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.]