How The Response To Wikileaks Is Exactly What Assange Wants

from the action/reaction dept

In the wake of all the fuss over Wikileaks, there’s been a lot of talk from critics of the site that its founder, Julian Assange, has some sort of anti-American focus. Not only does this seem unlikely given his previous activities, he’s also made it clear that he soon plans to release secret documents from both China and Russia, which he feels are both in need of significant reform. As for his general motivations, some have also assumed that he’s got some sort of general anti-government views, but that also does not appear to be the case. A few folks have sent over this absolutely fascinating and completely worthwhile read about Assange’s general views on governments and secrecy, and it’s a hell of a lot more nuanced than most people assume.

The basic point is not to necessarily expose any specifically damaging information (and many have argued that nothing all that surprising has been exposed in this latest dump), but to reduce the ability of governments to communicate secretly — because when you allow widespread communication by governments in secret, “conspiracies” form. That word is quite loaded, so I’m not sure it’s really the best word to use. Perhaps a better way of thinking about it is that if larger groups within the government feel that they can act without oversight, they are much more likely to do things they would never do with oversight. By regularly leaking information — even banal information — the response is to clamp down on information sharing within the government. And, in fact, that’s exactly what the federal government is doing.

In many ways, this is similar to what we were just discussing concerning how the US response to terrorism was exactly what Al Qaeda planned, it appears the US’s response to Wikileaks is also exactly what Assange planned. The goal isn’t to expose all secrets or anything like that — but to reduce the ability of cabals of secrecy to form within governments, within which questionable plans might result.

The leak, in other words, is only the catalyst for the desired counter-overreaction; Wikileaks wants to provoke the conspiracy into turning off its own brain in response to the threat. As it tries to plug its own holes and find the leakers, he reasons, its component elements will de-synchronize from and turn against each other, de-link from the central processing network, and come undone. Even if all the elements of the conspiracy still exist, in this sense, depriving themselves of a vigorous flow of information to connect them all together as a conspiracy prevents them from acting as a conspiracy.

In both of these stories, it shows how a system based on centralization responds to a (very, very different) distributed threat. And, in both cases, the expected (and almost inevitable) response seems to play directly into the plans of those behind the threat. In a way, it’s quite fascinating. Of course, in the case of terrorism, it’s frustrating, because the response only serves to further harm the country and its people. But with a situation like Wikileaks, it’s potentially quite a good thing. As noted, these kinds of leaks can help us have a better, less corrupt government that is more responsive to the people it actually represents.

And this is why some are so reasonably frustrated by the overreaction by Wikileaks critics — the folks who have thrived from a lack of oversight in the government, including many in the press. And part of this is the realization that much of what has been revealed shouldn’t be confidential at all, and that’s where the trouble comes in. Glenn Greenwald points out:

It is a “scandal” when the Government conceals things it is doing without any legitimate basis for that secrecy. Each and every document that is revealed by WikiLeaks which has been improperly classified — whether because it’s innocuous or because it is designed to hide wrongdoing — is itself an improper act, a serious abuse of government secrecy powers. Because we’re supposed to have an open government — a democracy — everything the Government does is presumptively public, and can be legitimately concealed only with compelling justifications. That’s not just some lofty, abstract theory; it’s central to having anything resembling “consent of the governed.”

Greenwald is dead on, but Assange’s point is to take that even a level deeper. It’s not just about improper acts and defaulting to being secret when the information does not warrant it. It’s about how within that secrecy, government actors are enabled to act without oversight. The very knowledge that they can get away with things without oversight creates temptations that are often too great to pass up. And that’s where corruption comes from. I don’t buy most crazy conspiracy theories, concerning government actors — most of which are imaginative, but have little basis in fact. But there is no doubt that there is a tremendous level of straight corruption going on and that is massively enabled by such secrecy. And while it’s probably true that the overall system of corruption is much more resilient than Assange believes, it may be too early to tell whether or not these efforts do move the ball in any meaningful way.

As for the idea that revealing these documents is somehow damaging to diplomacy, even that seems to be in question. Matthew Yglesias reasonably points out that such transparency can actually enable much greater diplomacy by making it clear when countries are actually living up to their stated promises. One of the lessons you learn in basic negotiations is that, while there may be value in holding back certain information, quite often the absolute best negotiated results for all parties comes out of negotiations where the parties accurately lay their cards on the table. This keeps hidden agendas out of the way and allows for more frank and open discussions. Of course, this is all centered on a belief that negotiations are a non-zero sum game. That might not always be the case. But the level of secrecy we have today seems to presume that all negotiations are a zero sum game, and that’s absolutely not true.

