You don’t have to like it or Assange in order to value the counterpoint they represent to the modern high-technology security state. Instead, it is best to assess the major issues hiding in the rhetoric on their merits, and realise as a result that the conversation America is currently having with the world about transparency is ultimately the most valuable achievement of this peculiar organisation.
The contents of the leaks are not the main issue; in fact, they are at most an interesting bonus and occasionally a dangerous distraction. No less a personage than Secretary of defence Robert Gates, no admirer of Wikileaks, has stated that the practical impact of the leaks in terms of security and compromised diplomacy is negligible. He goes on to make the point that countries don’t do business with the US on the basis of ideals but rather as a result of self interest. Your mileage may vary, but I believe it’s safe to take his word as an intelligence veteran charged directly with national defence over the flatulent posturing of elected leaders whose need for a good target to harangue often takes precedence over the facts of the matter.
The main issue is the meta-discussion about the balance between public oversight and national security. Evgeny Morozov nailed it succinctly via a twitter comment early on, and it is precisely that which needs to be on the centre stage. The Pentagon Papers are a logical point of comparison: they were every bit as far-reaching and classified (technically moreso, since they were top secret) and have been exonerated both legally and historically by their clear role in serving the public interest. Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker in that instance, has his points of divergence from Assange but has no problem connecting the two leaks.
The difference between the two has to do with their targets: the Papers being released clearly constituted a criticism of Vietnam strategy and government dishonesty. The Wikileaks cables have less to do with individual decisions than with the broader approach the United States has accelerated since 9/11 towards aggressively invading the privacy of its citizens and foreign nationals, all the while shielding even its most mundane government functions from scrutiny under the aegis of national security. Uncomfortably for Assange, if he succeeds in his mission to any significant degree he is unlikely to match his hyperbole in damaging the US, and far more likely to drive it to renew its institutions into a more palatable and competent upgrade of the status quo. That’s not a clear victory for anyone, but it’s better than the current alternative and a goal that many Americans should be able to get behind.
That said, the leaks are fascinating and clearly in the public interest once made available. Andrew Napolitano at Fox explains it in legal terms to Newt Gingrich, who’s in fine form atop his pedestal of bullshit (via LibertarianChristian), and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has no problem seeing the upside despite her broader reservations in terms of allowing a window into a professional bureaucracy that is usually denied the ability to defend its competence when attacked thanks to the nature of its work. One significant caveat is that the alleged source of the leak is in very dangerous territory legally; while precedents have been set in the past for whistleblowers operating on a similar scale, Bradely Manning’s status as an active duty member of the military means that he can easily be held to a different legal standard and fried accordingly. Another worthwhile note would be that it is likely that Wikileaks and its partner newspapers will fail to vet more sensitive items to everyone’s satisfaction, such as the recent “sensitive locations” item that has triggered discomfort even within the ranks of its supporters. It’s bound to get worse as both sides up the ante, and it’s important to focus on whether something is materially dangerous (so far unproven) or simply creates a convincing impression of danger from a distance.
Finally, the reaction of governments to these leaks should scare the hell out of you. The seemingly inevitable arrest (via Reddit) of Julian Assange by British authorities on Swedish sexual assault charges as encouraged by the American government likely represents a 21st century remix of the classic honeypot, and the willingness to use it on such a high profile individual should be worrisome irrespective of the veracity of the charges. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. Apart from Facebook’s notably understated position, the ease and rapidity with which corporations across the US and the world were reminded of where the fishes sleep should be of tremendous concern. If Amazon, credit card companies, Paypal, and Swiss banks are the big stories with their reliance on technicalities to wriggle out of their responsibilities in obvious response to government pressure, it is EveryDNS being brazenly strongarmed into abdicating its role as a neutral gatekeeper that should set the tone for future conversations about net neutrality.
The potential for Comcast or Verizon abusing their place in the food chain pales in comparison to an overt example of governments colluding to silence what they can’t defeat in court with intimidation and technological warfare. Naturally, some will point to the “hacktivist” response (apologies if that’s your first exposure to that term) as an equal and opposite reaction: while possibly emotionally gratifying, in the end it has the same outcome of discouraging corporate work with transparency organizations since dealing with governments is not as easy to opt out of. As Senator Joseph Lieberman makes clear (via Cory), it’s easy for unscrupulous advocates of censorship to view this as an opportunity, a watershed that brings together their traditional loathing of old media with contemporary technology.
The Chinese were criticized by the US for attacking Google, despite it not really being inconsistent with their stated policy priorities even with the Wikileaks bonus intel. It’s now the United States’ turn to reflect on what the last decade of enhanced government privacy has brought citizens of our nation as well as the world generally, and to do so in terms of the marginal benefits it has brought a tiny minority of bureaucrats, elected officials, and corporations relative to the general public. To paraphrase Machiavelli’s views on the Roman republic into the American situation, it was when they were willing to learn from mistakes rather than simply condemn the messenger that institutions could be renewed in a manner that best maintained a balance between a functional government and individual liberty for citizens.
Roberto Arguedas is a public school teacher in Atlanta with a focus on diplomatic history. He served in the Marine infantry in Fallujah (post Phantom Fury) and Ramadi (during the surge). He blogs at Philistine Vulgarity about politics, games, and more.