What Is Hidden and What Is Revealed

Something I’ve long heard (privately) from representatives of European governments and the Obama administration and the Israeli government is that (privately) the leaders of the Gulf Arab states are very worried about Iran and would be (privately) pleased by harsh anti-Iranian measures from the international community or even Israel. Something I’ve always wondered back — privately, of course — is what probative value these kind of private communications are supposed to have. One thing I learned from WikiLeaks, however, is that the private worries from Arab states that I’ve been privately assured Western governments have received have, in fact, been received.

But this still leaves the question of what informational value these private conveyances of concern really have. There’s often a conceit in both the world of intelligence and the world of journalism that “secret” truths are somehow better than ordinary ones. That the truth is necessarily hidden, and that hidden facts therefore are especially important to know.

But what do we really know about the leaders of the Gulf states? I mean, suppose you were an envoy from Qatar Ministry of Defense and you’re in a meeting with someone from the Defense Department and your private view is that Israel should be pushed into the sea and the United States is the “great satan.” Well, you’re certainly not going to say that in a meeting! So what will you say? You’ll tell your interlocutors something you think they want to hear, and you’ll try to get then to give you advanced military equipment. So there you are, “privately” very concerned about Iran.

Which isn’t to say Gulf officials are in fact lying when they privately say they’re very worried about Iran. If you look at the objective situation, it’s reasonable for the Gulf states to be worried about Iran. So it’s reasonable for us to assume that the Gulf states are in fact worried about Iran. But this is a surmise we can reach based entirely on publicly available information. Their private statements are just private statements. They could be true or they could be lies. Our best guide to their accuracy is what we know about the objective situation. The private “knowledge” drops out of the analysis entirely except as something for people to boast about to show off their savvy. But the best analysis, in this situation as in most other situations, actually comes from facts that are available in a fairly robust way. Which is to say public facts, not spy vs spy stuff. Even the WikiLeaks documents about Iran could be part of an elaborate CIA disinformation campaign for all I know.