Why The Wikileaks Document Release Is Key To A Functioning Democracy

from the the-difference-between-democracy-and-the-state dept

As various politicians and bureaucrats freak out and get the wrong message from the latest Wikileaks document leak, the Economist has an excellent explanation of why the leak is actually a very good thing in preserving American democracy. Will it make some diplomats jobs harder? Absolutely. But diplomacy isn’t supposed to be easy. And what the documents reveal is that the US has a history of doing things it’s not supposed to do. The really key insight in the Economist piece is that there’s a difference between elected officials and “the state” made up of career bureaucrats, who are not necessarily subject to democratic pressures — allowing them to make moves where they are not, in fact, answerable to the American public. And that’s a problem:

The United States is nominally a democracy, but it’s sadly ridiculous to think this means very much. 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.

As Scott Shane, the New York Times’ national security reporter, puts it: “American taxpayers, American citizens pay for all these diplomatic operations overseas and you know, it is not a bad thing when Americans actually have a better understanding of those negotiations”.

I’d say providing that information certainly would have been a socially worthy activity, even if it came as part of a more-or-less indiscriminate dump of illegally obtained documents. I’m glad to see that the quality of discussion over possible US efforts to stymie Iran’s nuclear ambitions has already become more sophisticated and, well, better-informed due to the information provided by WikiLeaks.

A better informed public is not a bad thing… except if your entire job is based on trying to keep people in the dark. Look at who’s complaining the most about Wikileaks and you realize that it’s the people who benefit from not being held accountable for their actions.

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Comments on “Why The Wikileaks Document Release Is Key To A Functioning Democracy”

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Marcel de Jong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Too bad in the US you technically only have three parties, two on the extremes (republicans (“rightwing”) & democrats (“leftwing”)) and one smaller one more in the middle (liberals).

It’s not very effective as a democracy, in my (foreign) view.
But I look at it with Dutch eyes, in The Netherlands anyone can start a political party and get elected.

MrWilson says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Or composed of a plutocracy that has successfully puppeteered the media into convincing the public that everything is black and white, Democrat vs. Republican, liberal vs. conservative, secular vs. religious, etc, rather than a system where the elites, who are beyond the false dichotomies of the political spectrum, influence whichever party is in power and either nominally support and then undermine or financially oppose whatever populist issue is currently threatening their power/wealth.

Chargone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

no. it is not a left wing dictatorship.

the US does not have a functioning left wing party of any significance. it has a center right party and a slightly-less-center right party. and panics about communism the moment anyone suggests that a centralized, organized system is the best way of dealing with certain things on a national level. (oh, sorry, it’s ‘socailism’ that’s the scary word these days, isn’t it? for some bafflingly unknown reason…)


Re: Re: Re:

It is not an idiotic fight over semantics. Democracy is mob rule and is only good if your in the majority. That distinction is a major one that has gone away over the past few decades. For example taxing the “evil” rich. They are a minority and don’t have the votes to counter the ignorant masses and the politicians know it. We are not suppose to be a democracy and these people should be protected from the mob but sadly this isn’t the case. There are more examples but that is an easy one to pick out. We only use some democratic processes to do things like pick our representatives. This is also why we have the electoral college to protect the smaller population states from the larger while still giving the larger population states a little more say.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re:

What you’re saying makes sense, but the issue is one of polarization. Consider, when we’ve granted the govt. the ability to claim state secrets and hide things due to nat’l security, the end result has been that they’ve used those as excuses to hide things that shouldn’t be hidden.

So, what you have to ask yourself is which is worse: abuse of secrecy, or too much openness?

For my way of thinking, I’d rather have our govt. be too open than too secret….

Jay says:

Re: Re: Re:

Let’s not forget that the government has failed to protect whistleblowers.

I recall a story here about a guy that had his email pilfered, all because it’s on a third party site.

So if the government wants to keep secrets, it’s all fine, but don’t go throwing stones if your bureacracy is made of glass.

Jay says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

*Your = generic you, no one specific

Guy had his email pilfered in a whistleblowing trial. Judge okayed for people to expose his email for letters in whistleblowing.

Also, let’s not forget the guy who blew the whistle on the people who put their money in Swiss bank accounts in UBS. That judge didn’t say one word as he put that guy in jail.

Jason Buberel (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

While I regret the chilling effect this will have on the sharing of information between diplomats, I too would prefer to err on the side of too much exposure:

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

–Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787.

