WikiLeaks Considered

I was working on a piece about WikiLeaks, when I found this cogent comment, related to the recent U.S. State department leaks (Cablegate).

Vince Kuratis wrote on a TechCrunch piece about WL:

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:

  1. What government leaders decide to disclose, both to the public, and within the government itself.
  2. 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)
  3. 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?

16 Responses to “WikiLeaks Considered”

  1. Jared

    My only comment is that WikkiLeaks seems to focus only on transparency for the US while using other countries to hide behind. If their mission statement was true for transparency of all governments then we should see them pursuing a lot more information from other governments around the world.

    But, that won’t happen. WikkiLeaks knows that the U.S. is the easiest target as we’re the least likely to do anything drastic on the international stage. However, I’d love to see what would happen if WikkiLeaks were to publish the equivalent documents from a country like Russia.

    All the posturing and frenzy of this case is all over stuff that isn’t surprising from a country that everyone loves to poke at because we are big, loud, powerful and mostly benign (as long as you don’t punch us). WikkiLeaks could show some real courage and principle by applying their philosophy globally.

    Here is my guarantee: This will not happen.

    Until it does, WikkiLeaks is just another unprincipled hipster trying to make it look like they’re doing something grand when in reality they’re just being annoying.

  2. AndyMcA

    Scott – hard to say. I’m actually very torn on this. One hand, I think that organizations like WikiLeaks and people like Assange have to exist to keep that balance. Right now, I feel like we need more WikiLeaks than ever — there’s a lot of back-dealing, a lot of fear, and a lot of very anxious, anxious people and not a lot of support coming from the government that’s not empty words.

    I’m reminded of the saying [paraphrased]: A people should not be afraid of their government, a government should be afraid of their people.

    But when we have US pundits not only condemning, but calling for the assassination of Assange – there’s something not right with that situation. I’m one of those people I’m naturally distrustful of anyone in a position of authority, and assume corruption until (repeatedly) proven otherwise. But these fear tactics have me concerned — basically saying “Do something we don’t like, we’ll call for your execution.”

    With the actions of Anonymous further escalating the matter (and not in a bad way), this whole situation is making me nervous. I saw on Twitter this situation referred to WWWW1 – World Wide Web War 1 — not the best acronym but I feel like this is going to be a pivotal moment for the internet and freedom of information in a lot of ways.

  3. Scott Berkun


    I think an org can be both an “unprincipled hipster” and do something grand, even if it’s collateral. Many people, myself included, were provoked to dig into the law and the history because of this, and that’s a good thing.

    I also wouldn’t call them unprincipled. Like PETA or any extreme group, they believe that by acting on an extreme they shift the balance in a positive direction. They may not have respect for existing systems and that makes them arrogant, but that’s not the same as being an anarchist or principle-free agent.

  4. Scott Berkun


    Cages were rattled. People with public images who have never been violated in this way before are a bit stunned, and their natural answer is to say things that make it seem like they have more power than they do. Some, but not all, of it is posturing and pandering. It’s sad, and in some cases disgraceful, but none of these people have the power to match their rhetoric.

    I’m not worried at all. Feathers have been ruffled.

  5. Sean Stapleton

    Strange though it may seem, I find myself more concerned about the diplomatic cables release than that of the ‘war documents’. I have an inherent skepticism about government’s tendency to be over-secretive with information, especially when it relates to mistakes and scandals (a form of CYA).

    As you indicate, organizations are more harshly critical of others in their internal discussions than in their external ones. I think this is critical for our own government’s foreign policy debates. I buy the core argument that the wikileaks release damages the quality of that internal debate. There is no question that almost *all* of these cables should be released in time, but a few years is probably too soon for many.

    Fundamentally though, I think the debate is outstanding – complacency is rarely positive.

  6. Dan Blaker

    Pundits can say whatever stupid stuff they want. It’s free speech, and they can be held accountable for their idiocy.

    The government can try to crack down on WikiLeaks. As you mention, it’s their job, and they can be held accountable (next election cycle) for their bumbling attempts to put the genie back in the bottle.

    Assange’s accusers are free to bring rape charges against him. It’s ironic that Assange is in jail due to two women sharing his personal secrets with each other; but those women can be held accountable in the courts of Sweden.

    News organizations can be held accountable; Bradley Manning can be held accountable.

    The only actor in all of this who cannot be held accountable is WikiLeaks. They do whatever they want, with zero accountability.

    If you support what WikiLeaks is doing to US diplomats, would you support them doing it to you and your co-workers? If WikiLeaks thinks you’re evil, they’ll leak your business. Even if you didn’t support it, there’s absolutely nothing you could do about it.

  7. Divya

    I wish Wikileaks would do to France/UK/Germany/China/India what it has done to the US. I hope they get enough funds to do so.

