Who Watches the WikiLeakers?

2 12 2010

There’s a whole lot of hubbub about the recent WikiLeaks so-called ‘dump’ (not the term I would use). But the whole escapade raises some serious questions about the ethics of leaking, and the difference between whistleblowing and breaching privacy. And it raises an even more important question about checks and balances on the whole process.

The tradition of leaking previously restricted information to expose corruption or abuses of power has a long and noble history. WikiLeaks’ publishing of the Apache helicopter attack in Iraq might well fall into that category; there’s good reason to believe it could be evidence that a crime was committed, and was then covered up.

But the recent ‘dump’ is different. It’s just a grab bag of diplomatic communiqués. Certainly, some of the communiqués suggest evidence of unsavoury behaviour, such as the US pressuring Germany not to prosecute CIA agents involved in illegal torture and rendition. These ought to be released.

But many others are just typical diplomatic messages, much of it amounting to gossip. This is not only unimportant in terms of revealing corruption or abuses of power, but it undermines the diplomatic process. The language of diplomacy is incredibly carefully couched, and even a simple message between two states can take a great deal of fine tuning before it’s suitable for release. (Steven Pinker has some cute anecdotes about diplomatic language in his book, The Stuff of Thought.*)

There’s a good reason for this: diplomacy is about touchy business, and you don’t want to risk pissing off an ally (or an enemy) because of a careless word. And what’s said behind closed doors, in briefings and conversations between two nations about a third, can be highly damaging to international relations.

There are also other commiuniques that ought not be released, as The Economist‘s Democracy in America notes:

Some diplomatic cables from United States embassies will have concerned American interventions on behalf of dissidents in authoritarian countries. Release of such cables would endanger any future such American intervention, since authoritarian governments would fear that concessions to secret American requests would eventually embarrass them if the requests were made public.

Unless such material is suspected of revealing some crime or some misuse of power it should not be released.

There’s a difference between freedom of information and breaches of privacy and diplomatic privilege.

Not all information ought to be free.  We value our privacy, and business need theirs. What if WikiLeaks began revealing personal information about individuals, or began releasing forward plans of businesses, undermining their ability to compete?

It’s unlikely WikiLeaks would go that far, but it’s taken a step in that direction by ‘dumping’ an indiscriminate collection of communiqués, many of which show no evidence of crimes being committed or abuses of power.

The key is that WikiLeaks needs to exhibit the kind of transparency as its values demand of others. WikiLeaks needs oversight, and that oversight needs to be monitored. There need to be checks and balances that ensure WikiLeaks is serving the cause of whistleblowing, not just undermining the confidence of governments in being able to hold a conversation in private.

And WikiLeaks needs to acknowledge that not all information is worthy of release. One wonders how they’d feel if Julian Assange’s location was leaked, or if the identity of the leakers was revealed.

There are a number of ways this could happen, almost all of which involve decentralising control from the hands of Assange. The fact is we can’t trust any one individual with this kind of power. I tend to agree with The Economist’s Democracy in America about how this should be done:

But like other human-rights and humanitarian organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross, it needs to lay down some clear, public ethical guidelines about how and why it does what it does. And it needs to bring in a board of directors of people from a wide range of countries, backgrounds and institutions to review the organisation’s conduct on ethical and other grounds.

I’d also add that governments, or the targets of the leaks, could be informed ahead of the leak to give them the opportunity to do the right thing and release the information themselves, or to give them a chance to offer an explanation, in case the information really is benign. The damage from a false or fraudulent leak could be greater than the damage from not leaking something legitimate.

Even though we’re living in the internet age, old fashioned checks and balances are still important. Sometimes information should move slower than we’re used to seeing these days. Sometimes information shouldn’t even be made public. WikiLeaks has an opportunity to become an important tool for exposing corruption, but it’s a powerful tool, and as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.

*Extract from Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought (2007) page 397, quoting an American former treasury official:

At one point in my federal career, I wrote up an explanation of a complicated matter in what I considered an extremely clear , cogent matter. The senior government official to whom I reported read it carefully, ruminating and adjusting his glasses as he read. Then he looked up at me and said, “This isn’t any good. I understand it completely. Take it back and muddy it up. I want the statement to be able to be interpreted two or three ways.” The resulting ambiguity enabled some more compromise between competing governmental interests.




4 responses

2 12 2010
James Gray

It’s already very dangerous to “leak” information concerning governments. I don’t think the government would let the most noble whistle blowing exist without restriction, and it certainly has been punished in the past. The call for secrecy in the name of national security is destroying the accountability of governments.

If we are expected to care about leaks, then the governments will have to start protecting the freedom of speech used by noble whistle blowers. Right now it’s not even safe to do that, so criticizing people who leak information doesn’t seem very helpful.

We have no reason to expect our governments to be accountable at this time and these leaks seem like a necessary evil. The “horrible” gossip and such mentioned in the leaks is pretty much nothing we didn’t already know about or have good reason to suspect was happening anyway.

2 12 2010
Tim Dean

I may have a different perspective because I’m far less cynical about my government’s intentions than the US government’s; the US has a long and proud history of underhanded ploys that advance its self-interest, or worse, it’s ideological vision, at the expense of others.

But my point remains: I’m not indiscriminately criticising those who leak; I’m suggesting that checks and balances are important for both sides.

That said, I just read a fascinating post about Julian Assange’s philosophy, which suggests his strategy is not to target individual cases of wrongdoing, but to undermine secrecy in general. New post on this forthcoming.

2 12 2010
James Gray

Checks and balances would be good, but so far checks and balances don’t exist and whistle blowing is suicidal (at least in the USA), so I think that governments (perhaps the USA in particular) have nothing worth complaining about.

Noam Chomsky has convinced me that all governments abuse power and the USA is merely the most powerful at this point in time, but I haven’t studied every country closely to know for sure. For example, I heard that freedom of speech tends not to be protected anywhere as well as in the USA.

2 12 2010
Tim Dean

It’s interesting that the US has the most robust freedom of speech laws, yet you suggest whistleblowing is problematic. It’s problematic here too, but we do have very strong laws protecting whistleblowers.

That said, I don’t know that freedom of speech is protected better in the US than some other countries, at least where freedom of speech really matters. Here in Australia we have wide ranging freedom of speech, limited only by privacy and liable laws and the odd state secret – but even then, anything can be contested in court. So when it comes to exposing wrongdoing, or voicing opinions, or stirring debate, I think Australia and the US are pretty close. I’d be interested to see some empirical evidence on the differences.

Also, the US seems to have a different, and fiercely defended emphasis, for freedom of speech beyond these protecting-democracy things – such as freedom to say and do strange and stupid things, or have them written on a t-shirt. Or maybe I’m just cynical.

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