Matt Polmanteer (profile) says:


Wikileaks is doing what our Media should be doing. They are supposed to be a check on the gov’t to make sure its doing what gov’t is supposed to. The more secretive a gov’t is the less it serves the people! I trust the American people but only when they are informed. The problem is most people don’t want to know which is why they are angry with wikileaks. Ignorance is Bliss!

Hulser (profile) says:

The government does not have a right to privacy

In my opinion, no government has an inherent right to privacy. Privacy is for the individual, not to bureaucratic organizations that naturally tend towards corruption and self-serving goals. Yes, there are some cases where a government has to keep things secret, but the default should be transparancy, not secrecy. Moreover, even when the bureaucrats and politicians honestly believe there is a legitimate, non-self-serving need for secrecy, I believe in a vast number of cases, the public would disagree. I’d hazard a guess that much of what governments do in secret, they shouldn’t be doing in the first place.

Hulser (profile) says:

You can't have it both ways

I find it funny that on one hand, the US government is downplaying the impact of the leaks and on the other calling for the head of Julian Assange. So, which is it? Are the “friendships” with other countries really strong enough to weather some embarrasements or is the damage so great from Julian’s “espionage” that he should be tried for treason? You can’t have it both ways.

On a related note, I saw some cable commentary show talking about Wikileaks and for ten minutes they were trying to decide of Assange was left or right. It apparently never entered their mind that someone could support the idea of government transparecy outside of the context of the binary view of “conservative” or “liberal”.

lux (profile) says:

Re: You can't have it both ways

What’s more funny (read: unnerving) is the public persecution of Assange, even by the Media itself, yet they outwardly present – and thereofre promote – the leaked information, with juicy headlines of course!

So on one hand, the Media denounces his actions, yet it’s intoxicated by the information they can now stew over for months/years.

that_id (profile) says:

Re: Re: You can't have it both ways

Well, I think that the msm is mostly upset because they had been planning on fluff pieces and deciding that the only thing worth reporting was the lame duck session for the next month. Now that they all have to compete with each other through the holiday season and wake up from their ‘long winter’s nap’ they’re all acting indignant.

Matthew (profile) says:

Re: Re: You can't have it both ways

The mainstream media denounces Wikileaks for two reasons:
1) They want to suck up to those in power so that they will continue to be granted easy access to the scraps of information they are given.
2) Wikileaks shows the people just how bad the mainstream media are at their job. For whatever reasons (laziness, corporate control, greed, corruption, partisanship – pick your favorite mix) today’s media and what passes for “journalism” on it are exceptionally bad at telling the truth and holding people and governments accountable for their actions.

Eugene (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well we now know lots of things about middle eastern countries who were only pretending to hate us publicly, and we now know that some countries were taking the fall for our military operations, and we now know all kinds of other amazing and important stuff going all the way back to 1966.

Anyway, like I said above, governments are not humans. Therefore they do not have human rights. Their “private lives” are made up – entirely – by our public lives, because government is, ideally, made up of us. Therefore, it’s actually OUR right to know about the private things our government is doing. Because that’s us: it represents us, it reflects our decisions, it implies our ideology and ethics as a people. Should we not be allowed to control what face is presented to the rest of the world? Or should we just let a few unelected agents represent us instead?

Anonymous Coward says:

Defense secrets should be kept secret

I strongly disagree with the idea that classified defense documents should be released; what they release also harms other nations. Not just USA! I think WikiLeaks is playing a very dangerous game. I’m not an old fart of the cold war era, but I am aware that ‘people with an intent to harm’ are also watching. People seem to forget that we are being looked at, by very motivated people that look for the weaker spots. They take time to plan an attack. The wrong bits of info released in public jeopardize the defences. Certain stuff needs to be kept behind well closed doors, etc, and only looked at by a group of people with a “need to know”.

someguy says:

Re: Defense secrets should be kept secret

Certain information should only be looked at bya a group of people with a ?need to know?

the people need to know, what is being done with the people’s tax money and what is being decided up there about the people’s future. That is democracy, dont forget it is all built upon the concept of the people ruling themselves.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Celebrity gossip isn’t journalistically meaningful either, but that doesn’t stop MSM from devoting large amounts of time to it every day. I’m not sure where you think you were going with this. Nobody has claimed an equivalence with watergate either.

What we are discussing are the interesting and sometimes disturbing matters illuminated in the cables. Judging by the volume of people weighing in, they find it interesting enough to talk about.

