Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Kill The Messenger, Ignore the Message

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is hardly Daniel Ellsberg.  He is not heroically leaking evidence of the government's systematic lies and misconduct in order to stop a war.  The document dump by WikiLeaks of confidential diplomatic cables -- most of which were not highly classified and none of which were top secret -- appears to be motivated by transparency for transparency's sake rather than to change the behavior of the U.S. government.  But that is not necessarily a bad thing. 

Predictably, the response has been fierce.  Hillary Clinton decried the disclosure as "not just an attack on America -- it's an attack on the international community."  Rep. Peter King called for WikiLeaks to be designated a terrorist organization, and former Senator Rick Santorum remarked that Assange should be prosecuted as a terrorist.  Mike Huckabee stated that whoever leaked the diplomatic cables committed treason and should be executed.  And then there is, of course, Sarah Palin, who wants Assange to be "pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders."

As the New York Times editorializes, however, "the latest WikiLeaks revelations will cause awkward moments not least because they contain blunt assessments of world leaders," but any claim that they threaten national security is "exaggerated."  Notably, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates believes that while the information about what diplomats and intelligence operatives revealed in secret cables about other governments may be "embarrassing," the impact on U.S. foreign policy will likely be "fairly modest."

I don't discount that the indiscriminate disclosure of the diplomatic cables may cause some harm. As the The Economist's Democracy in America blog notes: "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."  However, as the blog continues, "there is no reason to assume that the United States government is always up to good," and "it is inevitable that the prerogative of secrecy will be used to hide ... misdeeds ..."  Scott Shane of the Times points out that while some government-to-government contact needs to be confidential, "there are many cases in which governments try to keep secrets that are not a good thing."  Shane asserts that "if we had had more information on these secret internal deliberations of governments prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we would have had a better understanding of the quality of the evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction."

And what can easily be lost by focusing on the leaker rather than the leaks is some pretty disturbing information.  For example, David Corn and Jack Shafer both discuss documents showing that Secretary of State Clinton (and Condoleezza Rice before her) instructed foreign service officers to spy on the diplomats of other nations.  Another cable reveals that diplomats under the direction of the Bush administration pressured Germany not to prosecute CIA officers responsible for the kidnapping, extraordinary rendition and torture of a German national.  As the Director of the ACLU National Security Project stated with regard to this disclosure: "The United States' employment of diplomatic pressure to influence the legal proceedings of a democratic ally was improper and unseemly, particularly where the goal of that interference was to shield U.S. officials from accountability for torture."

Glenn Greenwald contends that WikiLeaks fills a critical vacuum left by the failure of other institutions to remain vigilant of our government.  Their goal, he says, is to prevent the U.S. and other powers "from continuing to operate in the dark and without restraints."  Since others who should be performing this function, such as the "Congress and the American media not only fail to do so, but are active participants in maintaining the veil of secrecy," it is left up to "WikiLeaks, whatever its flaws," to shin[e] a vitally needed light on all of this."  As the Economist's blog states, organizations like 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."


lonbud said...

I thought Gate's comment about most of the reaction to Cablegate being "significantly overwrought" was refreshingly candid.

I also think your final paragraph highlighting Greenwald's take pretty much sums up my view on this. If Congress and the Media did their jobs and reigned in our government's most egregious behavior -- even if quietly and mainly outside the public's view -- WikiLeaks would have no reason to exist.

Stephen said...

Why the Hard Left Should Fear Wikileaks
By Jeffrey Goldberg [The Atlantic]

And no, not because this document dump undermines the case that only Israel seeks preemptive war with Iran. James Rubin makes the argument that Wikileaks has turned itself into an enemy of diplomacy, which is something leftists (and others) value over warfare:

By and large, the hard left in America and around the world would prefer to see the peaceful resolution of disputes rather than the use of military force. World peace, however, is a lot harder to achieve if the U.S. State Department is cut off at the knees. And that is exactly what this mass revelation of documents is going to do. The essential tool of State Department diplomacy is trust between American officials and their foreign counterparts. Unlike the Pentagon which has military forces, or the Treasury Department which has financial tools, the State Department functions mainly by winning the trust of foreign officials, sharing information, and persuading. Those discussions have to be confidential to be successful. Destroying confidentiality means destroying diplomacy.

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