More Wikitalk: answering some of the questions


by digby

There continues to be a lot of chatter about Wikileaks, which is turning into one of the most passionate and authentic political discussions I've seen in some time. We are, at least, talking about something other than kabuki beltway politics, which is a healthy thing, in my opinion.

The biggest complaints I'm getting from commenters about my position in favor of the project is the fact that Wikileaks is trying to hurt the US specifically and that it is resulting in the deaths of innocent people.

On the first, I think that's just not true. Wikileaks has exposed a whole bunch of documents that both help and hurt the US and many other countries, including those which we might consider our enemies. And it goes beyond governments. For instance, Wikileaks exposed the graft and corruption of a particular group of Icelandic bankers and they are being called to account for it by their people. It exposed the secretive Church of Scientology. It exposed the ongoing war between China and Google (which, by the way, Joe Lieberman sees as an excellent template for the US to emulate.) And, if they don't succeed in threatening the entire internet, we are likely to soon see a trove of communications exposing corruption in the US banking system.

It's true that much of what's been revealed in the last year has pertained to US foreign policy, but the US is the world's superpower, spending more on its military than the rest of the world combined, has more global interests and more connections. It's natural that it would be a primary subject for such revelations. But that doesn't mean that Wikileaks is only interested in the US or is working on behalf of others to bring it down. Remember, it's certain Americans who have felt compelled to reveal these secrets about out country. Why the messenger should be shot is beyond me.

The second concern is a moral question and it's difficult. Everyone I’ve heard on both sides of this subject bemoans the fact that there is danger implicit in these revelations. Some of those who argue against Wikileaks believe(even despite the fact that there's no evidence it's happened) that the very possibility of someone dying as a result of the revelations makes them automatically immoral. But the way I see it, the fact that literally thousands and thousands of innocent Afghans are already “collateral damage” --- including many of these very informants and helpmates --- in a war which we now know the governments involved don’t even have a hope of winning puts it into a sort of grotesque perspective.

It is a hideous set of choices before us, caused not by the group of people who are revealing secrets, but by what has been revealed to be inept, corrupt and malevolent leadership across the spectrum of the governing class, whose purpose in keeping these secrets seems to have more often than not been to thwart democratic norms, cover their massive mistakes or enrich themselves. Knowing this doesn't make the fallout any more palatable, but it leads to a fairly simple question: should we have the truth, knowing that it may cause innocent people to die or should we not have the truth knowing that it is causing innocent people to die? You tell me.

What I would also argue is that in an age of technological innovation these revelations are the inevitable consequence of governments, global finance and other forms of elite institutions wrapping themselves in secrecy and basically making democratic government moot. This creates both an opportunity and an incentive to reveal those secrets. Perhaps we would prefer that it be to an equally secretive foreign government? Or an enemy to be named later? How do we know they haven't already?

In that light, it seems to me that those who are so concerned about security should be encouraging governments and institutions to be transparent because just as the global systems for transmitting and coordinating secrets has become easier with technology --- it's clear that the ability to find and transmit those secrets by others has become even easier. And this is not going to be stopped by threatening graduate students' future job prospects. Seriously, the government needs to consult with the software and entertainment industries to find out just how impossible it is to put this genie back in the bottle. Unless they decide to go back to communicating by using carrier pigeons, the days of secrets being safe are probably over. Best to figure out another model.

People feel very strongly about this on all sides and that's fine. But I do think that there is one thing we should all agree on: the appalling open calls for Julian Assange's assassination are barbaric authoritarianism at its worst. (The obvious attempt to smear him as a sexual predator for alleged condom failure fall into the same category.) The man put some documents on the internet and there is a vigorous global debate going on about it. If there was ever a case for public servants and the media (which should all clearly be on the side of Wikileaks, in my opinion) to be circumspect in their language it's in this case. I'm astonished that these calls for murder are so casually accepted. (But then, we are living in a country in which torture is accepted, so I'm probably foolish to keep clinging to these silly notions about civilized, democratic behavior.)

There are definitely huge threats in the world. And they are coming from many directions --- terrorist violence, massive economic corruption, global warming, extremists of all sorts. What should be clear by now, however, is that the system by which we manage threats is failing. It seems to me that one thing we might want to do is start talking about that problem. This is an opportunity to do that.

Update: If you want to know the reason for my indictment of the governing elites above, just read this. Unbelievable.

Update II: Jay in comments points out an important post about Assange's motives, which as it happens, I wrote about few days ago. it's an important starting point if you want to catch up on this story.