The wikileaks label ticks off Wikipedia cofounder

Note from Lewis: I have commented on the latest Wikileaks outrage elsewhere (Facebook, Twitter), making clear my thoughts for what they’re worth.  Briefly, they summarize in pointing out that the U.S. Government has now allowed a dynamic to emerge without challenge: an “acceptable” intermediary between Traitor and Public. The original insider-threat individual who ripped the 251,000 cables and all the other previously leaked Iraq war data would likely not have been able to simply provide that to the New York Times personally and have it immediately published; they might have turned him in themselves. But the miraculous creation of a self-appointed, self-sanctified group like Wikileaks has allowed motivated groups like the Times & the UK’s Guardian to proclaim that their hands are clean. I find it outrageous. But the government did not press the point after the first major release (Iraq war data) with any forceful intent, so now we’re simply going to see this continue – until an Administration gets serious with criminal charges including treason for anyone involved, right up the chain of those stealing/mediating/publishing classified information.

 An online friend, Larry Sanger, today posted some very thoughtful remarks from a unique perspective – as a cofounder of Wikipedia who obviously is offended among other things by the misleading use of “Wiki-” in the Wikileaks name.  But he makes some other profound points as well. He offered to have them reposted, which I have done below. Reader comments are welcome, either below or as always by email.



A comment on Wikileaks

Larry Sanger
November 29, 2010

Over the weekend, I wrote a series of Tweets inspired by Wikileaks’ then-upcoming release of U.S. diplomatic communiqués.  This caused quite an uproar, with people insulting me vociferously and demanding that I explain myself.  (A few people were supportive, and thanks to them.)  I am not going to write a whole essay in defense of my views; I don’t have the time either to write one or to deal with the inevitable aftermath of such an essay.  Actually, I wish I didn’t have to do even the following, because I’m busy with various new educational projects, and I have no desire to make myself into a political pundit.  But I suppose at this point it is my duty to post at least the following; I think I’m in a position where I could do some good, so I had better, if I want to follow my own advice.

Rather than write a long essay, I will put down just a few paragraphs explaining my views a little better.  This is obviously not, nor is it intended to be, a complete defense of the position I’ll briefly describe.  That I leave to the policy wonks.

Here are the “offending” Tweets (from Nov. 25-26):

I’ll go ahead and say the obvious: Wikileaks is an enemy of the U.S.—and not just the government. Deal with them accordingly.

How does Wikileaks repeatedly get massive troves of classified material?

Did a person or group in the U.S. govt have access to ALL these docs & leak them to Wikileaks? If so, that person or group is traitorous.

@wikileaks Speaking as Wikipedia’s co-founder, I consider you enemies of the U.S.—not just the government, but the people.

@wikileaks What you’ve been doing to us is breathtakingly irresponsible & can’t be excused with pieties of free speech and openness.

First, let me say that my main complaint is against releasing secret diplomatic communiqués, not against Wikileaks’ other work, which is less important for purposes of this discussion.  Also, when I said I was “speaking as Wikipedia’s co-founder,” I was distinguishing wikis generally from Wikileaks, which is not a wiki.  I was and am not speaking for Wikipedia, but only for myself.  To those who said that they’d stop contributing to Wikipedia, you might not know that I left Wikipedia a little over a year after I got it started, and have since founded a competitor.  I’m no longer even the editor-in-chief of this competitor; I’m now working on brand new things.

My argument is quite simple and commonsensical.  It goes something like this. (A policy wonk would be able to explain this better than I could, but I’m in the hot seat so I’ll have a go.) Diplomatic communiqués are secret precisely because they contain information that it would be dangerous, or stupid, to make public. They disclose names and quotations that, for reasons either obvious or quite impossible for us to know, might get people killed. They also contain reports of actions that might lead to serious repercussions. They might even pinpoint locations of secret installations that might come under attack. They recount discussions of important plans and personalities—information that, if known to the wrong people, might lead to various military excursions, including war.

