The Reaction Of Governments To Wikileaks Should Scare The Hell Out Of You

Wikileaks is a flawed endeavor represented publicly by a smug egotist. But it deserves the respect and support of anyone who prioritises the privacy of individuals over that of governments.

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.


Comments

    Its the media's fault that Wikileaks is what it is today. If they didnt mention anything with the war diaries in the first place then no one would have known about it but the media smelling a juicy story couldnt keep their hands off and just fed peoples curiosity. If the media just left Wikileaks alone then it would have just doomed into obscurity like many websites in the past.

    Plus if Julian Assange wasnt the founder of wikileaks, would he have gotten so far up Interpols most wanted list.

      Clearly, you do not grasp the entire premise and purpose of WikiLeaks - freedom of information. Guess what? News organisations (occasionally) report on said information.

    No, he would not have gotten up so far in Interpols list.

    But it is not the media's fault. If you want to level "fault" at anyone, blame the entire Internet. Never before in history has so many documents been able to leak, and it has never been so easy for the entire world to access them.

    WikiLeaks provides the one outlet that whistleblowers TRUE anonymity. There's always a fear that a journalist will reveal their source. This way, the public can find out what's happening.

    Locking him up is simply cutting the head off the Hydra: http://oktobeginwith.com/blog/2010/12/08/sir-julian-of-wikileaks-dom/

    I still can't believe how upset people in the US are getting over this.

    We just had a few cables released about some Australian officials: Our ex-PM was a "control freak", and one of the major powerbrokers in a major party was giving inside information to the US.

    Know what our reaction is?

    "Meh."

    Why is it such a big deal? It's a bit embarrassing, but at the end of the day, how can any ordinary citizen feel upset about this, given that they themselves are not being singled out?

    I love how people swallow the "its a set up/honeypot" story regarding the sexual assault allegations, despite absolutely no proof to support it.

      +1. In fact after reading the article below, it's fair to say that if anything there's more evidence to support a conspiracy by the alleged victims than there is any evidence against Assange.

      http://www.countercurrents.org/rudling081210.htm#wikileaks

        Sorry I misread your comment. Make that a -1 at the beginning of my reply.

      I don't believe Assange was truly guilty for a trumped up rape charge. The fact the charge was withdrawn, before pressed again shows, if anything, the machinations behind the scenes. The Swedish government has now lost credibility with this fiasco.

      Though when you think about it, Assange can practically do anything now and get away with it, because everyone will now think it's a set-up.

    I think JA giving himself up is; 1 - showing he still respects the process of the law (for now, unlike many of the subjects of the leaks), and 2 - to take the heat off Wikileaks which will continue to operate without him.

    What exactly are we expecting the government to do? shake his hand on a job well done? It is not what information was leak but the fact that it has a leaked. How naive can you be! even an everage joe like me know if i leak any kind of sensitive information from any agency (government or not) there will be consequences. Have we all forgot Jason Chen house got busted in, raided and equipment seized just because he had his hand on a lost iPhone4.

      but doesnt that scare you?

      rather than just say "hme, what do you expect?" shouldn't we be saying "this is bull?"

      whether he is guilty of anyting or not, you have to admit it is VERY very suspicious that such a warrent would arise so closely to the cable leaks. and the sad thing is - even if we could prove its a set up - nothing would be done. because they need to get rid of him. so he will be gotten rid of.

      if this was happening in another country like Iran, Africa or whatever - then the media would REALLY be in a frenzy and countries like USA, Australia, UK would all be condemning it...

      J.A hasn't actually broken the law. A U.S military Intelligence officer stole the Cables. J.A under the 'Freedom of Press' rules is aloud to publish the information.

      Thats why he hasn't been arrested for treason, because he hasn't committed an offense.

      Maybe the U.S government should just say"Yes we know these cables are inappropriate and we apologies for it. lest move on".

      No one cares whats in the cables, just how the U.S government is reacting to it.

    Wikileaks is the Landsraad to my Padishah Emperor. Don't love em, but need them.

    *eurgh*

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