Questions about WikiLeaks

I have been watching the WikiLeaks fallout, waiting with bated breath to see Robert Kaplan’s take. Turns out, nothing much. He side-stepped any true commentary to pine for a loss of empire.

Personally, I have yet to come to a conclusion about the whole ordeal. I think it is a serious, and potentially revolutionary event. It could mark a change in the fields of governance, intelligence and diplomacy. Whether those changes are for the better or not is hard to say. WikiLeaks may be a bogus scandal, or it could even save US policy. I am of the Brandian opinion that “information wants to be free”, and hope that WikiLeaks results in power shifting from secrecy to transparency. However, as Evgeny Morozov is always reminding us, certain types of regimes react badly to increased information flow, often turning the tools of revolution against the revolutionaries. The question of whether or not WikiLeaks is “bad” or “good”, while interesting, is at this time indeterminate.

There is another angle in all this: the argument that Julian Assange is a crazy anarcho-terrorist that should be hunted down. This is about as short-sighted as the US government’s attempts to muffle WikiLeaks on the internet. (I saw a comment on Twitter the other day to the effect of: “Dear US gov, don’t you get it? Censoring stuff on the web brings more attention.”) I don’t deny that Assange is an extremist — I think the analysis Roy linked to illustrates that quite well — but a terrorist? What does that make news organizations like The New York Times? The worst Assange could be is maybe an “accidental terrorist.”

In the meantime, I am still waiting to hear about any truly damaging information. Today the BBC sensationally called a leaked list of facilities ‘vital to US security’ “probably the most controversial document yet from the Wikileaks organisation.” Do you think that any interested terrorist organizations do not already have a list of their own? An overwhelming proportion of sources for classified intelligence are open source. Those types of “potential target” lists produced by the INT community are either too obvious, far-fetched, or inclusive to the point of meaninglessness (not to mention often available freely in academic journals). They are also reactionary, which is the point of successful terrorism, a surprisingly rare event. Essentially, terrorism is a nuisance and most terrorists are bumbling fools. We shouldn’t abandon so much of our freedom so lightly. As for the information released in diplomatic cables, it is naive to think that all the “secret” information in those communiqués were kept from foreign intelligence. Why not let the public know?

When it comes down to it, there is only one question I think really matters here, and that is the question of where WikiLeaks lies on a spectrum of information dissemination in relation to journalists. How is WikiLeaks different from exposé journalism (such as Panorama, natch)?

Throughout his book Here Comes Everybody, internet anthropologist Clay Shirky argues that “more is different.” To some degree I think this might encompass some of the reaction towards WikiLeaks. Eminent newshounds throughout history have made their careers on breaking news like that contained in WikiLeaks. While often the cause of howling from the peanut galleries on the Left and Right in turn, it seems dribs and drabs of government leaks were a somewhat acceptable news practice. Yet dump a whole load at once and it is tantamount to terrorism (ie. more is different). This theory of the reaction may hold, but I think it might be more nuanced. I think Larry Womack (a blogger, somewhat ironically) has the right idea that it wasn’t the “how much”, but the “how.” He thinks WikiLeaks is an issue of ethics.

This is the dilemma that the analysts and pundits should be talking about, and that is what I was hoping a veteran journo like Robert Kaplan would’ve addressed.

[Forgive the ramble-ness of this post. I am high on cold medicine right now. Nevertheless, I hope this can spark some good conversation.]

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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25 Responses to Questions about WikiLeaks

  1. Darin says:

    I would have agreed with this, until this morning when I saw that Assange threatens to release more specifically release information that he knows will lead to loss of lives if he is brought to court against charges of rape.

    Sounds like a terrorist to me.

  2. Are we talkin’ garden variety pseudoephedrine, or something exotic like codeine or hydrocodone with promethazine?

  3. Curzon says:

    While it’s delightful for people such as ourselves to read the cables, the disclosure is a nightmare from an operational perspective that has seriously handicapped the US ability to conduct diplomacy, and indeed any country to conduct diplomacy — forever. Diplomats speaking to the motherland, like lawyers with their clients, need to be able to give honest and unfiltered advice to be considered or disregarded.