Does that sound acceptable to you?  Let’s put it this way.  Wikileaks’ actions, by releasing so much consequential, incendiary information, could easily lead to the deaths of people all around the world, and not just Americans. It could destabilize foreign relations that it benefits no one to have destabilized. It could—probably will not, but given that these are secret diplomatic communiqués in a very complex world, could—lead to war.

I find it incomprehensible that Wikileaks and its defenders are not given pause by such obvious considerations. I find it sad that so many people are not able to grasp such arguments intuitively.  Perhaps they ignore them, or perhaps they only pretend that such considerations do not exist.

Now, let’s talk about three common fallacies about Wikileaks’ latest disastrous actions. Again, this is going to have to be brief.

Fallacy: we can already see (less than 24 hours after release) that the leaks have no damaging information, and the information in the first leaks (about Iraq and Afghanistan) did not lead to any deaths. Well—not yet they didn’t, not as far as we know.  But there is a big difference between the Iraq and Afghanistan leaks and the latest leak.  Since the latest leak contains huge numbers of secret diplomatic communiqués, they do, of course, concern intelligence.  Wikileaks’ defenders seem not to realize the cumulative nature of intelligence.  Intelligence-gathering is like detective work.  In a detective story, often it is one tidbit of information that sheds light on a case and blows it wide open.  Similarly, a communiqué that looks to the uninformed to be completely innocuous might turn out to be exactly the tidbit needed for enemies of the U.S.—and others—to inflict death and serious destruction.  It amazes me that otherwise intelligent people, including journalists, think that they can make such judgments, let alone promote their obviously amateur judgments online.  This does not speak well for the judgment of the New York Times’ editors.  To their credit, others, such as the Washington Post, would not make deals with Wikileaks.

Fallacy: the United States is an “empire” and needs to be reined in. Exposing the inner workings of this government’s foreign policy is a good thing. It’s not a bad thing that the leaks damage U.S. interests, because U.S. interests are contrary to the interests of a lot of the rest of the world.  This argument is made by two different groups of people who are best addressed separately.

On the one hand, people on the radical left are of course deeply opposed to the American system of government. I am not one of these people—though occasionally, as an open-minded philosopher, I have considered some such people as my personal friends. Anyway, these people naturally regard the U.S. government, the main defender of this much-hated system, as enemy #1 in world politics.  I don’t.  Obviously, radical leftists will be among Wikileaks’ most vociferous supporters in the latest leaks, precisely because they want the U.S. undermined.  As a patriotic, loyal American citizen, I do not want my country undermined, and I’m not ashamed to say so.  Taking this openly pro-U.S. stance as I do, radical leftists cannot be expected to treat me nicely.  Fortunately, I couldn’t care less about what they think, when they use playground insults and attempt to bait me into stupid exchanges of sentiments.  I’m not about to enter an exchange with such people about the merits of the American system and hence the defensibility of undermining it.

On the other hand, there are plenty of liberals, libertarians, and social democrats who support Wikileaks. My views are closer to theirs.  I agree with them that, as a rough generality, leakage of government documents is a good thing for open government, free speech, and democracy.  This is why, when Wikileaks first appeared, I was cautiously supportive.  But it is perfectly consistent for liberals, libertarians, and social democrats—and conservatives too, of course—to draw the distinction between positive leaks that improve government and irresponsible leaks that do nothing but cause all sorts of harm and pointless chaos.  If you are an anarchist, you might celebrate all leaks, but most of us aren’t anarchists and are capable of making intelligent distinctions between good and bad leaks.

Let me put this another way.  There are a lot of things that the U.S. State Department does that democracy-loving people across the political landscape can agree are positive, or at least supportable.  But some of those things have to be done in secret.  That is the nature of diplomacy, espionage, and foreign policy in the real world, which is a dangerous, complex world.  To leak three million communiqués potentially undermines everything positive that the U.S. can do in the world.  Come on, folks—can’t you see that?  It should be obvious, and it’s very disappointing that it isn’t more so to liberals.  Unless you count yourself as one of the aforementioned radical leftists, who want to see the U.S. lose, period, then you cannot support Wikileaks’ action.  It is completely unsupportable.

