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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  1. identicon
    guess again, 3 Dec 2010 @ 6:25am

    Re: WikiThieves

    You are dead wrong, go read about the Pentagon Papers.

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