  4. Curzon says:

    Talks sense? The rundown is stunningly short-sighted. The gears of diplomacy have literally ground to a halt in the last two weeks and the sub-channels by which governments communicate with each other are seriously impaired. This is going to have serious long-term consequences that are only apparent to those really paying attention.

  5. Roy Berman says:

    As an alternative, the government could try actually applying some security measures to information they want to keep secret. From what I read of how Bradley Manning copied the files, and how they were kept, the systems in use were just beyond pathetic.

  6. Lewis Habben says:

    makes me sick. How can states be immune to terrorism charges, yet if individuals do it, charges of terrorism abounds.

    This global empire known as the US Govt is the most prolific terrorist, and ecological destroyer known. It uses depleted uranium in its munitions?!?!? It sneak attacks populations and blames other groups. Actually the term “terrorist” originated during the French revolution to describe the actions of the government during the “Reign of Terror”

    Wikileaks is helping prevent terrorism. Only a well informed population can prevent and subdue a rogue government. Bravo, Assange!

  7. Brent says:

    I’ll ask the question(s) that I have asked everyone with whom I’ve discussed this topic. If Assange paid his informant for the information and, instead of publishing the information on a website, gave the information to a foreign government to use, is Assange a spy or not? Does the lack of payment somehow make this ok (i.e. is this like sex where most people seem to think that free = ok and paid for = bad)? How does publishing the information (i.e. permitting every government in the world to use it instead of limiting it to just one government) make the use of the information less harmful or of a different character?

    In other words, how is Wikileaks NOT a spying organization? And if it is a spying organization and Assange is a spy, why should the US government treat him any differently that it would treat other spys?

  8. Brent says:

    Bah – Spies not spys.

  9. Younghusband says:

    The information released is not all the diplomatic cables from all time. These are leaks where someone from the inside felt some moral duty that the public should see what is going on. Leaking is something that has always happened historically. Today’s technology means it can happen much easier and on a much larger scale. Modern news media has shown us time and again that there is no such thing as an internal “domestic” message and a distinct external “international” message. It has all blurred into one. Politicians know this. Corporations know this. Diplomats should have known this. Now they are sure to be mindful in the future.

  10. Younghusband says:

    @Brent: News organizations often pay sources. Does that make them spy agencies?

    Furthermore, under US law, leaking information can be a criminal offence. Publishing said information is not.

  11. Chris Durnell says:

    I am very sympathetic to opening up government information. We need more open source intelligence, less classified information, and greater accountability.

    However, this is espionage pure and simple. I would not classifyAssange as a terrorist, but I do think he is essentially a spy. If the current law does not take that into effect, it should be changed so it can. I agree with Brent. News agencies could be interpreted as spy agencies (certainly authoritarian states view them as such), but in a democracy they are excused because they serve a public good. Sometimes specific articles or reports cross the line, but generally it is accepted that the Washington Post or CNN is only seeking to inform citizens and not simply to turn over US secrets.

    I think WikiLeaks has crossed the line.

    Diplomatic correspondence from our embassies to Washington should be secret. It is meant for our ears only. Diplomatic staff should feel completely confident they can be blunt in their reports and assessment because the policy makers in Washington need the unblemished truth. If such reports will be public knowledge, then diplomats will change their reports to be more publicly acceptable. This will not help us make better foreign policy. Plus, sometimes there is confidential information that cannot be revealed publicly.

    I remember the first half of Herman Wouk’s Winds of War which had the main character, Pug Henry, as naval attache in Berlin who sent reports to DC on his observations in Hitler’s Berlin at the start of WWII. His frank and candid observations helped shaped FDR’s policies. It’s hard to see how a modern day Pug Henry could do the same if the future means he has to word his observations for public consumption. Such a frank, candid man would become an embarassment, and someone more willing to go along with conventional wisdom and ass kissing would be used instead – to our detriment.

  12. Adrian says:

    Good post. Maybe you should combine cold medicine and blogging more often. ;)

  13. Curzon says:

    Lacking a firm position from Kaplan (I expect something will be forthcoming), I see the Hitch is eloquently reflecting my view on this foreign policy issue — thanks for the link.

