Wikileaks, the Cult of Transparency, and the Dictatorship of the Foreign Hacker

Iceland-based Wikileaks is in the middle of “the largest intelligence leak in history.”  Part of the problem with this is that, in its wholesale disclosure of a massive volume of Defense and State Department documents, the organization has apparently abandoned its less-recognizable but more-important role as a clearinghouse for those who want to blow the whistle on corruption and abuse but cannot find a venue willing to take responsibility for bringing crucial information into the public spotlight.  From concerns over whether name and contact information for Afghan civilian contacts with NATO forces would be redacted from the documents to the current release of diplomatic cables offering both substantive and personal criticisms of foreign heads of state, most of the documents being leaked now are intended primarily to create difficulties for our government.

Both Wikileaks’ critics and its champions have at times allowed impressions to drive their arguments regarding the organization’s actions in this case; that said, I have generally felt that Wikileaks’ critics are more-sensitive to the exigencies of both war and diplomacy.  While the defenders of this massive leak speak of how positive change issues from greater transparency, these arguments rarely seem to focus on the areas of policy directly-affected by the leaks, and even seem disinclined to discuss their core principles of transparency and government accountability beyond the level of platitudes.

To leak such a vast repository of documents that it takes days for media outlets even to classify them by nature and to open a debate characterizing the thrust of their real impact, ironically raises questions about what the leak can hope to achieve.  (By this I mean that Wikileaks front man Julian Assange and company don’t seem to have a coherent aim in mind.)  On the other hand, I’ve already written a post in response to a New York Times article about the trouble with mercenaries in Iraq and Afghanistan which had been written based on documents released through Wikileaks.

Considering this lack of purpose which shines through in the sheer bulk of the leaked documents, to call Wikileaks a force for positive political change sounds like an article of faith; on the other hand, I’m waiting for real information about the way in which these leaks has endangered our Afghan contacts or undermined our strategic posture. As these fears apparently remain speculative, Wikileaks’ normative pretenses remain plausible.

I don’t buy it, mind you, and I think Julian Assange is a self-promoter; but it was inevitable that Defense Department leadership would make the case that Wikileaks’ release of documents endangers our contacts, personnel and operations in Afghanistan.  Since Wikileaks has withheld certain documents about Afghanistan disclosed to it and has redacted some names (after Assange’s crude rebuff to Human Rights Watch for expressing its concerns publicly).  So far this too is just a premise.  Unlike Wikileaks’ premise that more transparency in the workings of government always increases accountability, however, this is a proposition that can be tested empirically, given time.  If Wikileaks fails to comb every document and redact every name of an Afghan contact, I expect the Defense Department’s fears will be borne out by experience, but so far that is more of a case of truthiness on my part than a conclusion based on analysis.

It’s a form of naivete to say that greater transparency in government leads to better government regardless of the consequences of the actual leak of classified information.  I have not heard a credible argument, as Wikileaks’ defenders must believe, that a powerful country can successfully carry out an open diplomacy.  Woodrow Wilson suggested open diplomacy among states following World War I; this conferred a massive advantage to those governments lacking the accountability mechanisms or the scruples to be forthcoming about the nature of their diplomatic communications.

For that matter, considering how unsurprising the content of many of the leaked documents has been, it’s telling that Wikileaks hasn’t done a better job of tailing the actions of undemocratic and less-scrupulous governments such as China, Iran, and Pakistan.  The truculently-Neoconservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal had a point on Tuesday, noting that “If (Mr. Assange) were exposing Chinese or Russian secrets, he would already have died at the hands of some unknown assailant.”  The Liberal Ironist had thought about that himself; the Chinese and Russian governments commit invasions and attacks against some of their own people that bad apples in the US take a great risk to pull abroad.  While Julian Assange has cast himself as exposing the violence of the powerful, he also admits he hyped and tampered with some of the documentary evidence he found; and while he is indeed challenging the biggest kid on the block, events since the invasion of Iraq also suggest he is attacking the most-restrained.

The issue weighing on my mind here isn’t whether Wikileaks has been a “net good” outside of the current disclosure of military and diplomatic documents; the issue is what the 2010 leaks say about that organization’s sense of accountability.  Like their release of the so-called “collateral murder” video edited to suggest an unwarranted US military helicopter murder of Reuters photographers in Iraq which was actually an edited clip of a strike on armed insurgents in which the photographers were killed in the crossfire, Wikileaks isn’t currently concerned with accountability but with undermining our ability to continue military operations.  They aren’t trying to clean up our operations in Afghanistan, or the officially-closed operation in Iraq; they are trying to make it more difficult for the US to fight wars.

Our diplomats will now face disproportional mistrust and contempt from their counterparts and be less-inclined to give frank assessments in writing to Washington.  Because of this massive leak of diplomatic cables, foreign governments will know who called them names, and when–and likely worse, why.  That is obviously compromising, and it will weaken the US government’s ability to do good works along with the dirty.  My biggest concern about the release of these cables is that some of our foreign service personnel may see years of work spoiled for no real reason other than so Wikileaks could take credit for “the biggest intelligence leak in history.”  The risk which this exposure poses to years of diplomatic work–much like the as-yet unrealized but lingering risk to US military contacts in Afghanistan–actually reminds me of the sudden end to Valerie Plame’s career dramatized in Fair Game.  Here, as in that instance, the victims of exposure in our State Department may have done nothing wrong and have nothing to do with the reasons for this leak; how many careers will this impact?

If this sounds like a petty concern in the scheme of foreign affairs, just bear in mind that Wikileaks didn’t leak these diplomatic cables for the sake of political change in US relations or a specific country’s politics, but simply for the sake of leaking.

This will also inevitably undermine good journalism in the future–as well as academic history.  Anne Applebaum, writing in Slate, has an insightful warning to offer about the decline in both moral judgment and record-keeping that we can expect from our foreign service staff.  The tradeoff: We get quantity of leaked documents rather than quality, which we are told is unprecedented, which has a chilling effect on foreign service personnel putting their thoughts on paper everywhere:

“Don’t expect better government from these revelations, expect deeper secrets. Will the U.S. ambassador to Country X give Washington a frank assessment of the president of X if he knows it could appear in tomorrow’s newspaper? Not very likely. Will a foreign leader tell any U.S. diplomat what he really thinks about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if he knows it might show up on WikiLeaks? I doubt it. Diplomatic cables will presumably now go the way of snail mail: Oral communication will replace writing, as even off-the-record chats now have to take place outdoors, in the presence of heavy traffic, just in case anyone is listening.”

What a steep price to pay for exhibition.

Exposing abuses or corruption is a more-judicious enterprise than revealing information that exposes our strategic situation in Afghanistan.  I haven’t heard anyone spend time arguing that our strategy in Afghanistan will improve as a result of this.  It was irresponsible for Wikileaks to disclose names and locations of Afghan civilians working with our military–and it was, regardless of what we hear about their fates.  Wikileaks’ defenders talk in general terms about the importance of government transparency and said that war crimes are bad; Wikileaks’ critics often agree with these moral premises.  Principled premises used in Wikileaks’ defense today take on an aspect of vague generalities or platitudes; while they have spoken too soon to know the substance and impact of these documents, Wikileaks’ critics have concerned themselves with the consequences of what Wikileaks actually did–and what it has become.

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