On Wikileaks

(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

The document leaking website Wikileaks has continued to make headlines in recent weeks as they distribute hundreds of thousands of leaked US diplomatic communications.  The story is somewhat irresistible: political intrigue, government cover-ups, a mysterious geek on the run - this will be on the big screen in 5 years or less, I'm sure.  But beyond the basic elements of narrative that make it so interesting, there's some really important and serious stuff going on here.

Wikileaks has brought to light a powerful and confusing kind of inner conflict for anyone who considers themselves a patriot, or at least a person who cares about the actions of the federal government taken on our behalf.

On one hand, various versions of The American Dream have always reinforced the idea that where there's corruption, injustice or other malfeasance, and especially when it's taking place within the government, it should be exposed and made right.  Who among us wouldn't enjoy just a little bit having the "smoking gun" piece of paper to hold in the face of someone in power who claimed one thing was true when we knew something else to be the case?  I think there's a basic instinct in those who are engaged in civic life to want to see that kind of justice (though I won't try to pretend that for many, it's anything other than rubbernecking).

On the other hand, I would bet that many people understand that if you accept that part of the U.S. government's role is to engage the world on sensitive matters of diplomacy, trade, military conflict, political governance and human rights advocacy, then there is a role for secret-keeping in the affairs of state.  We all hold certain matters in confidence, and hopefully most of the time we do it because it we think it's the right thing to do.  In an ideal world, a government acting on my behalf would only keep secrets from me when it's the right thing to do for the greater good, and I would trust my government to do so.  The idea that someone might come along and make those secrets public without permission would offend my sensibilities as an affront to the necessary machinations of governance.  But obviously, this ideal scenario is far from reality, and history has shown that trusting governments to limit their own secret-keeping to "just the right secrets" doesn't work.

So, what's a patriot to do?

Well, if you're someone like Sarah Palin or Joe Lieberman, you go straight to the most black and white interpretation of the situation as possible: Wikileaks is a terrorist organization, and so its funding should be cut off and its leader should be hunted, shot and killed.  Or you downplay it as unimportant to even think about, as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs did: "Look, our foreign policy and our country is stronger than one guy with one website . . . and we should never be afraid of one guy who plopped down $35 and bought a Web address."  (Psst, Mr Gibbs: I can get you domains for under $15 now, $35 is so late-90's pricing!)

But sometimes, real engagement with civic affairs and other important things requires holding multiple complex and sometimes conflicting ideas in your head, and then really grappling with them.  Sometimes it means not doing the most politically expedient thing or the most strategically safe thing, and instead waiting to do the right thing.

I'm looking at you, Amazon.com and PayPal.  The next time anyone tries to argue that corporations aren't amassing too much power in our culture and says "surely the government will keep all of that in check," we can point to the decision made by these companies to cut off Wikileaks` service under pressure from U.S. lawmakers as a perfect illustration of how the government is happy for corporations to amass that power as long as they know that with a phone call from a Senator, they'll do what they're told.  It would be one thing if there had been some due process through which Wikileaks had been found to be committing a crime under U.S. law, but the U.S. government itself admits that it's still trying to figure out if there are any charges to be brought, and yet these companies were happy to make a unilateral decision (as is their right under their "Terms of Use") that no due process was necessary.  They were probably relieved to avoid the responsibility of taking some nuanced, complicated position on the matter.

Just so we're clear on the distilled series of events:

  1. Government covers up embarrassing secrets
  2. Someone exposes embarrassing secrets
  3. Government tries to take down that someone, at least by silencing them, if not killing them

It's pretty standard fare for a Mel Gibson/Russell Crowe/Keifer Sutherland flick, but are we ready to accept that it's our reality?

WhisperingAfter thoughtful contemplation, you may arrive at the conclusion that Wikileaks should not be releasing these documents, and that's fine.  But please ask yourself what process you think should be followed to (A) convince everyone that this is the case, and (B) take appropriate action as a result?

In other words, what if Wikileaks were releasing secrets that you thought absolutely needed to be made public?  Would you want to know that it could be stopped by a few phone calls from powerful legislators or a few covert missions from black-ops military units?

Finally, let's talk about the most important part of the whole thing:  why couldn't they name themselves something other than "Wikileaks"?  As far as I can tell, they don't make any prominent use of wiki technology (like, say, Wikipedia does), so it just serves to confuse people who still have no idea what a wiki is or why one might be useful.  Maybe Wikileaks uses a wiki for their internal processing and organizing of documents, but that would be like introducing myself as "Toothbrush Man" just because I brushed my teeth this morning.

What is the world coming to?

6 thoughts on “On Wikileaks

  1. Great post, Chris!

    re: your final point regarding the name -- IIRC, when wikileaks began it *WAS* backed by wiki technology. People would essentially assemble leak data by anonymously posting information and documents to the site.

    If I'm mistaken though, then at the very least WL embraces the "idea" behind wikileaks -- that crowd sourced collaboration can produce some fantastic results. It's unfortunate that Assange has turned into the Jimmy Wales of WL; a more "4chan's anonymous" style delocalization would greatly benefit them.

  2. I'll be honest - I am very unenlightened on anything political but your post brought two thoughts immediately to mind:

    (1) Still cracking up about the "so late-90's pricing". Not really a thought there, but a laugh.

    (2) Any org could learn from this and work on being transparent in the first place. (I get that the US gov is a bit different in what can be made public - but most orgs demand the support of others and rarely share any communication afterward other than to ask for more support).

  3. Good, thoughtful post. One other point which you didn't mention is whether the material released by Wikileaks in any way endangers human lives. Do Julian Assange & Co. seem to care about that issue? There's a really good article, "No Secrets", by Raffi Khatchadourian in the June 7 2010 issue of the New Yorker, which covers this and related issues.

  4. Howard Zinn: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

    Ran Prier on *transparency*: "The information optimists are forgetting the last and most powerful censor: the mind of the information consumer. It is human nature (so far) to believe whatever makes us feel good, and then go looking for the evidence to support it. So the more information we have access to, and the more free we are to browse it, the stupider we get! The spin rooms will be stronger than ever, because with all that data, we will want someone to sort it out for us."

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