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.