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Originally published Friday, December 17, 2010 at 3:28 PM

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Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist

The real danger of living in the age of WikiLeaks

There is more behind the headlines about WikiLeaks than what American diplomats are saying and doing, writes editorial page editor Ryan Blethen. The real debate should be that America and every other nation is incredibly vulnerable in the digital age.

Times editorial page editor

Julian Assange is free for now. A British judge Thursday granted bail to the man behind WikiLeaks. The seemingly nationless Assange is now confined to a benefactor's English mansion while he fights extradition to Sweden on sexual-assault charges.

There is more behind the headlines about Assange. Assange, who should be cast as the creepy Euro villain in the next James Bond movie, is a sideshow to a much bigger and more important story. A story that he has helped force onto the world stage, but a story in which he is a bit player, nothing more.

The debate should not be about what American diplomats are saying and doing out of the public's view, but that America and every other nation is incredibly vulnerable in the digital age.

Assange became a household name last month when his website, WikiLeaks, started releasing American diplomatic cables. The mostly unedited and lightly redacted cables made for some interesting reading. None of it was too surprising. It should not be a shock that State Department employees gather intelligence on foreign leaders. Or that the U.S. and Yemeni governments were not forthcoming on which nation bombed terrorist camps in Yemen.

Diplomacy can be messy and cutthroat. WikiLeaks showed that diplomacy can also be entertaining. The best example being the cable from the American ambassador to Kyrgyzstan about Great Britain's Prince Andrew and his boorish, condescending behavior while visiting the Central Asian nation.

Not all the cables enforced the America-as-bully caricature. I was glad to read the Obama administration ignored Blackwater as the private security company tried to leach off the government as pirate hunters off the Horn of Africa.

Lost amid the numbing dump of documents and accusations of sexual assault is the question: What does it all mean?

The impact cannot be lost on Pfc. Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old former Army intelligence operative who is accused of leaking the documents to Assange's operation. Manning was turned in by a former hacker and arrested in May. The young Marine has been in solitary confinement since.

The near-term impact has not escaped the United States government. The Justice Department is trying to build a case against Assange by claiming he helped Manning take the cables. Not any easy position for a democratic government to be in. Does it attack WikiLeaks and make it a case of free speech? Or does it make examples of Manning and, if it can, Assange, and focus on stealing state secrets?

No country wants its internal, confidential conversations in the open. The world has dramatically changed since the days that cables were sent through cables. We are in an age where a lowly technician can shake up international relations with a few keystrokes. That is worrisome. There is no question that these leaks have been damaging and even put lives in danger. I wonder if Manning thought about that?

I could understand passing along a set of cables that exposed wrongdoing, say the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib or Gitmo, renditions and secret prisons in Eastern Europe. The indiscriminate nature of this leak will not accomplish much more than to make governments more paranoid.

If Assange and WikiLeaks are not disclosing state secrets then somebody else will. Maybe that is the legacy of WikiLeaks: making the public aware of how simple it is to electronically infiltrate governments.

It was only diplomatic observations and gossip this time.

Ryan Blethen's column appears on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: rblethen@seattletimes.com

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