Whether or not you agree with Assange or the entire concept of Wikileaks (and, like many others, I have some ambivalence about the operation itself), it is important to understand the deeper level of what’s going on here. It’s what happens when a centralized system, based on locking up information and creating artificial barriers, runs smack into a decentralized, open system, built around sharing. For those who are trying to understand why this whole story reminds me of what’s happened in the entertainment industry over the past decade, note the similarities. It’s why I’ve been saying for years that the reason I’ve spent so much time discussing the music industry is because it was an early warning sign of the types of challenges that were going to face almost every centralized industry or organization out there. That included all sorts of other industries, but it also includes governments.

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Comments on “How The Response To Wikileaks Is Exactly What Assange Wants”

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iamtheky (profile) says:

So exposing and shutting down a bunch of channels by which media is distributed works in this case? Why not use the same logic used for file sharers and realize that this will just force it further underground, likewise, greater penalties will be proposed for those attempting to gain unauthorized access to the new bunkers. They had no intention of operating in the open, and will probably maintain as such.

“but to reduce the ability of cabals of secrecy to form within governments”

So by exposing these flaws in the ways documents are disseminated, they have forced the state dept. to, for the interim, use disconnected means and self destructing messages.

Not anything near as grand as stopping secret government conspiracies.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

So exposing and shutting down a bunch of channels by which media is distributed works in this case? Why not use the same logic used for file sharers and realize that this will just force it further underground, likewise, greater penalties will be proposed for those attempting to gain unauthorized access to the new bunkers. They had no intention of operating in the open, and will probably maintain as such.

Different situations here. With file sharing, finding the networks is never an issue. In fact, most of them will openly promote themselves (if you look in the right places.

What “file sharing going underground” usually means is that points of failure are removed, and the costs of examination and investigations are increased. The content of transfers is still ridiculously easy to get, but that’s not what the “enemy” is interested in.

With government information channels, the issue isn’t “people getting into new bunkers”, it’s that the people inside the bunkers choose to talk. That failure point will remain no matter how deep you go.

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

Re: Freedom?

The phenomenon you’re describing is “lead a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it.” Better known as ‘brain-washing’ or indoctrination.

Citizens in most countries are indoctrinated into an unthinking type of patriotism which essentially boils down to “your country, and by extension your country’s government, is always looking out for your best interests and therefore always correct. Anybody challenging this is wrong.”

It is a failure of education, leading to a failure in one’s ability to reason, which causes this.

So, yes, I agree. People who have been brain-washed into being thoughtless drones will panic at the prospect of having actual freedom.

In fact, your statement echoes some of the arguments made before the ’emancipation proclamation.’ Things like: “they wouldn’t know how to care for themselves” and “they’re better off as slaves.”

Do you believe some people are better off as slaves?

Anonymous Coward says:

So the govt. shuts down its information sharing? That is a good thing? Didn’t the 911 commission fault lack of information sharing?

The sad thing is that Wikileaks will never get ahold of any real good stuff because the people that do those things know that you don’t put anything you want to remain secret on paper, on email, on voice mail or any other place where it could be stored.

Alex Bowles (profile) says:

Re: Re:

That’s Assange’s goal in a nutshell. He thinks that it’s impossible to remain effective if you’re competing with organizations that – because they’re essentially fearless and just – can also be quite open, allowing them full access to a range of useful and efficient communications channels.

Meanwhile, ShadyOrg – which has become increasingly paranoid, and focused on everyone’s junk – can only communicate via Secret Decoder Rings and tame pigeons. Over time, asymmetry in access to communication platforms favors the just, while imposing a major tax on the unjust.

In his view, what you call “good stuff” is really bad stuff, and the weaker the communications are among the people who traffic in it, the better off the rest of humanity will be.

That’s the theory, anyway.

A Real American says:

The Turth Will Set You Free

“The truth will set you free.”
Unless you are evil, then it will just terrorize you.

?Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops.”

–Jesus, in Luke 12:1-3

pringerX (profile) says:

Evidence please :)

But there is no doubt that there is a tremendous level of straight corruption going on and that is massively enabled by such secrecy.

I love Techdirt and the intelligent commenting community it has built, so it would be nice to see someone cite some specific examples from within the WikiLeaks documents. I know Techdirt generally practices what it preaches, so I’m confident this will be addressed. I don’t doubt there is corruption like this, but it’d be nice to have examples to point to.

pringerX (profile) says:

Re: Re: Evidence please :)

@ The eejit:
General examples are a dime a dozen, what I’m looking for are examples from the Wikileak release. For example, an email from a senator or diplomat discussing ACTA that has a derisive tone toward file-sharers or the tech community, or a senator on the Judiciary Committee mentioning having a cushy job from the RIAA lined up. This is the sort of thing the article is referring to: secrecy that enables these individuals to boldly discuss things that would not have happened if such proceedings were public.

