help in trying to create freer societies.
The statement continues: "By releasing stolen and classified documents WikiLeaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals."
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking on November 28 in an interview with CNN, pointed to another danger -- namely, that any extra fragment of information could help extremists create a pattern to gain better insight into U.S. plans.
"What I don't think those who are in charge of WikiLeaks understand is [that] we live in a world where just a little, [tiny] piece of information can be added to a network of information and really open up an understanding that just wasn't there before. So it continues to be extremely dangerous," Mullen said.
Despite the criticism, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has said that he is promoting a healthy openness in government affairs. He spoke on November 28 via video link to journalists in Amman, Jordan.
"The general trend for accountability of the U.S. military is worrying. But fortunately, there are still good people in the U.S. government, and some of those good people want to see things go the other way, and they are willing to step forward to give us material to help us do that, and to give other journalists similar material as well," Assange said.
Assange gave advance copies of some of the cables to five major press outlets in the United States and Europe. One of these, "The New York Times," explained its rationale for printing the material.
It said the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises, and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.
By. Breffni O'Rourke
Copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.