Here are some recent articles on Wikileaks that are worth reading.
The WikiLeaks disclosure has revealed not only numerous government secrets, but also the driving mentality of major factions in our political and media class. Simply put, there are few countries in the world with citizenries and especially media outlets more devoted to serving, protecting and venerating government authorities than the U.S. Indeed, I don’t quite recall any entity producing as much bipartisan contempt across the American political spectrum as WikiLeaks has: as usual, for authoritarian minds, those who expose secrets are far more hated than those in power who commit heinous acts using secrecy as their principal weapon.
Before setting forth why these WikiLeaks disclosures produce vastly more good than harm, I’ll state several caveats as clearly as I can. Unlike the prior leaks of war documents, there are reasonable concerns about this latest leak (most particularly that impeding diplomacy makes war more likely). Like all organizations, WikiLeaks has made mistakes in the past, including its failure to exercise enough care in redacting the names of Afghan informers. Moreover, some documents are legitimately classified, probably including some among the documents that were just disclosed.
Nonetheless, our government and political culture is so far toward the extreme pole of excessive, improper secrecy that that is clearly the far more significant threat. And few organizations besides WikiLeaks are doing anything to subvert that regime of secrecy, and none is close to its efficacy. It’s staggering to watch anyone walk around acting as though the real threat is from excessive disclosures when the impenetrable, always-growing Wall of Secrecy is what has enabled virtually every abuse and transgression of the U.S. government over the last two decades at least.
I think we all understand that the work of even the most decent governments is made more difficult when they cannot be sure their communications will be read by those for whom they were not intended. That said, there is no reason to assume that the United States government is always up to good. To get at the value of WikiLeaks, I think it’s important to distinguish between the government—the temporary, elected authors of national policy—and the state—the permanent bureaucratic and military apparatus superficially but not fully controlled by the reigning government. The careerists scattered about the world in America’s intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well. The actually-existing structure and strategy of the American empire remains a near-total mystery to those who foot the bill and whose children fight its wars. And that is the way the elite of America’s unelected permanent state, perhaps the most powerful class of people on Earth, like it.
If secrecy is necessary for national security and effective diplomacy, it is also inevitable that the prerogative of secrecy will be used to hide the misdeeds of the permanent state and its privileged agents. I suspect that there is no scheme of government oversight that will not eventually come under the indirect control of the generals, spies, and foreign-service officers it is meant to oversee. Organisations such as WikiLeaks, which are philosophically opposed to state secrecy and which operate as much as is possible outside the global nation-state system, may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy. Some folks ask, “Who elected Julian Assange?” The answer is nobody did, which is, ironically, why WikiLeaks is able to improve the quality of our democracy. Of course, those jealously protective of the privileges of unaccountable state power will tell us that people will die if we can read their email, but so what? Different people, maybe more people, will die if we can’t.
International scandals—such as the one precipitated by this week’s WikiLeaks cable dump—serve us by illustrating how our governments work. Better than any civics textbook, revisionist history, political speech, bumper sticker, or five-part investigative series, an international scandal unmasks presidents and kings, military commanders and buck privates, cabinet secretaries and diplomats, corporate leaders and bankers, and arms-makers and arms-merchants as the bunglers, liars, and double-dealers they are.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the recurrence of scandals, but, of course, we always are. Why is that? Is it because when scandal rips up the turf, revealing the vile creepy-crawlies thrashing and scurrying about, we’re glad when authority intervenes to quickly tamp the grass back down and re-establish our pastoral innocence with bland assurances that the grubby malfeasants are mere outliers and one-offs who will be punished? Is it because our schooling has left us hopelessly naïve about how the world works? Or do we just fail to pay attention?
Information conduits like Julian Assange shock us out of that complacency. Oh, sure, he’s a pompous egomaniac sporting a series of bad haircuts and grandiose tendencies. And he often acts without completely thinking through every repercussion of his actions. But if you want to dismiss him just because he’s a seething jerk, there are about 2,000 journalists I’d like you to meet.The idea of WikiLeaks is scarier than anything the organization has leaked or anything Assange has done because it restores our distrust in the institutions that control our lives. It reminds people that at any given time, a criminal dossier worth exposing is squirreled away in a database someplace in the Pentagon or at Foggy Bottom.
Attorney General Eric Holder says his Justice Department is going after WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. At first glance, it seems like a straightforward case. Almost half of the 250,000 internal State Department cables Assange has published are classified, either at the confidential or the secret level (no top-secret documents are included), and rarely does the target of a criminal investigation commit his alleged crime so publicly. Holder knows it will not be easy, however. He realizes that as much as we may condemn Assange’s actions, they were not obviously criminal.[…] The U.S. government has never successfully prosecuted a media entity for a leak. It is typically much easier to bring such cases against the government officials who do the leaking, because they sign nondisclosure agreements surrendering many of the legal protections they otherwise would enjoy.
[…] What law did Assange violate? It will surprise many that there is no statute making it illegal to reveal classified information. There are statutes that criminalize the disclosure of very specific types of classified information, such as the identity of a covert operative (think Valerie Plame) or “codes, ciphers or cryptographic systems.” But there is no catch-all law that simply says, “Thou shalt not disclose classified information.”
Indeed, when Congress tried to enact such a statute, President Bill Clinton sensibly vetoed it. His reason: The government suffers from such an overclassification problem – some intelligence agencies classify even newspaper articles – that a law of this sort would end up criminalizing the disclosure of innocuous information. And even that vetoed statute would have applied only to government officials, not to private individuals or journalists.[…] The fact that classified information is involved does not preclude First Amendment safeguards. In the AIPAC case, Judge Ellis rejected the prosecutors’ categorical – and dangerous – argument that when classified information is at issue, the First Amendment affords no protection. Of course, the First Amendment is no license to disclose the recipe for the plutonium bomb to Osama bin Laden. But the Justice Department would have to prove that Assange’s disclosures were so dangerous to national security as to override the First Amendment. In the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the prosecution would have to demonstrate that what the defendant did was as immediate and as dangerous as “falsely shouting fire in a theater.” That is a heavy burden to meet.[…]In 1971, Solicitor General Erwin Griswold asked the Supreme Court to bar publication of the Pentagon Papers because it would cause a “grave and immediate danger to the security of the United States.” Twenty-eight years later, he reversed his position in an op-ed piece in this paper. “I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication” of the Pentagon Papers, Griswold wrote. Moreover, he expressed the view that “there is very rarely any real risk to current national security from the publication of facts relating to transactions in the past, even the fairly recent past.”
What took 28 years to happen with the Pentagon Papers is already happening with the WikiLeaks cables. Although the State Department is of the opinion that Assange’s leaks have done serious damage to our national security – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called them “an attack on America” responsible for “endangering innocent people” and “sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations” – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a savvy Washington veteran, has expressed a different view.
“I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer and so on,” Gates told reporters at the Pentagon last week. “I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. . . . Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”
If Assange is ultimately charged with disclosing information that is potentially damaging to national security, Eric Holder now knows who Assange will call as his first witness: the secretary of defense.
I do not have much to add beyond the articles quoted above. Suffice it to say that I believe that Wikileaks is playing an invaluable role in improving the world. Anything that acts as a counter-force against State secrecy is a good thing.
There are not many heroes in our era. Julian Assange is one of those rare few.
If you think similarly, or feel strongly about issues like censorship and free speech and government openness, I think it is imperative that you support Wikileaks by donating to them. Here’s the link.