The arrest of WikiLeaks provocateur Julian Assange by London police on a Swedish warrant is only the latest news in the ongoing controversy over the wholesale release of secret or confidential dispatches between various embassies.
The reaction has ranged from "shoot the traitor" to "he is only revealing to the public what they deserve to know about world events."
Why such a thing has never happen before, you say.
Unless, of course, you count the XYZ Affair during the presidency of John Adams.
According to David McCullough’s biography of Adams, the nation stood on the brink of war with France. Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans thought Adams was plotting to provoke such a war.
Adams had sent three envoys to visit French Foreign Minister Talleyrand. They were granted a mere 15 minutes of audience and then subjected to a series of secret meetings with three men representing him, later identified in coded dispatches to Adams as only X, Y and Z.
The American envoys were told they must provide a douceur (a sweetener) of $250,000 as a bribe for Talleyrand personally and a loan to France of $10 million as compensation for “insults” delivered by Adams in a speech to Congress a year earlier.
One of the envoys, Gen. Charles Pinckney is said to have replied, “No! No! Not a sixpence.”
Adams tried to keep the French insults about America secret, but Congress demanded to know what was in them.
McCullough writes, “On Monday, April 2, on the floor of the House, Representative Albert Gallatin of Pennsylvania, who had replaced Madison in the leadership of the Republicans, stood to propose that the President be requested to turn over the text of the dispatches. Republicans who had been clamoring for disclosure were now joined by a number of High Federalists who had gotten wind of the damaging content of the dispatches and were happy to help the Republicans step into a trap of their own making. By a vote of 65 to 27 the House demanded that the full text be delivered at once.”
Adams released the documents the next day. The House cleared the galleries and went into executive session.
The gravity of situation “hit the Republicans like a hammer,” McCullough writes.
“Once the Senate voted to have copies of the documents printed for use within Congress only, it was only a matter of days before they were public knowledge,” Adams’ biographer relates.
The opinion of the public, thus informed accurately, swung. The tricolor cockades men had been wearing in their hats all but disappeared.
Knowledge is power.