Former US secretary of state Henry Stimson famously declared that "gentlemen do not read each other's mail", referring to Japanese diplomatic cables the US had uncovered by breaking Japan's military code. Today, everybody reads everybody else's diplomatic mail, if they can get their hands on it.
Mostly, this is a bad thing because secrecy – when properly used – can serve the interest of peace and security. Nations have the right to keep secrets from other nations, although they generally overdo it. But individuals do not have the right to decide for themselves when to reveal state secrets. The soldier who broke into governmental computers committed a serious crime and will be punished for it. The question is whether those who released the secrets to the press, namely WikiLeaks, are complicit in the crime.
The newspapers that published leaked material make a compelling case for the decision to select certain items for publication while withholding others. The press is, after all, part of our informal system of checks and balances.
But secretary of state Hillary Clinton is surely correct when she warns that WikiLeaks poses a danger not only to the US but to international diplomacy, while at the same time trying to minimize the actual harm done by these particular disclosures.
The disclosure that virtually every Arab country, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would favor a military attack, as a last resort, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons could have a discernible effect on the policies of several countries. Israel, of course, has long insisted that the military option be kept on the table. The disclosure that North Korea has delivered missiles to Iran may well frighten European countries into considering the option of military action, if sanctions don't work.
There is additional information, not revealed by WikiLeaks, suggesting that although sanctions are having some effect on Iran's economy, Tehran has decided to move forward with its nuclear weapons program. Computer bugs and the assassination of nuclear scientists may be slowing the process, but are not likely to stop it.
The leaks confirm the US has made two disastrous decisions in dealing with Iran. The first came in 2007, when it released a misleading National Intelligence Estimate conveying the impression Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program. The second was the more recent statements by secretary of defense Robert Gates that appear to have taken any military option off the table. These mistakes have encouraged Iran to move ahead with its program.
It will become more difficult for these Arab countries to condemn Israel if it was to decide on a surgical strike.
A third mistake is to believe that there can be real peace in the Middle East with an Iranian nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over the head of Israel. Even if Israel were to continue the settlement freeze and negotiate borders with the Palestinian Authority, the Iranians could ruin any prospect of permanent peace by unleashing Hezbollah and Hamas – which oppose any peace with Israel – to target Israeli civilians.
President Obama understated the threat when he said a nuclear Iran would be "a game changer". It would be a disaster, threatening Middle East peace, putting an end to any hope of nuclear non-proliferation, and engendering the greatest arms race in modern history.
Now that it has been made public that Arab nations favor a military attack, it will become more difficult for these countries to condemn Israel if it was to decide on a surgical strike. This public disclosure might embolden Israel to consider such a strike as a last resort.
So the leaking of secret information may have grave, even if unintended, consequences. We need new laws and new technologies to cope with the apparent ease with which low-level functionaries can access and download the most secret of information. But there will always be those willing to break the law and suffer the consequences for what they believe is a higher purpose; and it is always just a matter of time until the techno-thieves catch up to the techno-cops. We will have to learn to live with the reality that there is no absolute assurance that "gentlemen" (and others) will not be reading each other's mail.