FormerAC (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“while information may want to be free, human beings are usually better off when it’s on a leash”

Typical of government and big business. It’s a secret, you just have to trust us. Like we trusted you on those WMDs in Iraq. Like we trusted you about deregulating financial industries.

Government can’t be trusted and big media is not doing their job as watchdog on the government because they feed from the same trough.

Anonymous Coward says:

Suprised more people don't realize the situation

First of all, a few months ago Wikileaks released an encrypted file simply called “insurance.rsa256” which is ten times the size of the Iraq War logs. It’s already been distributed to thousands of computers across the globe. People are simply waiting for the encryption key to unlock the treasure trove.

In addition, more people should visit the wikileaks site. They’ve only released 1/1000th of the diplomatic cables they have. It’s way too early to say these cables contain nothing of serious note. Not to mention the fact that Wikileaks has already said 50% of the leaks they have are about the private sector. Maybe the insurance file already contains everything they have. Taking out Julian or the Wikileaks organization will do nothing to stop the leaks. It’s futile and a waste of time to even consider the option.

But more to the point, it’s not about what the wikileaks information contains. The demonstration of power is all that’s needed. The message to the elite that they have even less power than they thought. I find it incredibly amusing the trap they’ve fallen into. It was little more than 15 years ago the internet came about. People said in the beginning that internet lines should be public domain and treated like a utility and managed by the government, but free-market greed took over and they made billions. Now they need the internet to survive. They never stopped to think about the consequences, they were too busy making money and now we’ve got them by the balls.

Welcome to the 21st Century old white men, you’re in our world now… and it’s playtime ๐Ÿ™‚

Doable Finance (profile) says:


If America claims to be a democracy, why the big secrecy?

There won’t be Wikileaks if the elected and not-so elected officials
were open to the public who “don’t know nothing about nothing” and because of this God-given characteristic, their “government” is a big secret to them. No see, No hear, No speak. That’s the American public.

Mr. Ben Patrick Johnson (profile) says:

Close, but ...

In most circumstances, as you say, “a better-informed public is not a bad thing.” But that’s not necessarily relevant to the WikiLeaks debate, as much of the information being made public (from what we’ve seen through popular media) is of a different category:

It’s one thing for a journalist or organization to expose specific graft, conflicts of interest, or hypocrisy within government, be it in the purview of elected officials or the “permanent state” described in the Economist piece. It’s a very different thing to publish personal information about aid workers in politically sensitive zones and uncensored diplomatic conversations, some of which amount to playground trash talk.

There is a need for national security, including the protection of both official and off-record information. There’s no small amount of data regarding foreign and domestic affairs that the American public, including you and I, has no business accessing. From how The Economist presents his quote, this seemingly-obvious point appears lost on the Times’ Scott Shane. It’s hard for me to believe Mr. Shane, if pressed, would suggest complete (or in the case of WikiLeaks, broad) transparency as a useful strategy for international stability.

Also, the Economist’s suggestion that unelected American bureaucrats and department workers are “perhaps the most powerful class of people on Earth” is snicker-worthy. The writer might have a different take after visiting the Social Security Administration, one of our military bases, and an American DMV office (assuming his “state” isn’t just federal.)

Finally, there’s the question of potential harm to human life posed by these leaks. Wikileaks suggests the information it’s dumping has been carefully reviewed by attorneys and personal, and sensitive information has been redacted. But we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of documents. Realistically, how much individual examination/vetting could each of these cables and emails have received? While considering this, keep in mind that it’s not just an issue of international embarrassment. Lives are on the line. In fact, this afternoon, our State Department offered protection to aid workers placed in jeopardy by the leaks.

I’ll stop short of calling Wikileaks’ actions terrorism. The situation is sufficiently challenging without the adding hyperbole. What these leaks ultimately amount to is good intentions refashioned into a campaign of intellectual theft and violence–one which thinking people should not condone, and certainly not as a result of one Economist columnist’s fears of an impenetrable American state.

Ben Patrick Johnson
Los Angeles, CA

G Thompson (profile) says:

I couldn’t agree more with this article, and I actually have that encrypted file that “Anonymous Coward, Dec 1st, 2010 @ 11:46am” talks about on my servers, everyone should

Nearly everyone here who has been highly critical of Wikileaks is not only very US-centric, thinks for some reason these sort of leaks are a new thing [go back 10-20yrs guys.. even Fidonet had some major leaks with BBS’s etc], but they are also extremely hypocritical.

