Has the Wikileaks debate at SIPA been blown out of proportion?
By Gillian Tee and Thomas Chen
A week ago, SIPA students received an email from the School’s Office of Career Services (OCS) advising them to refrain from posting links and comments regarding the recently published Cablegate documents found on Wikileaks. Since then, there has been an onslaught of blog posts, op-eds and articles on OCS giving “anti-wikileaks advice” to students published by both mainstream and alternative media outlets such as the Huffington Post, the Guardian, MSNBC, Wired, The Globe and Mail and DemocracyNow. The Huffington Post article initially posted on Saturday garnered almost 30,000 tweets and more than 10,000 comments.
The outcries by these authors and those interviewed focus on how SIPA, a school that grooms future diplomats, should encourage critical analysis and discussion of Wikileaks, instead of issuing a formal advisory note against commenting on the subject via social media tools.
OCS has repeatedly declined requests to be interviewed and is now directing all comments related to the issue to SIPA Office of Communications, which has yet to respond to an email requesting comments.
“This is what bothers me about OCS’s apparent angle. There is clearly a policy learning moment here, and rather than say, ‘Now is a great time to really think critically about the policy implications of Wikileaks… We heard from the State Department, and this is an issue that they are paying close attention to, and they likely won’t consider hiring people who appear to handle the issue of this site or confidential documents irresponsibly,’ we get language that sounds like an authoritarian parent crushing the curiosity of a child and telling it is better seen and not heard,” writes Ben Colmery, a SIPA alumnus who is now Deputy Director of the Knight International Journalism Fellowships at International Center for Journalists, in response to a TMP blog entry on the subject.
An email sent to Dean John Coatsworth from SIPA alum Hannes Klöpper (’09) labeled the OCS note as “outrageous”, stating that “[the] State Department should not be looking to hire anyone who is disinterested as to NOT read these cables.” “This is not a one time, isolated thing – this is the future of technology,” echoed a second year student who wished to remain anonymous. “It is counterproductive for a government official or anyone who tries to tell people to ignore these articles,” added the student.
Perhaps it is merely a poorly worded advisory note that has caused all the commotion. Coatsworth sent through a note today addressing the SIPA community, re-emphasizing that OCS’s email was a “cautionary suggestion” to students, and that students are free to discuss and debate any information in the “public arena that deem relevant to their studies or to their roles as global citizens.”
Coatworth’s note also clarified the source and motivation of the original OCS advisory – a phone call from a SIPA Alumnus currently employed by the U.S. State Department – which led OCS to send out a warning addressing the high level of sensitivity with which U.S. State Department regards the Wikileaks documents. Many existing articles published on the subject did not report this important detail.
Many students at SIPA feel that the advisory note was warranted with some expressing a sense of dismay that media coverage of the issue has been taken out of context. “People are being too harsh on the school and OCS, ” lamented Jonathan Burnston (’11). The media hype is now “escalating the problem,” added an anonymous second year international student as he harshly criticized the student who leaked the OCS email to the media as “doing harmful things to the school.”
Jesse Walter (’11) reminded students that “OCS’s job is to get students jobs and [advise students] what to do to not get a job.” Even if it is the State Department’s official policy to caution future bureaucrats against reading classified Wikileaks cables, the action is justified because “Wikileaks is only targeting the U.S. If this happened to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, I’m sure they will do the same thing and the fact that we haven’t blocked Wikileaks says something,” said Walter.
“[OCS] did the best it could and that in today’s world, anything you post on Facebook or Twitter is fair game for employers [to see],” said Andrew Pacifico (’11). Although he qualified his defense of OCS by saying that “[the email] was poorly worded because it made the impression that this was official State Department policy.”
The State Department has denied official involvement in advising anyone outside of the agency on how to handle the Wikileaks cables. Communiqué has not been able to ascertain whether the call from the State Department alum represented his personal view or official policy.
Perhaps motivated by the prospect of a future career in diplomacy, many students at SIPA seem to agree with the State Department’s interest in stemming the hemorrhage of classified information, even if it is “unrealistic” in the digital age that involves self-censorship. “The truth is, if a government agency expects you to fill a role requiring high-level security clearance, runs a security check and finds you’ve been condoning national security breaches, it’ll be a problem for you. This shouldn’t come as a surprise,” said Annika Allman, a second year SIPA student.
Communiqué will continue to update this story as we receive more information.
Gillian Tee is a Master of International Affairs and Master of Business Administration dual-degree student. She is also Co-Editor-in-Chief of Communique.
Thomas Chen is a second year Master of International Affairs student. He is also Managing Editor of Communiqué.