In Praise of WikiLeaks

With any luck, the public will soon have access to 250,000 leaked diplomatic cables: these, out of an estimated 2.8 million to be released. It almost seems superfluous to say that the historical impact of past, present and future document dumps will take forever to be understood. (It also remains to be seen how much WikiLeaks will be able to release of even its current stash, given the ongoing attacks from governments.) But the political effects happen, as do all things these days, instantly. The issue now becomes who controls the danger. The people who usually do—the very secret-keeping elites that WikiLeaks is targeting—are attempting to neutralize and chill public discussion, going so far as to say that the public has no place in the discussion. The debate over the politics of WikiLeaks is principally being held among professional journalists, who have shifted momentarily from a position of lugubrious self-pity to lauding themselves as mediators of information, and among threatened diplomats (their lucubrations published by those same journalists), whose panegyrics to the secret handshakes, butt-slaps, and air-kisses of State Department dealmaking are among the more grotesque products of the current discourse on transparency. Missing entirely from the talk is the public, whom diplomacy and the wars principally affect; whose now exposed government this continues to be; whose ability to change matters remains undiminished and has perhaps been enhanced.

Newspaper journalism of the secret-exposing kind suffered a tremendous blow during the lead-up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when journalists accepted the Bush Administration’s case for the wars uncritically and were thus crucial in fomenting public support. Even more disturbing was the decision by the New York Times—characteristic in those years—to hold a story on NSA wiretapping for over a year, due to misplaced concerns over national security. The defection of uncountable readers to alternate sources of information can be at least partly ascribed to this catastrophic failure of mainstream journalism. Daily newspapers renewed importance derives from their capacity to sift through and summarize the revelations of the field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan and now the American diplomatic cables. An unsigned editorial from Le Monde, titled, “WikiLeaks, the myth of transparency,” plausibly suggests, in the sonorous tone of the elitist, that the unmediated access promised by Web 2.0 remains a feint; that the “role of the journalist as an intermediary between sources and the public will be reinforced” by the document dump. The editors of Le Monde and their comrades at other newspapers are right about their indispensability, although they have a grossly inflated estimate of their capabilities, which points to the cost of relying on so few sources of media: who can tell, out of thousands of cables, what the newspapers choose to focus on, and what they choose—out of exhaustion, self-interest, or years of self-deception—to ignore?

The alarm of diplomats and their toadies in the press remains the more distasteful spectacle. Besides Anne Applebaum’s drearily contrarian piece at Slate arguing that the WikiLeaks cables contain no revelations and will actually push governments towards more secrecy, we now have Paul W. Schroeder, an emeritus professor from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, writing in Thursday’s Times that only “targeted” leaks from administrators and officials are responsible; those by WikiLeaks’ “irresponsible amateurs” will “badly damage America’s diplomatic machinery, processes and reputation.” He even implies that the immortal Daniel Ellsberg did wrong in leaking the Pentagon Papers (which were notably more confidential than anything obtained by WikiLeaks), since two confirmed criminal madmen, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, “cut off all but their inner circle of advisers after the Pentagon Papers were published.” Holding Ellsberg responsible for Watergate might be as reprehensible as the hotel break-in itself; Schroeder’s sympathies clearly lie not with the courageous people who expose the truth, but with those who, in concealing it, completely transform it. “Except in special instances,” Schroeder writes, “confidential communications ought to be released only after passions have settled and scholars can examine the records in fuller context.” This disgraceful bit of rhetoric suggests that international relations are of legitimate value to only two groups: foreign service lackeys appointed by the executive branch, and conservative tenured professors (some of them fresh off their State Department service). Anyone curious about holding elected officials accountable, he suggests, will have to wait for a university press book published several centuries after the fact. (His own claims about the dangerous history of open diplomacy should make us suspect his acumen. “After a series of debilitating leaks,” he writes, “the leaders of the four primary victors [of World War I] — Britain, France, Italy and the United States — abandoned their policy of open diplomacy and went into closed sessions. Only then were they able to navigate the difficult details of the Treaty of Versailles and reach a final, if relatively short-lived, peace.” Look closely at that risibly set-off, almost parenthetical appositive, “relatively short lived,” before declaring the Treaty of Versailles to be a laudable accomplishment of closed-door diplomacy.)


The question facing the disinterested public now is not whether to buy more newspapers or to reaffirm the role of secrets, but rather to decide what can be freely done with the information available. With a trove of documents so vast, even a giant assemblage of paid readers cannot do what, say, a computer program designed to do quantitative stylistic and semantic field analysis could do. Such a program is something that WikiLeaks itself should consider developing, or perhaps prodding other programmers to create. The urgency comes from the fact that the professional readers thus far, too obsessed with the private statements of maladroit diplomats or the everywhere-visible graft in the Afghan government, have routinely failed to point out some of the most valuable revelations in the documents. Robert Naiman, writing for Truthout.org, reported on a cable that neither the Guardian, Le Monde, nor the Times has pointed to. Naiman noted that in the case of the June 28, 2009 military coup in Honduras, the US Embassy in Honduras filed a diplomatic cable (sent to the White House and Secretary Clinton) that claimed the arrest and expulsion of President Manuel Zelaya were obviously and unequivocally illegal actions. Yet a month later, the US was declaring to the press that events on the ground were mysterious,  unknowable, before proceeding to recognize illegal elections and support the coup government. Undoubtedly, Naiman indicates, this cable would have been more valuable to the public when it was composed, so that the debate over the nature of the coup regime could have been clarified.

Meanwhile, President Obama, elected on grandiose promises of transparency, has brought more prosecutions against leaks than all the previous presidents combined. Confronted from day one with all the secrets that he could not have known about before taking office—the sublime host of secret money drops and double-agencies, not to mention kidnappings and assassinations, that keep empire running, which the rest of us see only in our nightmares—Obama was offered a choice between openness and secrecy, and decided in favor of the latter. As a result, Obama has had, like all Presidents, to mouth half-truths and, of course, to lie, to himself, and to the rest of us. In this respect, the only change from the sixties is the stilted, faux-deliberate tone he’s developed and the unfortunate habit of starting every sentence with “look,” instead of Lyndon Johnson’s ineffably folksy, snake-oil salesman twang. 

The secrets remain the problem—they convert even honest public servants, newly enthralled with what they’re able to occlude, into sycophants and liars. But having secrets out in the open doesn’t automatically give us politics. In an interview for BBC 4 conducted in 1972, Daniel Ellsberg, speaking about a very different and yet crushingly similar time, stared into the abyss of what would happen if the revelations of the Pentagon Papers were not taken seriously:

I gave up my job, my career, my clearance, and I staked my freedom on a gamble: If the American people knew the truth about how they had been lied to, about the myths that had led them to endorse this butchery for 25 years, that they would choose against it. And the risk that you take when you do that, is that you’ll learn something ultimately about your fellow citizens that you won’t like to hear. And that is that they hear it, they learn from it, they understand it, and they proceed to ignore it.

The mistakes made then—to re-elect Richard Nixon, to push on with the war and the bombing, to allow more governments to hold their secrets and lurk in the shadows—are not ones that we can afford to make. Let’s remember that information is not yet knowledge—it’s only the object of knowledge. Information sits mute, inert, intransigent, until we begin to imagine better and to ask the right questions. The WikiLeaks documents offer us another opportunity to consider what kind of government, what kind of politics, we have, and to imagine what kind, if any, we would want instead. —NS

Image: Daniel Ellsberg. From reason.com.

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