WikiLeaks A Blunt Weapon, But We Should Use It

A defense of the organization under new attack

Many of the charges behind the “hang Julian Assange” meme doing the rounds since WikiLeaks’s third “megaleak” on Sunday hinge on claims that the leaks could endanger diplomats and their informants. Such claims have been pretty roundly discredited by media watchers jumping to WikiLeaks’s defense, and even by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who described the charges as “significantly overwrought.”

But there is another criticism rising in place of that strained analysis which bears some pushback: and that’s the fence-sitting view that while the publication of secret, enlightening, and potentially embarrassing leaks is healthy for democracy, and reporting on them is the expectation of a free press, WikiLeaks is too undisciplined and dangerous an organization with which to partner to do it.

I would ask: what’s the alternative?

In writing about both of WikiLeaks’ previous megaleaks, I, along with some of my colleagues, have taken the position that there is value in these leaks despite the supposed dangers of their release and claims they reveal little that is new or unknown. That value is partly about opening up government, and partly about drawing our attention to the biggest stories of our time, again and again. It is also about providing context and texture to those stories, and, in this latest case, about providing us a look into how diplomatic work is done beneath the veil of secrecy that typically blocks our view.

But some in the media who see similar value in much of the reporting on WikiLeaks are coming out against the method in which the organization is facilitating it. The argument goes that, yes, extreme secrecy is a problem, but WikiLeaks, and their mass leaks, are not the answer. This seems to be the view professed by Carne Ross, a British diplomat who resigned before the Iraq war and now heads non-profit diplomatic advisory group Independent Diplomat. In a round-table discussion on Democracy Now, Ross said, among other astute observations we’re inclined to agree with, that:

The trouble with all of this is we tend to place government in this sort of superior, elite position; that they know things we do not know; that governments are entitled to know things that the public do not know. I think the balance is way too far in the government’s favor. Far more information should be released and made transparent. I’m not sure, however, that the way WikiLeaks has done this is the right way. This is a very random, blunt instrument to attack the problem of a lack of transparency of government.

And, less hesitantly, the Times’s Ross Douthat takes on The Economist’s Will Wilkinson in a blog post published Wednesday, making a related argument. Douthat agrees that the problem of institutionalized secrecy, or the “permanent state”, is worrisome, but argues that “occasional mass data dumps like the one WikiLeaks just provided, however temporarily satisfying to decentralizers and libertarians, don’t promise anything remotely like reform.”

Quite the reverse, in fact: The specter of being WikiLeaked will likely exacerbate all of the tendencies that Wilkinson dislikes about the modern leviathan. Systems will turn inward; information-sharing will decrease; further centralization, rather than any kind of devolution or transparency, will be the order of the day. And all the while, the useful work that’s done by “America’s intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices” — the prevention of wars, the anticipation of crises, the discreet management of difficult situations — will become that much more difficult to accomplish.”

Where Wilkinson writes that organizations like WikiLeaks “may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy,” Douthat retorts, “If it’s the best we can hope for, then we’re in even more trouble than I thought.”

Douthat could very well be right. As a result of these leaks, the state may clamp up and clamp down. In fact, according to Massimo Calabresi’s website-leading Time article today, which details WikiLeaks’s place in the history of the development of secrecy in the U.S. government, the clamp-down has already begun.

The leak has also led the U.S. to tighten, not loosen, its security protocols. After consulting with the White House in the run-up to the WikiLeaks dump, State temporarily cut the link between its NCD database and SIPRNet. CentCom has reimposed its restrictions on using removable media, is newly requiring that a second person approve the download of classified information to an unsecure device and is installing software designed to detect suspicious handling of secrets.

That may be the unfortunate consequence of WikiLeaks’s actions. But there is something iffy about journalists arguing for bartering with the state by holding back on “temporary victories for transparency” in the hope of a reward of long-term reform. The reason so many people are upset about the latest WikiLeak is that there is no hope for that kind of reform anytime soon—what was revealed in the documents, from the banal to the gossipy to the truly revelatory, was not meant to be seen by the press or the public and was not on its way to being so.

So what do we do? Twiddle our thumbs while we wait for a slicker facilitator of leaks? Someone or something we’re more comfortable with, something familiar? Do we tut-tut Assange until the government one day introduces reform that makes U.S. diplomacy and the conduct of war more transparent? Or do we, as many outlets have done, scrutinize WikiLeaks and its founder vigorously, while also taking in the information they offer, treating it sensitively, reporting it out, and being thankful that “temporary,” or otherwise, someone is committed to peeling back secrecy and colluding with us in holding government accountable? To dismiss WikiLeaks and wait for more institutionalized ways of increasing transparency feels like a euphemism for capitulating to the status quo. (It might also be a case of refusing to face our own failings—see Pressthink’s Jay Rosen’s 14-minute, Dewar’s-tinged rumination on how the “spectacular failure of the watchdog press” has catalyzed the rise of WikiLeaks.)

WikiLeaks may be a “blunt instrument” with which to attack the lack of transparency in government, but it is, for now, proving perhaps the most valuable.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,