A note on Wikileaks

I’m fascinated by the WikiLeaks story, but have little to add to the commentary we’ve heard so far.

I will say this: there are some government secrets that need to be leaked. When a government is engaged in illegal activity (either a violation of its own laws or international agreements), then that should be exposed. If we’re killing civilians or violating another state’s sovereignty in the conduct of a war, then the details should come to light. The Pentagon Papers deserved to see the public light of day. I’m not sympathetic to the argument that providing evidence of illegal activity in time of war is aiding the enemy. We deserve a government that conducts its business — including war — with methods that are congruent with our laws and values. For a democracy that respects the rule of law, means matter as much as the end result, and we can’t achieve a just end with unjust means. So, three cheers for sites like Wikileaks when they expose genuine corruption, bureaucratic malfeasance, or violations of international law.

But it’s a huge mistake to assume that all secrecy is evidence of illegality. It’s an equally colossal error to assume that secrecy is invariably incompatible with democratic values. None of us would like our frank assessments of our colleagues or cousins to be recorded and replayed for those people. Few of us would like our children to overhear our intimate conversations with our spouses. As with private citizens, so too with diplomats — it is perfectly legitimate for the US government to want to keep secret the candid judgments of our ambassadors abroad.

Nations, like individuals, work in private and public spaces. And just as we have no right to commit crimes in privacy, neither do governments. But not everything we wish to hide from the world is illegal or unethical. Wikileaks and Julian Assange would have far more credibility had they been more judicious about what they’ve chosen to bring to light. We need figures like Assange and sites like WikiLeaks. But we need them to do a better job of distinguishing that which governments have no right to hide from that which we have no right to know.

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0 thoughts on “A note on Wikileaks

  1. At various points over the last, say, four decades when I’ve been paying attention, I found something about the term “secret”.
    Activists, mostly on the left, add the term to something reasonably well-known already. Apparently they think it adds to the ominousity quotient.
    The entire issue of the Slapton Sands catastrophe has gone back and forth. Was it kept secret? Was it simply not reported? Were the people talking about it years later misinformed about its being secret, or were they trying to juice up the story?
    Hugo has a good point about the fact of secrecy not meaning, by itself, anything illegal. That is not exactly understood by some.
    However, there is an additional issue. The likelihood of getting some back-channel help or info from other nations is greatly reduced if they can’t depend on us keeping their secrets.
    At one point, in the Army, I studied various Infantry tactics with soldiers from a great many nations. We’d read the headlines about a stiff diplomatic response from one nation to another, usually both represented in Infantry Hall as students or instructors, and laugh. There’s theater and there’s what really happens. And a few weeks later, something else equally meaningless would happen. More laughs.
    I don’t think it’s important that the foreign minister of Country A is busted blowing smoke. Not my problem. But if he thinks it’s his problem, he’s going to keep his mouth shut when we would really, really like to know something. And that could hurt.

  2. One argument that’s been invoked often over the last week is that Wikileaks was borne of the media’s collective failure to investigate potential illegal activity or conspiracy with the appropriate vigor. I think that’s very true, and I’ll get back to that in a moment.

    Regarding Assange himself, it’s easy to say he’s off base with the release of some of these documents, but consider his position: In possession of a quarter-million “secret” cables, he can choose to either play the paternalistic role of deciding what should be let into the wild and what shouldn’t, or just drop them all on everyone and let the world sort it out. He’d be open to serious criticism either way.

    Under those circumstances, what would you prefer? An overage of released diplomatic cables? Or one man deciding what’s really worth releasing and what isn’t?

    Also think about the mindset of potential leakers. Back in the day, if they wanted information exposed, they could go through a media outlet and someone would chase the lead (see: Watergate). The story could be appropriately built with the relevant facts, and nothing unnecessary would need to be exposed.

    Now, however, with Wikileaks being the best place to go if you want to get secret information out to the world, leakers have to deal with an organization where a lot of back and forth communication is not possible. Thus, it’s up to the leakers to decide what to expose; I’m certain many of them would be squeamish about working with Wikileaks if Assange or anyone else in the organization decided, for any reason, to take it upon themselves to decide what is worth releasing and what isn’t. If a leaker is going to take the risks involved, they’ll want to know everything they’re sending will see daylight. So Assange has to release everything in order to keep Wikileaks’ reputation and relevance intact.

    Basically, whether you think Wikileaks is doing God’s work or the Devil’s, it’s hard to argue that they’re pursuing their goals the wrong way. I don’t think there’s another method by which they could be as successful as they have.

  3. @Angelika: I’m a bit dismayed by some of the arguments in the article you link, along the lines of “She had tweets saying that she liked him; so clearly he can’t have assaulted her!”

    I don’t know the background anywhere near enough to have an informed opinion on whether to believe the charges; but at least some of the arguments showing up against them are the same blatant fallacies that get trotted out, time and time again, to avoid taking sexual harassment accusations seriously. Ugh.

  4. ps I guess I should apologise for derailing a bit, since the original post was about the political aspects of wikileaks not about the assault charges.

  5. hoops, I do apolize for my 2nd link – sorry Hugo Schwyzer and @Peter.
    (sidenote, digging deeper on the www you may want to read this before visiting Sweden :

    actually I’d like to focus on the political as well and in the video-link I esp. prefer what Phillis Bennis,USA and Ian Brown,UK say.
    or/and see
    Daniel Ellsberg (a vietnam whistleblower ?)
    salon.com with Glenn Greenwald
    antiwar.com …

    I do agree that WL may/should have proceeded more “diplomatically” in publishing whatever.
    I do not agree that “we” should shoot or prosecute “the messenger”.

    all I wish to say : pls. inform yourself/ves to make informed choices/opinions – in the sense of how I came to understand and appreciate this website.

  6. I guess I should come out and say that I don’t trust our government, and maybe that makes me a paranoid nut, but I haven’t seen anything in the last 10 years that convinces me that our government should be trusted. Furthermore, the response and reaction to Wikileaks with all of the “he’s a terrorist,” “He’s an enemy to the state,” etc talk just shows me that we’re more interested in phantom enemies than addressing our nations issues. You actually have people calling for this mans arrest while corrupt people like Bush and Cheney go free? Sigh.