Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Information Age

In case you haven't heard, Wikileaks has obtained and is in the process of releasing over 250,000 cables from the U.S. State Department detailing the inner workings of our diplomatic dealings from periods ranging from the 1960s to this past February.  Just under 300 of the quarter-million documents have been put out so far and already a number of gems have come to light.  Chinese frustration with North Korea, pressure on the U.S. from Arab countries to attack Iran, and some insights into the personalities of foreign leaders we may not have been made privy to for years without these missives.  Even under the Freedom of Information Act it could take over a year or more to actually receive the requested document, or sometimes not at all.  Knowledge is power, and the more a government controls the knowledge, the more power it has.  Disseminating it amongst the general population is not really a high priority.

And of course there are other reasons for secret diplomacy.  Some nations we must deal with on a regular basis call for tact and confidentiality in order to complete our objectives for the good of the nation.  The knowledge that the State Department, or an organization which can influence the State Department, called for U.S. diplomats to the U.N. to try and obtain personal information on other foreign dignitaries puts egg on our face, but having it exposed also prevents an egregious lapse of judgment on the part of our government - diplomats are for diplomacy, spying is best left to spies.  There is a place in this world for both, and the intelligence community is best leaving the two to perform their duties independent of one another.

So what, exactly, is the fallout expected for this glut of hitherto unknown information?  Early indicators make it seem that, beyond some catty and colorful gossip ("Berlusconi is Putin's mouthpiece in Western Europe," "The two ruling parties in Germany are like parents who want to get divorced"), American diplomacy actually comes out looking rather good.  To add a personal take on the character of your diplomatic contact is apparently not an alien practice (following the release, Turkey's Prime Minister told Hillary Clinton "You should see what we say about you guys"), and on the whole it seems that diplomacy and careful dealing with foreign powers is the U.S. Government's preferred method of approaching the world.  What this information does is opens our eyes to a world we could not see before, parting the shroud between what we perceive and what is real.  Yes, some shady deals go on, and yes, we have some embarrassing secrets which would have been easier to deal with if kept hidden, but this level of exposure, this kind of accountability, can only be a good thing.

Certain foreign leaders are bound to scandalized at least to some degree.  The leaks detail how Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a vocal opponent of the Iraqi war, gave Americans the advice to forgo democracy and install a dictator, and also supports continued U.S. military presence.  Harmid Karzai's brother, Ahmad Wali, enjoys more power as a corrupt public official and drug runner than the governor of the province he lives in.  The British government pledged to protect U.S. interests in hearings regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq.  Saudi Arabians want to fight Iran "to the last American."  While this information is certainly best kept secret by the entities trying to maneuver the subtle or not-so-subtle intrigues of global politics, does the American public not have a right to know?  In fairness, the chief complaint of the State Department was that this information could compromise the jobs of diplomats still in service.  However, Wikileaks asked them to help redact the information before it was released, and they refused, not wanting to work with the organization. 

The job of diplomats may have been made temporarily harder as they deal with the backlash to their innermost thoughts being made public, but the information given to us was vital nonetheless.  Certainly the knowledge that a private Chinese company is providing gyroscopes to Iran is something we should be privy to.  Acknowledgments of the difficulties in shipping out the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is nothing to keep hidden.  Shouldn't we be aware that the Chinese are making a dedicated effort to break into the computers of public and private Westerners, including the U.S government, and also the Dalai Lama?  Why are we kept in the dark about the possibility of enriched uranium in Pakistan being diverted to the creation of an illicit nuclear weapon? 

Now, the government does not seem to view things in the same light, and has already begun taking steps to ensure that this much information can never end up in the hands of a single individual again.  Aspects of media are portraying the deluge of cables, many of them unclassified already but a fair number labeled "Secret" or "Noforn" (no foreigners should view), as "treasonous."  Never mind the fact that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is Australian and thus incapable of committing treason against the United States.  Should the First Amendment guaranteeing Freedom of the Press not extend to information the government does not want us to see?  Is it treasonous, then, to expose corruption or dissembling in authority figures to the public?  Perhaps it was in Middle Ages Europe, or in military dictatorships, or in the U.S.S.R, but here in America are we not allowed to know what the government is doing, regardless of whether or not they want us to know?  We are not guaranteed openness and accountability by our elected officials or the departments which comprise our federal government.  They all have secrets which they believe essential to their daily operation.  Is failing to protect those secrets, then, somehow the fault of the person who exposes them?  If information is given to us, we should dissect and absorb the information, not spew hatred and vitriol at the person who gave it to us.  Julian Assange is very much the medieval messenger, in danger of being killed for the bad news he bears.

So the slow release of cables continues, with news organizations around the world trying to piece together the important bits, and 300 of a quarter million already providing a trove of insight and knowledge.  Even as their site undergoes a DoS (Denial of Service) attack by a pair of "patriotic" hackers attempting to prevent the release of this "treasonous" information, they continue sending out the cables to newspapers and media outlets.  They have already promised a follow-up to these cables - internal documents leaked from an as-yet unnamed bank, and others from an insurance group, which will purportedly cause a much greater scandal than any of the current leaked info.  Is this, too, criminal?

We cannot simultaneously push for more openness and accountability in government and condemn Wikileaks.  In the final estimation, if people doing questionable things do not want their actions coming back to humiliate them, perhaps they should stop doing questionable things.  Hopefully, what has happened here will inspire more people to deliver whatever information they have, however heinous or inflammatory, which broadens the public's view of the world in which they live.  Information is not "treason," but those who want to hold on to their firm control of it may certainly want you to think so.  Wikileaks begs to differ.

And I, for one, am okay with that.


Lowballing said...

"Wikileaks asked them to help redact the information before it was released"

This is SOP for anything clandestine. Nobody, Corporate or Governmental, will comment on speculation or rumors. Companies get their mailboxes flooded daily with "requests for comment" trying to draw out secret information. Wikileaks was not trying to "protect" anybody, it was seeking to get official confirmation that their information was valid. Even if it had been false, they would have ammunition to run to the press with saying "the DoS looked at it, it must be real". If you don't believe me, then you probably have never seen their IRC or the "wikileaks" of wikileaks.

Spies also don't wear uniforms. They are everywhere(including wikileaks). Every embassy of every nation has always been filled with spies. They are never confirmed or denied(see above) but if you check the staffing roster you will always find some superfluous positions. Those positions may or may not be held by an intelligence officer. A diplomatic passport and diplomatic bag are incredibly useful tools in intelligence gathering. The fact I have read comments on reuters that Americans were shocked that "Diplomats are spying!" highlights my point. Some things are best kept secret.

I truly believe there needs to be a free flow of information. The average American should be able to go online and find a high level view of what their government is doing. However, much like Americans don't expect Coke's secret formula published in the NYT, they should accept that Diplomacy has its own "Trade Secrets" which can cause issues if exposed.

Knowledge is a double edged sword. It can be used as a catalyst for change and righteousness, or it can fall in the wrong hands and expose ones weak points to the world.

David Pratt said...

While the idea that asking for a government agency to redact information may be true, the documents Wikileaks has published on its own website are those which have already been redacted by the newspapers they put them out to. Basically if a major publisher decides the information is too sensitive, Wikileaks will not post it on their own site either.