I took some flak from my colleagues after my previous column, in which I outlined three reasons for secrecy (good manners, internal debate, negotiating) for leaving out the biggest reason: protecting sources. I only partly agree with that because I was writing about why we produce secrets rather than why we keep them, but I take the point that protecting sources is also important to our work and also needs explaining.
One of the damaging effects of the leaking of State Department cables over the past few years has been that people who spoke with us in the belief that what they said would not appear in public then found their conversations splashed across newspapers and websites. After seeing his remarks from one of our earlier conversations online, one foreign government official began a conversation with me by saying: “I’d rather you not report to Washington what I’m going to tell you because I don’t want it to show up in the press.”
“I can make that promise, but there’s not much point in telling me anything personally is there? What good would that do you?” I asked.
Not everyone has been so forgiving, but he decided that he would give us another chance to keep his confidence. You might imagine that he was worried because he was in the act of betraying his own government’s secrets, or was preparing a coup, or something equally exotic. It was no such thing. He wanted to discuss how his government planned to handle the expected political opposition to a deal his government was making with the USA.
In that case, you might then imagine that he was talking about plans to suppress demonstrations or muzzle opponents. It was, again, much less dramatic than that. He wanted to review the arguments his government would make in parliament about the impacts of our deal, and he wanted to make sure that his government and mine agreed on what the impacts would be.
He wanted, first, to double-check his government’s analysis against our own. And, second, to make sure that we would not have a public disagreement about the consequences of the deal that might jeopardize approval. So, why should he care that we were having our conversation in confidence?
If our conversation were made public, his government’s political opposition probably would have fingered him as having “plotted with the U.S. Embassy to force the agreement through parliament.” And if I were in the political opposition, I would have been tempted to make that charge. It’s effective. One person’s ‘conferring’ is another person’s ‘plotting.’ ‘Plotting’ is bad enough; ‘plotting with foreigners’ is icing on the cake.