    Also, what Wikileaks has revealed is not something that is a secret among those in the foreign service (you could hardly think UK or German diplomats would think different from US ones on their private opinions of Gaddafi or Mugabe), but it is that finally everyone outside of that circle knows about it.

    I also think Wikileaks is like the biggest publicity win for the cult of geeks (Assange’s rape accusations not withstanding).

  8. Giselle

    I believe Wikileaks (or similar systems) ‘may’ cause damage in short-term, but in the long-term it’s the only hope for transparency and Clean Politics!

    And Clean Politics is necessary for reaching Sustainable Peace in the world!

    Currently the politicians are not doing good job at all because we’re facing wars and poverty all around the world! So let us see what’s really going on!

  9. Sean Crawford

    i am annoyed. In management the final step of a project is to evaluate. I don’t trust Wiki to evaluate if they did more harm than good. Say, I haven’t read any news about the good.

    If I don’t want the government to wiretap and leak my life then I should not leak the government.

    Back in the old county we said “People who listen at windows seldom hear good news.” Unfortunately, this proverb would be no consolation if I accidentally listened to a leak about myself. i am not super mature- just human. To paraphrase Star Trek’s prime directive, a planet should not be given the power to mind read, or leak, until they have proven themselves.

    In Canada (but maybe not the US) journalist ethics are clear: Information is not to be obtained by deceit. You must identify yourself as a reporter before you ask. To do otherwise is not just unethical but to me is undignified.

    in the newsroom it is rude to look over my shoulder at my typewriter or computer screen until I hit the print button. That’s because I’m still thinking and I reserve the right to change my mind. Related is the thought that I should not be accountable for what i say in a bar. That’s because, in part, I might be BS-ing, or thinking by hearing myself. (I suspect photo cameras, although “true” are not allowed in the bar) What I say to you in a cable is not what I might be ready to say in public- so please don’t leak.

    If I was a reporter then rather than play tennis without a net I would instead use good old fashioned leg work and the Freedom (Access to) of Information law.

  10. Kylie

    Julian Assange actually appeared at TED earlier this year and spoke with Chris Anderson about “Why the world needs Wikileaks”, which I found to be an extremely interesting conversation, especially the discussion on Sweden in hindsight.

    Being ex-military and still working in Government I do have a few concerns about some of the leaks and whether they are given enough prior analysis to ensure that they will not compromise the safety of military personnel, and other government employees – 250,000+ in one release gives me grave doubts about that.

    However, on the whole I actually think that Scott makes a very valid point about this being a disturbance that will have an impact on how things are done into the future. Wikileaks is likely to stop at some stage – hopefully not around all of the contentious prosecution (persecution) that Julian Assange is facing himself. I think that it is an important activity that will hopefully drive a greater transparency in government, and make some of the people sitting inside it more thoughtful and considered in their decision making processes.

    Being Australian I will add that I am extremely disappointed with our government about Julian Assange’s prosecution and some of the statements being made – especially by the Prime Minister. Whether they agree with Wikileaks or not it doesn’t remove any of his legal rights, like the presumption of innocence.

  11. Maarten

    Scott, you make good points and find (IMO) better balance than much of the writing about Wikileaks.

    I’d add two things:

    1. Much of the coverage keeps saying incorrectly that all 250,000 cables have been dumped into the public sphere. That’s not the case. As of now, about 1,000 cables are public, most of them chosen and redacted by the newspapers covering this, and co-published on the Wikileaks site. I think this is a crucial point–it makes it really hard to claim that Wikileaks are being indiscriminate or that they’re all that different from the NYTimes.

    2. There’s a freedom of speech angle to this that’s pretty deep. You’ve probably seen the references to Clinton’s speech made in the context of China’s online attack against Google. Beyond the question of government action (pressure on Paypal etc.), there’s the question what we can expect from corporations that control key infrastructure–e.g. payment processing and high-end hosting that can withstand attack. Do we expect these companies to resist pressure to shut down some speech? Under what conditions? Do we expect Google to stand up to the Chinese government but Amazon to cave to the U.S. government? When is it OK to shut down a site for illegal behavior–when the company deems it “clearly illegal”, when the DoJ has deemed it illegal, or do we rely on a court? Is evaluating material as child porn and deleting it different from deleting stolen state secrets? Etc.

    I highly recommend Clay Shirky’s post.

  12. payam

    I guarantee you that we will see less transparency in the future. The government has already issued tighter criteria for giving security clearances. Starting in 2011, security clearance investigation procedure will get tougher and less people will be able to obtain one. It will be much harder to have hands on classified information. The release of information in the format that WikiLeaks has done is utterly irresponsible. We will see the consequences in near future.

