Why Did WikiLeaks Have Such Little Impact?

A few months back, hundreds of thousands of pages of U.S. government documents were made available to the public through WikiLeaks. I have to say that, at the time, I thought this would be a history-making event. I figured there would be loads of interesting and controversial revelations in the documents. Huge scandals would emerge; heads would roll.

I was recently reminded, while reading a months-old copy of The Economist, just how little of interest has thus far emerged from the documents. The U.S. ambassador to Ecuador was sent home by the Ecuadorians because she had written a leaked cable saying (gasp) that the Ecuadorian police were corrupt. The article mentioned that a similar fate had befallen the American ambassador to Mexico.

Is that it? Is there nothing of importance in State Department cables?


Quincy

We needn't equivocate by conflating "importance" and "controversy". I'm glad the State Department is boring. I like my government like I like my water: tepid, predictable, and bland, maybe even solvent.

Quincy

I forgot the most obvious characteristic: "transparent".

AJ

I think it did damage a lot of relationships around the world with our ambassadors and obviously with Sec. of State Clinton...but the data was just so massive that I don't think people ever finished going through it before the next news cycle erupted to be honest...I'm sure intelligence organizations in countries are still mining through it...

Jack Roberts

What about those few countries in the Middle East? You know, the ones with revolutions in the past year? That was the impact.

L

Right. And why do these "top secret" documents contain mere common knowledge?

Francisco Carvalho Venancio

Precisely because they were short from "top secret". Wikileaks source did not have "top secret" clearance, only "confidential" and "secret" documents are in Wikileaks.

devin grahams

yeah, they totally had nothing to do with catalyzing arab spring at all...and even if they did, arab spring was nothing anyway, right?

Anita

Yes, that's kind of interesting.
But it caused a lot buzz...

roseonpolitics

I don't think it's that people didn't care, but governments from around the world didn't either. Some bad things were said in the cables but I can't think of one government at the top of my head that made a big fuss over it, and instead went on with business as usual.

Francisco Carvalho Venancio

Levitt,
I think you're writing this one out of US media bubble. Wikileaks had a humongous impact. The arab spring, to mention just one example, was made possible by a cable that told Tunisians that the US might support an outing of their dictator. There were many examples of impact in the whole world, many government official were put into suspicion due to the cables in many different countries.
The only point I would concede to you is of its importance to the US. Not much of the Wikileaks impact was on US officials or interests. Some of this non-impact in the US is due to the media downplaying the importance of stories, but most of it is due to the predictable(from US perspective) nature of the (non-top secret) cables.
Aside from that, you should keep in mind that the data is gigantic. It is entirely conceivable that it is just a matter that a deeper analysis of the data is necessary to have a greater impact in US politics.

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WikiImpact

You really haven't been following the foreign policy realted news have you? The impact of WikiLeaks have been immense in many dimensions beyond just ambassadors being sent home. BTW, when do we ever punish gov officials for not obeying the law? To understand the impact of wikileaks please look beyond The Economist..

beuler

Wikileaks has been discredited as a source (intentionally or not).

Want to start a scandal? Just publish whatever your imagination comes up with on the most credible site you have access to and cite Wikileaks as a source.

The fact checking system set up by Wikileaks with a few selected news publications is just not working that well ate keeping wikileaks relevant.

Cackalacka

Mubarack probably disagrees. Sure, there are other catalyzing elements, but an acorn is an acorn.

Pathman25

I guess it depends on your definition of "impact." The traditional media has an interest in actively ignoring the information leaked. One exception that wasn't ignored was discussed here:
http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2011/04/25/guantanamo/index.html

Alan J Taylor

I think there's an apathy issue caused by the sheer volume of documents. The public aren't interested in sifting through them, looking for something juicy, and the relative silence of the press backs up this belief - in order for me to be interested, I'd need a reputable source to say it's worth doing.

The press's relative silence on the content of the leaks suggests to me that there's not much to find. Nothing of any scandal or importance anyway - so my incentives for looking myself are slim.

Compare this to the way the Telegraph in the UK handled leaking of UK MP expenses, where the information was leaked gradually and oddities highlighted in such a way as to entice the reader in to wanting to know more.

With WikiLeaks, the information has been dumped in to the public domain, and while its existence is interesting, WikiLeaks has not generated reasons for individuals to search for personally relevant information.

Possibly!

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Wally

Only State department cables got published. A lot more goes on in embassies other than "official" state department business. There are other departments.

Nelson

The revelations fueled the Tunisian revolution whose knock-on effects are still fully in play. On the American side the revelations have not shaken the foundations but the people and countries at the center of the revelations have and continue to feel the full impact

Mike B

Some state department friends I asked told me that if they were given the option to keep the cables leaked or not leaked they'd go with letting them stay leaked because it shows that there is very little up our foreign policy sleeve. We can say we're pro democracy. We can say that this leader or that leader is corrupt, but nobody is going to believe us because their general perception is that the United States lies and autocratic leaders like to perpetuate that perception. However these cables were given an amazing air of credibility by that white haired dude and the across the world people could see that do practice what we preach and we are also aware of a lot of dirty laundry.

James

Though I don't claim any sort of expertise, I can't help but wonder whether the people trying to link the Wikileaks cables to the "Arab Spring" aren't vastly over-estimating the importance of both the cables and the US.

But to me, as a US taxpayer, the more interesting question is why on earth the State Department is still using cables, fer gawdsake? Haven't they heard of email and the internet? Or do they still have a budget item for foolscap and quill pens?

tylerh

Think economically.

Markets are moved not by new information, but by unexpected information. An economic report that shows GDP growth was as expected may has a minimal impact on financial prices, while that same report showing a huge unexpected change change from the predicted number will move prices rapidly.

Was anyone surprised that various officials were corrupt, Iraq was bloody, Afganistan wasn't going well, and that Prince Andrew is a bit of an oaf?

These were all low-level cables. Private Manning didn't have access to juicy stuff beyond his own duty station (Iraq).