@Dark Helmet
Yup, exactly something like this. =)

Roger says:

When the US government “clamps down” on secret communications, that doesn’t mean that the communications stop. Nor do they become any less secret. The access to the info becomes more difficult, and the channels of communication more secure. I don’t think Assange’s strategy was to get the US to “clamp down,” but rather to further some distorted vision of “freedom of speech,” “public access,” or “accountability.” Seems to me that he failed.

Chris M. says:


PFC Manning stole material. It’s that simple. He needs to be charged accordingly, and from the military end of things, let’s try him for treason. Assange? The guy received that which was stolen , hence he’s an accessory after the fact. Assange is every bit as guilty as Manning. Anyone else who uses/publishes the stolen material? They need to be dealt with for receiving that which Manning stole. This ain’t exactly rocket science. The thieves need to be charged with theft as do the accessories.

Anonymous Coward says:

CNN, The New York Times, the WSJ and every other media outlet in the world too.

So far I have not read anything that is unexpected, people thought the Russian leader was an “alpha dog?” Really? People near Iran are concerned with them getting a nuke? Wow, mind blowing. Even going back to the video of the death of the reporter via chopper machine guns, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that if you hang out with terrorists with helicopters in the area, you might just want to move away from them.

The only real problem I have is when sources were named in the initial release. Leaving their names in the documents was an invitation to get a visit from your local Taliban funguy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The only real problem I have is when sources were named in the initial release. Leaving their names in the documents was an invitation to get a visit from your local Taliban funguy.

Wikileaks offered to let the gov’t redact sensitive names before release. They refused to do so, so your “problem” is misdirected.

Anonymous Coward says:

Assange himself said that he would have deleted the names of informers if he had the manpower, he even asked our govt. to go through the documents prior to publican but our govt. refused.

As for charging Cheney, that isn’t possible. The govt. decides what gets classified and what doesn’t, if the people in charge decide that something shouldn’t be classified, well then I guess it isn’t classified. Cheney had the right to make that decision, some demoted private doesn’t have that right.

You could try to say that Cheney should have been charged but that won’t get you too far.

Wikileaks fate? I can’t wait to read what they have on banks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Gilroy, you won’t see the “important” stuff swamped because you won’t ever see the important stuff in a place like Wikileaks.

What has been released so far? That we were torturing people? Yeah, we knew that. That other countries didn’t want to take Gitmo Bay prisoners? Knew that. That a reporter was offed by US troops? Well, we had not seen the video prior to he leaks, but we knew that. That sometimes our state dept. has problems with other countries?

What important thing has been reported? What will be reported? That BoA (or some other bank) has been gaming the system? Knew that too.

Wikileaks may tell us about the stupid people that do stupid things, it won’t tell us the things that the guys in the dark room in basements are planning or doing.

Troll-bait says:

Complaining about leaks

All this fooraw reminds me of the common comment from every jackass that pops up every time another Constituitional Right is raped by the government…
funny thing is, this time, IT WORKS:

“What are you afraid of… you don’t have anything to hide, do you?”

Came up when illegal wiretap was the flavor of the day,
came up for Gestappo-tactics of “Papers-checking”,
comes up for every complaint about TSA/”Motherland” Security, etc.

P.M.Lawrence (user link) says:


One problematic area is the significance of meta-information, information about information. This can be used to get meaningful information just by looking at the gaps in information that it is safe to release in itself, the way you can see the outline of a dartboard on a wall after taking it down just from the pattern of where the darts did not hit the wall. For instance, if there had been an unimportant Brooklyn Project, Bronx Project, Queens Project, and so on, along with the Manhattan Project, then simply declassifying each of the unimportant ones because it was unimportant in itself would have highlighted the fact that the Manhattan Project was worth a closer look – quite serious information. In real life, that was why Britain censored a lot of apparently irrelevant material in letters from factory workers in the Second World War, which made the workers think the censors were being petty and ignorant; but if they had not done that, the pattern of gaps in the chatter – the higher levels of censorship of letters from munitions workers, and so on – would have highlighted regions with military targets worth the Germans’ while prioritising for bombing, even though they still wouldn’t have known just what was there.

So it is still important to conceal pieces of information that are each unimportant individually.

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