I was working on a piece about WikiLeaks, when I found this cogent comment, related to the recent U.S. State department leaks (Cablegate).
The first question should be: Do you believe governments have the right and/or responsibility to keep certain types of information secret or private. This might include military information, diplomatic information, medical records, etc.
If you answer this question “Yes”, as I expect most people would — the argument shifts from WHETHER the government has the right to preclude information from being leaked and made public to WHAT TYPES of information and WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES to which this should apply. Then you get to the question of whether wikileaks fits those circumstances, but you’ve acknolwedged [sic] government’s right and responsibility to keep SOME things secret.
It’s a good point and its opposite is also true: it’s the job a free press to push to reveal more about what’s going on than a government wants. Governments tend to protect information, and media tends to want to reveal it. This is an old line of tension with a messy history, with no simple answer. The balance between both forces is what matters, rather than one dominating the other. There is no utopia at either end of the spectrum, only a tenuous and ever-shifting balance somewhere in the middle.
There are many examples of progress being driven by leaks. The Pentagon papers changed our perception of the Vietnam war, for example, and its publishers were tried, and dismissed, under the 1917 Espionage act. But clearly we do not want everything public. Some things like the passwords to the Federal governments social security computers, terrorism on U.S. soil response plans, or the combinations to the locks on the vaults at the Federal Reserve, should be excluded from the public domain.
Everyone seems to think they know what the right balance is, which is insane – there is no way to be certain, which is why the tension between transparency and opacity is paramount.
There are three checkpoints that define the balance:
- What government leaders decide to disclose, both to the public, and within the government itself.
- The person inside an organization considering leaking something, who compares the pain their “disloyalty” to their organization will cause themselves and others in making the leak, against the possible long term greater good (See Whistleblower)
- The journalist receiving the leak who, using their professional judgment, discerns on their own, or through discourse with representatives from the organization the leak is from, what the true greater good is and what should be withheld from the public and for how long (e.g. See NYT’s explanation of its coverage of Cablegate)
WikiLeaks does make journalistic claims, but they separate themselves from the rest of the media world, staking a claim that #2 isn’t porous enough. They have placed themselves on the far left, shifting the playing field towards transparency. Existing media suddenly looks more moderate to governments, and even if Wikileaks is ignored in the future, the landscape shifts – I’m assuming this is their hope.
My key take so far: It’s not progress or regression that’s happened, so much as a disturbance. How governments and other media respond over the next weeks and months will define whether this is a step forward or backward. It’s an opportunity for change, and a forcing function for reconsideration, but so far not much more.
In summary, it’s no surprise that:
- WikiLeaks released these documents – there’s a long tradition and in each case it was messy, confusing and painful. Someone can be committing a crime and making progress at the same time. It’s impossible to sort out in the moment, especially when a single leak has 250,000+ documents.
- The U.S. and other governments are pissed and calling it a crime and Assange a terrorist. That’s part of their job. If they publicly applauded the unauthorized release of confidential documents, they should be fired.
- Internal communications of any organization will always contain harsh criticisms of other organizations, including allies. It’d be more disturbing if every cable said “We love everyone, especially you”, they’d either be phony cables, or proof the entire U.S. government had been lobotomized.
- We hear about distractions like Julian Assange’s prosecution for unrelated charges. His personal behavior is mostly irrelevant to Wikileaks, free press vs. government control, and the idea of transparency.
What’s your opinion? Do you know for certain that this is for good or for bad? How do you know? Or more importantly, what am I missing?