Comment: Diplomats must engage in frank discussions with their colleagues

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have made it a priority to reinvigorate America’s relationships around the world. They have been working hard to strengthen our existing partnerships and build new ones to meet shared challenges, from climate change to ending the threat of nuclear weapons to fighting disease and poverty. As the United States Ambassador to Maldives, I’m proud to be part of this effort.

Under the leadership of President Obama, we have greatly expanded our engagement in Maldives. We have strengthened our security cooperation, and we have broadened our mutual efforts on climate change (including $3.5 million from our development agency, USAID). As a sign of this growing friendship, Farah Pandith, the first ever US Special Representative to Muslim Communities, visited the Maldives just last week, where she met ordinary citizens and government officials.

In the past few days, documents purportedly downloaded from US Defence Department computers have become the subject of reports in the media. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of any one of these documents. But I can say that the United States would deeply regret the disclosure of any information that was intended to be confidential. And we condemn it.

Diplomats must engage in frank discussions with their colleagues, and they must be assured that these discussions will remain private. Honest dialogue—within governments and between them—is part of the basic bargain of international relations; we couldn’t maintain peace, security, and international stability without it.

People of good faith will recognise that diplomats’ internal reports do not represent a government’s official foreign policy. In the United States, they are one element out of many that shape our policies, which are ultimately set by the President and the Secretary of State. And those policies are a matter of public record, the subject of thousands of pages of speeches, statements, white papers, and other documents that the State Department makes freely available online and elsewhere.

But relations between governments aren’t the only concern. US diplomats meet with local human rights workers, journalists, religious leaders, and others outside the government who offer their own candid insights. These conversations depend on trust and confidence as well. In some countries, if an anti-corruption activist shares information about official misconduct, or a social worker passes along documentation of sexual violence, revealing that person’s identity could have serious repercussions: imprisonment, torture, even death.

The owners of the WikiLeaks website claim to possess some 250,000 classified documents, many of which have been released to the media. Whatever their motives are in publishing these documents, it is clear that releasing them poses real risks to real people, and often to particular people who have dedicated their lives to protecting others. We support and are willing to have genuine debates about pressing questions of public policy. But releasing documents carelessly and without regard for the consequences is not the way to start such a debate.

For our part, the US government is committed to maintaining the security of our diplomatic communications and is taking steps to make sure they are kept in confidence. We are moving aggressively to make sure this kind of breach does not happen again. And we will continue to work to strengthen our partnership with the Maldives and make progress on the issues that are important for our two countries. We can’t afford anything less. I am in close contact with President Nasheed to make sure we continue to focus on the issues and tasks at hand. President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and I remain committed to being trusted partners as we seek to build a better, more prosperous world for everyone.

Patricia A Butenis is the US Ambassador to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the Republic of Maldives.

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