Bo 5771 — Moses, Pharaoh, and Wikileaks

Topsecret Moses is the premier example of a diplomat in the Torah.  As we see in not only this week’s Torah reading, but the last few weeks, Moses is serving as an Ambassador for God.  God is the “Chief Executive Officer” of the Jewish people; Moses represents the “government” in negotiations with the Egyptians.

It’s interesting to observe that God chose to use a diplomat at all; after all, He’s God, he could just as easily have spoken directly to Pharaoh instead of going through an ambassador of some sort.  But he didn’t: clearly there was some perceived benefit to working through “diplomatic channels.”

Just like diplomats of today, the “Nation of God” had an explicit goal in their negotiations with Pharaoh, but they also had several “hidden agendas.”  What Moses told Pharaoh was that what they were seeking was a three-day holiday in the desert to go worship God.  The hidden agenda was two-fold: 1) Get the people out of Egypt so they could return to Israel; and 2) Make God’s wondrous known to the world by really bashing on poor old Pharaoh.

What would have happened if there had been an ancient “Wikileaks?”  What if Pharaoh became aware of the hidden agenda that Moses and God were working on?  On the one hand, if he knew that Moses planned to lead an escape, he might have been even more obstinate.  On the other hand, if he knew God wanted to make an example of him, he might have figured out a way not to cooperate with that program.

In any event, if the information had become known, it would have been detrimental to the interests of the Jewish people.

Similarly, what Julian Assange has been doing with releasing thousands upon thousands of classified document is detrimental to the interests of the “good guys,” loosely defined here as America and her allies, and beneficial to our enemies.  It has embarrassed our diplomats who need to be able to work knowing that their assessments are confidential.

Wikileaks release of 250,000 classified US State Department cables is not only bad for US security, but it’s probably the most wholesale spreading of rechilut (gossip) in recorded history.  It’s interesting to note that intelligence for the State Department could be simple gossip for the rest of us.  It is very relevant for the US government to know that the leader of Libya has a taste for buxom blonde Ukrainian nurses.  There are all sorts of ways that information could be relevant to national interests; on the other hand, for the rest of to know that is simply gossip and titillation, and pretty much unnecessary.

Some people point out that a lot of the information that has surfaced as a result of Wikileads is not “new.”  For example, we already knew that Saudi Arabia was not happy with the idea of a nuclear Iran; so what’s the big deal with publishing information like that?

The big deal is that when it comes with the imprimatur of US State Department, it’s no longer gossip; it’s considered “official,” and that sort of disclosure could be very difficult for Saudi Arabia, nominally an important ally of ours despite their horrendous record on human and women’s rights.  Official “confirmation” is taken quite seriously.  When I worked in the communications intelligence business, one of my colleagues put together a book that brought together information from public sources like Jane’s and the Air and Space Defense Weekly, on Soviet radar systems.  Everything in his book was basically photocopied from a book or magazine that had been published.  Yet when our company’s security officer found out, the book was immediately classified SECRET.  I had one at home, and all of a sudden had to treat it as classified information and bring it to the office to be kept under lock and key.  If I kept it at home I could have been prosecuted for mishandling classified documents.  But why, if the information came from magazines, etc.?  It’s because I was working for a government contractor that had all the relevant security clearances to know what was “real” and what wasn’t.  If something came just from Jane’s, everyone could say they were just speculating. But if it comes with the imprimatur of a government contractor with the highest security clearances, it’s now “verified” as fact.

The world of diplomacy cannot function without the niceties careful phrasing.  Think of it this way: is there any relationship in your life that would survive a completely honest, 100% no holds barred, revelation of every thought you had about the other person?  Probably not.  Relationships between nations are the same.

I’m astounded that the US government wasn’t able to shut Wikileaks down, and that they couldn’t figure out a way to charge him with a crime and have him extradited to the US.  If nothing else, he was trading in stolen goods. 

I would also point out that I am not opposed to all cases of exposing classified material.  The Pentagon Papers, for example, very appropriately revealed government misdoing: they were out and out lying to the American public.  The problem with Wikileaks is that the vast majority of information revealed does not reveal malfeasance or bad intent on the part of the US government.  Rather it’s simply releasing a flood of information, some of which no doubt would be better have kept secret.  It’s too indiscriminate.

May we learn from God and Moses as we see in this week’s Torah portion, that there is nothing wrong with there being some “hidden agendas” in the diplomatic world.

Shabbat shalom,

Reb Barry

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