  14. Curzon says:

    And YH, I challenge you to show me any legal basis for your US law based defense of wikileaks. Certainly persons at wikileaks do not have the same duties of confidentiality that an employee of the US government would have, but I think that Brent has outlined one basic position (of many potential angles) from which US prosecutors could launch at wikileaks on this issue.

  15. Younghusband says:

    We know that publishing leaks is not a criminal act because that is the part of US law that Sen Feinstein et alia are trying to change.

    That said, it is not that I think there is no case against Assange. There may be some sort of criminal violation of law in the ordeal somewhere, mostly related to the “How” of the leaks and potentially his blatant disregard of personal privacy. I would like to stress that I don’t think he can be labelled a terrorist or a spy. Further to that, a system for anonymous leaking in lieu of protection for whistle-blowers is in general a good idea, I think.

    Lastly, Brent’s example of Pug Henry is an anachronism. What Brent describes isn’t entirely possible in the 21st century. It isn’t WikiLeaks that destroyed the ways of that simpler time, it is the sea change in our culture through the rise of the information age. We can never go back, and anybody who thought we were there until this past week was deluding themselves.

  16. John Ballard says:

    FYI, two intelligent essays regarding Assange at 3Quarks Daily.

    By way of background, a link to something written by Assange four years ago.

    Comments threads also run better than most.

    What is passing as “official” response is embarrassing. It’s hard to separate spin from facts. Too bad, because facts always carry more weight.
    Assange is to the cables content what a surgeon is to a Stage Four malignancy. He didn’t cause the mess but he seems to be among the few who can make a diagnosis. (I still wonder why we say “cable” in the digital age. Fiber-optics, maybe? I dunno. The last computer I saw had no wires connecting keyboard or mouse to the system.)

  17. Brent says:

    John – it’s because that’s what they are called! Also, FYI, the vast majority of intercontinental telecommunications information still travels on undersea cables.

    YH – I think that paying people to do things that are illegal is an inducement to commit a crime and I think that is illegal. And if not, it absolutely should be. This is just like in contracts where you are guilty of contractual interference if you pay someone to breach a contract with a third party (of course, that is a tort and not criminal, but the same logic applies).

    Being a news organization should not and does not make you immune from criminal prosecution. There are cases that prohibit the government from preventing publication of confidential information, this is true. However, that does not mean they can’t be prosecuted thereafter if publishing it was a crime.

  18. TDL says:

    The debate is not whether or not Wikilieaks has broken any laws, the real debate is (or rather should be) the reaction of the U.S. Government. Intimidation instead of reliance on the existing legal framework has characterized the U.S. response. From calling a foreign citizen a traitor (which is interesting), openly calling for the assassination of a non-combatant, to intimidating businesses to shut down a source of criticism. Simply, put the U.S. is increasingly acting like an amoral European state rather than a nation of laws.


  19. John Ballard says:

    Thanks for that.
    I didn’t know so much data still traveled by cable. I stand corrected.

  20. Roy Berman says:

    The fact that these “cables” travel by fiberoptic cable is totally irrelevant. If it were, then all our communication would be called cables, and nothing is anymore except for diplomatic communication. The real answer is even more prosaic – they just keep calling them cables because that makes it easier to keep both archived ones from the days when they really WERE telegrams and new ones based on an encrypted email system, in the same searchable database.

  21. Grendel says:

    Which European country is “calling a foreign citizen a traitor [which doesn't make sense in the first place], openly calling for the assassination of a non-combatant, to intimidating businesses to shut down a source of criticism.”??

    And I agree, information wants to be free.

  22. Bud says:

    I think the relevant facts are:

    -The information was stolen

    -The information was classified

    -Assange sifted through the information and released selected portions

    -Assange then threatened to release the most sensitive material if anyone opposed his actions

    From this it can be concluded that Assange is a criminal and is releasing the information to advance an agenda. What news organizations and political leakers do is irrelevant. Whether public knowledge of the information is good or bad is also irrelevant. This guy is a criminal and should be treated as such. Either you believe in a society based on the rule of laws or you don’t.