If the same type of information was released by say the Usa’s cyber espionage taskforce (think USA hackers working for NSA etc) on Iraq, Iran, or Upper WhateverStan then these people would be over the moon that the “evil regime” has been ousted for its despicable conduct on the world stage.

Another example might be the release of emails by some anonymous source that were found on a legal site that had major ties to the copyright industry. Again these people would fall over themselves in reading them and talking about the evil solicitors and their clients. [Hang on, that actually happened didn’t it. hmmmm]

Stop placing the blame on Wikileaks for failings on the USA’s bureaucratic security, diplomatic ethics, and underhanded dealings and maybe unlawful behaviour. Though do remember that Diplomacy by its very nature EVERYWHERE is to do and say the nastiest things in the nicest way (whilst holding a bigger rock if possible), which is why Diplomatic immunity is such a needed thing.

Alex Carey once said that “The twentieth century has been characterised by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy. “

I think in the 2000’s we can add “State power” alongside “corporate power”, which means the checks and balances that Wikileaks provides (and it is only the first of many more of its ilk that I foresee in the future) is a much needed and required beast!

foowhowhoo says:


over 200k of un-vetted pieces of ongoing diplomatic dialog and analysis used to hash out complex and delicate foreign policy left out the curb like a bunch of trash. yea.. yea.. great idea – no secrets is stupid when you have to maintain ongoing relationships with other countries that just happened to hate each other. The stupid punk that put them out there has no idea of the damage done..

Spiro T. Agnew says:

Foreign Policy requires at least some degree of secrecy in order to be effective. If diplomats can’t communicate frankly amongst themselves without fear of whatever they say being leaked, then the system actually becomes less accountable and less transparent.

Daniel Ellsberg was doing what he thought was right, he was a patriot. Julian Assange is a criminal.

Kevin (profile) says:

Information is a good thing providing people are given all of it, and when all of what is given is able to be understood for what it is. However it’s not for any John Q Public to decided for the rest of us what should be known or not known. Unless he himself is placed in that position by lawful appointment, and understand all of what?s going on behind the scenes. Until this happens the public role should only be on a “need to know basis” in matters of National security.

However “John” does the right to run his mouth recklessly to a point and have his own opinions without taking an oath. That’s why he elects people to office, pays taxes to hire police officers, and fire fighters, and goes to the doctor when he’s ill. He also damn well better understand that secrets need to be kept when his country sends troops to war as well. Each one of these professions I’ve mentioned has issues of secrecy and confidentiality to respect and is sworn to an oath.

The way I see it, the only thing here that isn’t ok is mob rule, and this is exactly what it seems Wikileaks is advocating by the unregulated release of sensitive information. There has to be some sense of responsibility in place for the repercussions for such an act on the part of the person releasing the info.

What good does it serve for someone to expose one or two problems only to create 20 or 30 more? Maybe their initial goal in the first place is to create chaos. What a great way to get a pack of dogs fighting than to throw a bit of red meat into their midst. Hitler knew this, so did Stalin, Lenin, and Mao. Hell, all people manipulating for power in some way shape or form do.

Human nature being what human nature is mandates some regulation in the dissemination of information be in place. Incidentally,this is a Republic, meaning “Rule of Law” not a Democracy. Not once in any of the founding documents of this country is the word Democracy used. This is a word that has far too often been misused to define our form of government, more often then not by people who advocate Socialism. We may use the concept of Democracy to elect our officials, but the law is the law, and any changes to the laws must be acted upon by the officials that we elect. Remember, a lynch mob is a form of a Democracy too.

Karl says:

document disclosure

What disturbs me the most is that NASA and the Government has for decades lied about the 5 mile high towers and ruins of buildings on the moon, photographs of these towers and ruins have been airbrushed over by NASA, 1000’3 of photos have been altered so we the tax paying public have been lied to and continue to this day about alien bases on the moon and mars. the time that these document’s has arrived we must know the truth.

pajalnik (user link) says:

Bullshit. Anyone who says that there is NEVEr a good reason to keep secrets in this day and agbe (in ANY point in time in civilized history) is a fucking idiot. And this asshole does not discriminate between what secrets SHOULD be revealed and what are legitimate state secrets. Of course he doesn’t, since he is in it just for the money. So he doen’t care that he releases secrets that could very well get innocent people killed

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