Before, we suspected; now we know

Shooting the messenger is a tried-and-true political strategy that’s most rewarding when the target is as soft as Julian Assange.

Shooting the messenger is a tried-and-true political strategy that’s most rewarding when the target is as soft as Julian Assange. However good and distracting the sport, attacking the WikiLeaker badly misses the focal point.

As deeply flawed and worryingly unaccountable as Assange is, the critical WikiLeaks fault lines don’t run through his character or behaviour.

Instead, they radiate from Washington’s missions around the world.

By opening its diplomatic pouch so widely, the U.S. made the mistake of confirming what could only be widely speculated. That failure to adequately safeguard common knowledge is the embarrassment that explains the official fury at Assange, as well as the grim, sometimes homicidal, determination to silence him and, one way or another, plumb the leaks.

How much damage WikiLeaks has done won’t be known until the information drip finally stops. But it’s already clear that the impact, now being so acutely felt in countries as distinct as Israel and Canada, is far from evenly spread.

Israelis, who were holding their breath before the information dump began, are now sighing in relief.

Despite their country’s location at the epicentre of one of the world’s most vexed problems, the leaks so far have skimmed over the awkward truths of the Palestinian conflict, while reinforcing Israel’s argument that Iran’s nuclear ambition is a top-of-mind threat across the region.

Canadians, on the other hand, have fared poorly in what amounts to cameo appearances. Gently slagged for a cross-border inferiority complex, this country now faces a much more rough-and-tumble task: Convincing itself that it still makes sense to extend support for an Afghanistan government so corrupt it boils our ambassador’s blood.

Coincidental or not, the timing of those leaks is critical.

In the Middle East, the apparent consensus on Iran increases pressure on the U.S. to act forcefully in the Gulf while drawing attention away from moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

In Canada, the stripping bare of frustration with the Karzai regime comes just as controversy begins to cool over the decision to leave 950 trainers in Afghanistan after the July 2011 deadline to end the combat mission.

It’s more than curious that some WikiLeaks are helpful and others not. Rather than supporting the immediate campaign to jail Assange and seal the leaks, such significant variations argue that what we need is more information.

Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. defence secretary, once famously mused that scattered among the things we know and don’t know are unknown unknowns.

Applying the Rumsfeld doctrine to the leaks, almost anyone loosely following the news would have eventually grasped that, among many other things, Israel wasn’t the only fearful neighbour urging a strike against Iran, and that Canada had spotted Afghan corruption.

Now, thanks to diplomats and Assange, what was speculated is certain.

But it’s the unknown unknowns that make the WikiLeaks so intriguing and dangerous. Even if it’s reasonable to speculate that layered conspiracies helped keep information from becoming public, its impossible to know everything we don’t know about the leaks, the leakers or their agendas.

Anger at Assange is understandable. No one, least of all the powerful, appreciates being publicly stripped by their own words, opinions and duplicity.

Shooting the messenger may make them feel better; it won’t restore their dignity. Instead of pillorying Assange, those who failed to wrap their open secrets in enigma ought to look hard at how WikiLeaks is successfully hiding its mysteries.

James Travers is a syndicated columnist for The Toronto Star.

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