The White House has warned that disclosure by Wikileaks of 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables “could disrupt American operations abroad and put the work and even lives of confidential sources of American diplomats at risk,” according to New York Times.

These dire consequences seem to be of little concern to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who professes to see full disclosure as the ultimate good. “The truth does not need a policy objective,” Assange recently said, reported by The Economist.

Most others might see a need to find balance between two extremes – full disclosure and total secrecy. Alan Dershowitz provided an excellent exploration of the need for balance in a New York Times book review last summer:

“No reasonable person can dispute the reality that there are ‘necessary secrets,’” Dershowitz wrote, “like the names of spies, the movement of troops, the contents of codes and ciphers, the location of satellites and the nature of secret weapons. Nor can any student of history doubt that there are unnecessary secrets, like old and useless information that remains classified by bureaucratic inertia. There is also information kept secret under the pretext of national security but really in order to protect the reputation or electability of government officials.”

The problem, of course, is that reasonable people might arrive at different conclusions over whether a given piece of information is a necessary or an unnecessary secret. In that case, who decides? The Economist points out that Daniel Ellsberg, in the Pentagon Papers case, was willing to be held accountable by the courts for his decision to release classified information. Mr. Assange, by contrast, seeks to operate outside the reach of the law.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman has called for Wikileaks to be stopped. The decision on what should be secret and what should be disclosed “… is a balancing act that the American people themselves ultimately control through our democratically-elected representatives and our institutions,” Sen. Lieberman said. “What Wikileaks is doing is to short-circuit this entire democratic process — claiming for itself the exclusive, unilateral, and unchecked power to decide what should and shouldn’t be made public.”

No government or business is likely to release voluntarily its internal communications such as those State Department cables released by Wikileaks. Nor should they. The ability to communicate internally with confidentiality is important to the effective functioning of any organization.

On the other hand, external stakeholders often have an interest in the internal deliberations of any government or business, and it’s important for institutions to recognize and respond appropriately to that interest.

For businesses, the determination of what is necessary to keep secret, or proprietary, as we prefer to say, and what should be disclosed, is a matter of judgment. From time to time, courts may require disclosure and activists may obtain and release information, much as Mr. Assange does in the government arena. But most of the time, businesses will have the right and the ability to decide what they will reveal and what they will hide.

Businesses, like governments, generally prefer to keep information confidential. Often there are good reasons to do so, but sometimes, disclosure can build trust. It’s important to make these decisions with an eye to an appropriate balance between the business’s proprietary interests and the public interest.

Excessive secrecy can be just as damaging as excessive disclosure. Trust is impossible when information is hoarded to the disadvantage of legitimate stakeholders.

Roger Bolton
SVP, Communications, Aetna (Retd.)
Senior Counselor, RBC Strategic Consulting