Meandering thoughts about WikiLeaks

First off, a disclaimer. I am not an expert in either foreign policy or law, and do not style myself as one. Thus, any opinions I offer are those of an admitted layman. I'm not going to pretend to know what the implications of any particular revelation may be. In fact, for the purposes of this post, I'm not even all that interested in the contents of the gigantic WikiLeaks info dump per se.

The question that I pondering right now is about whether unfettered transparency (or attempts thereat) is a good thing or a bad thing. I tend to think it's bad, and perhaps you'll bear with me as I attempt to muddle out why.

One thing I'm musing is whether I'd be more inclined to support WikiLeaks were Bush still in office. On the whole, I didn't trust the Bush administration to do just about anything right, either because of a lack of competence or scruple, or both. I tend to trust the Obama administration a great deal more, though not entirely. (I'm not particularly sure that unmanned drone attacks, for example, are either moral or effective.) Does my dim view of this leak have to do with its weakening a president I tend to support, or is it more principled? If this had happened during the Bush years, would I have supported it more because I viewed it as a corrective to some errant policy (extraordinary rendition, for example) or merely because it embarrassed an administration I despised? I honestly don't know.

Further, what balance is appropriate when determining what should see the light of day? Somewhere I've read about government bureaucrats and their tendency to want to classify information as a general rule. (I think it was somewhere on Plain Blog, but I'm not sure and I can't find it.) In a nutshell, the random State Department apparatchik whose job it is to decide if Document A should be classified or not is more likely to classify it through a combination of self-protection and the tendency of bureaucracies toward secrecy. I don't believe that a government should be able to hide whatever it wants to and expect us to trust that it does so judiciously. Leaks can provide an important corrective, examples of which aren't hard to recall.

From what I understand (and, given the mass of information released, it's probably too early for anyone to know with certainty), most of the leaks aren't all that damaging. But how damaging is too damaging? By tipping the hand of Iran's neighbors, will it now be harder to contain its nuclear ambitions? Fearing future leaks, will the diplomatic corps be less inclined to communicate readily within the community? Who draws that line and how? I certainly don't trust the likes of Julian Assange to do so.

While I think it is inflammatory and intellectually sloppy to characterize WikiLeaks as a terrorist organization (whatever meaning that word has will be rapidly eroded by slapping it on everyone whose actions one decries), it certainly seems like it may be a treasonous one. My understanding of the legal definition of treason is rudimentary, but I think one could plausibly argue that the leaked information gives aid to Iran. (Perhaps espionage is a more correct term.) It's hard to know the motives of Assange's source, but helping the US hardly seems like one of them.

I wish we had a country we could trust to keep only those secrets that ensured it security, and not ones that hid its bad decisions. I don't know that such a country has ever existed, or ever will. I don't know a good metric for "good" leaks vs. "bad," and would sincerely love to see anyone's suggestions in the comments. But these leaks seem to serve no purpose other than to embarrass the United States diplomatic corps, and to complicate their work. It's hard to defend them, and I don't think I'm inclined to try.

Update: More and better thoughts from Sully.

1 comment:

  1. A note from Mr. Sullivan's piece:

    "There will have to be times in which certain views and policies will need to remain secret, and the ability of foreign ambassadors and analysts to give candid, clear advice to policy-makers without having them published in the global media, is vital to a successful foreign policy. The Wikileaks model is therefore a step backwards in many practical respects.

    But there may be very little we can do about it. The simple technological ease with which masses of data can now be downloaded and disseminated is a fact of modern life."

    He seems to tacitly acknowledge that we're in the middle of a sea change. Like it or not, policy disclosure is going to be the norm, not the exception.

    We see this right now (and cheer it on) with the general eroding of the Great Firewall of China. As silly as the saying is, information *does* want to be free, when the cost of disseminating it approaches zero. And right now, we're diving towards that limit in uncheckable free fall.

    This being the case, it is virtually impossible for you to realistically expect that most things can be kept secret; this has actually become more of a truism since about 1940, the only thing you can expect is that you can keep some things secret for some delta of time, and the effort required to prevent the shrinkage of that delta is pretty substantial.

    I expect that within a couple of generations (privacy expectations being generational in nature), you'll see things change quite a bit. People won't care so much about airing dirty laundry when the streets are littered with the stuff.