  13. Eamon Nerbonne

    I think you’re framing the question in a misleading fashion. By portraying the ideal as a shade of grey between two extremes, and elaborating both as equals, you suggest they *are* equals. They are not.

    Essentially, the government is in an extremely position of power and does not, in general, deserve the right to secrecy – unless there is a verifiable reason for it. For some documents, there seems to be a case for secrecy, and your argument that this is just a matter of perspective makes sense. For all too many others, however, the only reasonable explanation for the secrecy seems to be that of a coverup: things that should never have occured were documented and then those documents classified. There’s no shade of grey here; the government should never have classified these things in the first place: an audit should have been made public and those responsible fired (and possibly charged with the appropriate crime).

    Clearly, some data must not be shared such as – in your example – passwords. Such information is worth hiding because it has no intrinsic value, yet can pose a security risk. So far, despite ridiculously overblown rhetoric, the information released by wikileaks seems largely harmless. How many cries have you heard that somehow this will lead to terrorist attacks – without *any* reference to a specific example, or indeed even a general explanation of how the information is harmful? Yet it contains a multitude of examples of unethical behavior – and I’m not talking about amusingly frank but ultimately harmless assessments about the vanity of the French President, I’m talking about actions that should never have occurred in the first place.

    It’s hypocritical *in the extreme* to hear of a government officer accusing wikileaks of espionage and/or treason for revealing documents clearly demonstrating espionage by the very same (such as the espionage at UN diplomats). You say you expect the government to attempt to shift the blame and call assange a criminal and a terrorist; that’s not reasonable: I expect an analysis of the contents and for the government to use that to serve their country first before reacting out of anger. I don’t find punishing others for your own mistakes acceptable behavior in any way.

    For perspective on the potential damage being done, take for instance Shell: they’ve recently been fined *by the US government* to the tune of 48 billion dollars for (essentially) encouraging corruption (this time of Nigerian government officials). With that perspective, the wikileaks revelation that Shell claims to have bought officials not just incidentally, but systematically and at all levels of government is *at least* as damaging. This kind of behavior costs real money; make the marketplace less efficient, and is thoroughly unethical to boot.

    Fundamentally: we don’t elect wikileaks. We do elect the government, and should hold them responsible for their actions. Looking at various countries’ governments, if one thing is clear, it’s that corruption is a *very* serious problem – far more serious that a temporary blow to the national ego. And for that reason, despite the ongoing revelations, in the long term this leak is likely to benefit the US.

    Wikileaks has in the past released documents about the other countries. Rather that hope they focus on others soon, let’s appreciate the free policing they’re offering.

    Just because it makes sense for CEO’s to commit fraud for their own benefit doesn’t mean we need to *accept* that. Similarly, just some people in the government felt it was OK to break the law, or for the DOD to lie to the American public, doesn’t mean we need to *accept* that. People do what they can get away with: clear, enforceable *and enforced* rules help keep the playing field level. Rules that can’t be enforced might as well not exist; transparency (by default) is one step in the right direction.

    Crying “war” is a great way for a government to gather support. We shouldn’t let the accused get away with hiding behind the notion of patriotism. Whatever damage the average US populace will suffer as a result of this leak by parties external to the US pales into insignificance compared to the self-inflicted harm this might help us prevent.

    For that reason, I’m particularly hoping for more releases such as those surrounding Shell: corruption at the intersection of government and big business is particularly lucrative and that kind of corruption can cost the US trillions. Preventing it is worth a bit of egg in the face.

    Secondly, I hope the underhanded tactics of the two major US parties gets some well-deserved light. I get the feeling that some actions by democrats and republicans are not intended to serve voters so much as harm the other party, even when doing so would be harmful to society at large – if that’s intentional, that would of course also be completely unacceptable.

  14. Crystal

    The general public has a view that media is media is media. They don’t know the legal and ethical differences between cable news shows and broadcast news shows. They don’t realize that all media is not measured by the same standards. I think Wikileaks is going to establish scale. The far right can no longer say the traditional broadcast media is strictly left because clearly there was further left to travel.

    The Wikileaks situtation brings a much larger question into focus. The question of who is going to write the laws that govern the internet. There is currently no assigned regulating body for the internet, though the FCC is trying, similar to the differences for cable. It is all about the way it is transmitted. The bigger problem is the web is world wide and there is no world wide governing authority or agreeance on laws regarding communications. Eventually some court case is going to have to happen and someone is going to have to be assigned authority, but nobody wants it. That is why government is asking big business to put pressure on Wikileaks. If there was something they could do about it, they would have. If government was truly worried about the content of the leaks then they would also have done something about it. But now they are running a smear campaign that will allow laws to be passed out of fear that will further degrade our rights to information.

    That’s where my thoughts jump off for now.



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