Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wikileaks? I’m Not Sure

I still can’t quite decide what I think of the whole Wikileaks document dump. On one hand, something about it simply seems wrong. On the other hand, I do wonder if governments (not just ours) keep too many things secret and whether disclosure enables citizens to better understand and monitor what their country is doing. So think of this post as a sort of thought exercise that I ran through with myself; as I started writing, I had no real destination or final conclusion in mind other than to try to tease out some of the issues.

First, I note that many people have compared the disclosures by Wikileaks to the Pentagon Papers disclosures by Daniel Ellsberg. But I don’t think that analogy is applicable. The disclosure of the Pentagon Papers showed that the government had been systematically lying about what was happening in Vietnam, including (if I remember my history correctly), the actual events in the Gulf of Tonkin that led to the dramatic increase in US involvement in Vietnam. Thus, to be comparable, the Wikileaks documents would, for example, need to have been about the lies told by the Bush administration in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. And while that sort of disclosure might anger us, it might also be critical to our understanding of the war and its aftermath and costs.

I’m not sure that I’m willing to accept the notion offered by some that citizens have a right to know everything that their country is doing, either. Let’s look at that from a slightly different perspective. If you’re a shareholder in Apple, do you have a right to know every new product that the company is researching or even readying for sale? Does your answer change if you’re told that disclosure of what the company is working on will put it at a competitive disadvantage with other companies? Similarly, do you have the right to know what a doctor tells another patient or what a lawyer tells another client?

In other words, I think that most of us would agree that there are some secrets that are OK, and there are lots of things that I think a government probably should keep secret. Certainly, a government should not disclose military battle plans (and probably not contingency plans, either) or ongoing intelligence operations. A government should not disclose information that could directly lead to the death of a citizen (but what about the deaths of non-citizens?). We don’t need to know about cutting-edge research in military technology. And a government should probably be able to keep secret things that will put that country or its citizens at a competitive disadvantage with other countries or harm that country’s ability to work in the international community. When two diplomats talk about the best approach to a particular negotiation or what the various results of possible actions might be, shouldn’t that be kept secret, if not from us, then from those on the other side?

Ask yourself whether and how the ability of a diplomat to represent and advance the interests of our country is hindered if those with whom the diplomat is speaking decide to guard their words out of fear that what they might candidly say could be publicly revealed. Consider that situation with regard to a country with whom we are not friendly or with a country that has a fragile government that we are seeking to help change or stabilize. Sometimes what is said in a negotiation needs to remain secret.  Think, for a moment, about buying a car. If the car salesman was privy to the discussion that you and your spouse had on the way to the dealer in which you decided how much you could afford to pay, then how might that impact the negotiations? Or consider whether you want your lawyer to be able to provide you the right advice rather than the advice that might be best for public consumption just in case the discussion were to be leaked.

One other thing to keep in mind, is who should decide what information should remain secret and which information should be disclosed? It is probably too easy for a government to simply err on the side of secrecy; keeping the secret doesn’t harm anyone, but disclosing it might. The obvious distrust that many have in government may come from governments keeping too many secrets (or it may come from any of a number of other things, like torturing civilians, waging wars, denying rights, etc.). But as much as we may distrust governments to make a proper balancing determination with regard to what should or should not be kept secret, do we really think that the decision should be left to one or a few individuals who may have their own personal agendas (I’m pissed because I didn’t get promoted; my boss didn’t adopt my idea; I don’t like Secretary of State Clinton…) or, worse yet, to a foreigner? Would you feel any differently if Julian Assange was an American instead of an Australian?* I understand that Wikileaks purports to review the documents before deciding what to release, but I must admit that I’m troubled at that decision being made by a foreigner (not to mention the foreigner having access to the documents in the first place).

Yet with all that being said, query the extent to which any of the disclosures have actually harmed American interests. Sure our diplomats may have said unkind things about their counterparts. Do you think for a moment that the fact that diplomats say candid things to their superiors comes as a surprise? More importantly, do you think that the content of those candid descriptions comes as a surprise in many cases? And do you think that the diplomats for other countries aren’t making equally derogatory statements about our own diplomats? Do you think that diplomats for other countries aren’t trying to acquire information about our diplomats? Please. To get worked up over that kind of disclosure seems to be much ado about nothing.

Moreover, given certain aspects of our own history, it seems like we don’t do a good job of watching over our government to be sure that only things that really need to be secret are classified as such and that our government doesn’t lie to us. We were lied to about Vietnam; we were lied to about Watergate; we were lied to about Iran-Contra; and we were lied to about WMDs in Iraq. How different would the last forty-five years have been without those lies? And what might our government still be lying about? We should be able to trust that our government doesn’t keep secrets that aren’t necessary and that our government doesn’t lie to us about matters that should be the subject of political discussion and debate. When we’re lied to, we can’t make good, informed decisions. So it may be that disclosures, like Wikileaks, however distasteful they may be, are essential to keep our government on the proverbial “straight and narrow” path.

So I guess, if I had to sum up my feelings about Wikileaks, I’d say that I’m against the disclosures to the extent that they could actually harm American interests, but that the releases point out the need that we, as citizens in a democracy, have to be ever-vigilant watchdogs on what our government says (or doesn’t say) and does. But at the end of the day, I’d prefer that the determination of what is or is not a secret and what should or should not be disclosed be made by a body of informed Americans, acting in the best interests of America and Americans, and not by random individuals or foreigners.

To the extent that we think that the Wikileaks disclosures do harm our national interest, then I have no problem with our government seeking to prevent future disclosures or to make it more difficult for the existing disclosures to be accessed. If we think that another country intends to do us harm, we have the right to defend ourselves, so why should that be any different in the case of an individual? That said, I’m not sure that trying to kill Assange is the right approach…

What do you think? Write me a comment!

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*And for those who keep saying that Julian Assange is a “traitor” or “anti-American”, please remember that he can’t be a traitor, because he isn’t American and that he has no obligation to be pro-American. We don’t have to like him or agree with him, but he’s not a traitor. And as to the suggestion (thanks, Sarah Palin, you blathering idiot!) that we should go after Assange the same way that we’ve gone after the Taliban and al-Quaeda, it shouldn’t even need to be mentioned that the act of intentionally murdering thousands of innocent civilians is vastly different from releasing documents. But then why should we expect people who make that assertion to understand the difference; after all, many of them are the same people who equate President Obama’s quest for universal health care with Hitler.

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