Fallacy: Wikileaks is a force for openness and transparency.  Openness is good.  (Oh, how can a founder of Wikipedia fail to realize this?  The horror!)  There are some people who think that all of government should be conducted “in the open,” always.  Such people remind me of my radical libertarian friends: their theories sound nice, beautiful even, but they quite stubbornly refuse to take seriously the reasons for the things they criticize.  The fact is that some, only some, of democratic government has always been conducted without public exposure.  In this brief comment, I cannot elaborate the reasons for occasional government secrecy, but I’ll give you a hint: it has to do with privacy, public safety, and national defense.  I disagree with those people who want government to be so “open”—open far beyond anything any government has ever experienced, open far beyond anything widely thought to be required—that they are perfectly willing to undermine privacy, public safety, and national defense in order to secure that openness.  Such people are ideologues, and they are fun for other ideologues to argue with, and occasionally for philosophers too, but they can be safely ignored by more sane, grounded people and those with little time on their hands for philosophy.

Finally, Julian Assange is no hero.  He is a twit.  He should not be made into a liberal icon.  He gives hackers a bad name.  He and his organization are indeed enemies of the U.S. government and the people represented by that government; they should be stopped, and they richly deserve to be punished for this latest leak.  And that goes double for the person or people in the U.S. government who leaked the documents in the first place.  None of these people deserve your support any longer.

- Larry Sanger, http://www.larrysanger.org/wikileaks.html

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7 Responses

  1. Well,

    I think the whole “diplomatic cables”-scoop has also to do with the reaction of the U.S. to the recent leaks. e.g. arresting Manning is a big wrong signal.

    Thinking of the reaction of Assange (and I’m counting the new leak as one) reminds me of somebodies “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge”-behaviour. Only that running a leaking platform is per se a permanent acting “close to the edge”.

    The U.S. have shown no internal learnings from the recent leaks, instead they started their big mashine of counter-intelligence against wikileaks including threats, pushing allies to make statements against wikileaks/Assange and of course all the dirty tricks.

    Cablegate is just a revenge. Not a good idea for a organisation like wikileaks, because they lose their focus on real good leaks, but be it like it is – stop pushing them, ’cause they’re close to the edge.

  2. Thanks for reposting Larry’s comments. I continue to hear the word “treason” associated with this (including by you at the beginning of this posting). As appalled as I am at the whole thing, it’s not “treason”. Espionage, perhaps, but not treason. An elegant explanation is here: http://goo.gl/Xu4tJ

    Nonetheless, the people involved should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

    • Bob, thanks for the comment. But I must disagree, by pointing out that I was speaking primarIly of the accused Manning (in fact referring to him as the “Traitor”). I was also referring to the many Americans who have been actively abetting this sordid activity – alongside their foreign espionage counterparts – by”mediating” (their word) the content before publication. I know not what word others may call it, but I call it treasonous. We shouldn’t be cowed from doing so just because those involved cowardly cloak their actions in “openness” bullshit. I note they lack the courage of a Patrick Henry, who in opposing the Stamp Act defiantly said, “If this be treason, have at it.”

  3. When it has established without doubt the party or parties responsible for leaking the information from the files, action should be taken against them and they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the laws governing spying, espionage and harm to the reputation of the United States, and to the integrity of our foreign service establishment and to the State Department in particular.

  4. Putting aside the question of who’s a traitor and who’s not, the most recent Wikileaks matter raises some points that might be good to ponder:

    1) The US is terrible at keeping secrets, and has long needed to revisit how many secrets it does decide to keep. It’s clear current secrecy methods aren’t effective or scalable. Shooting the messenger when the system is broken doesn’t seem logical in this context.

    2) Secrecy consistently serves as a cover for incompetency and unethical or malicious behavior inside government, which is another reason that the US should aggressively limit the amount of information it keeps confidential. If there were less of an imbalance between what government does and what it says about what it does, there would be less reason to leak.

    3) Federal agencies (and governments generally) need a human voice. It’s sad that leaks are the primary source we have of the candid observations and insights diplomats make.

    4) A lot of what Sanger says doesn’t hold water. For example, “To leak three million communiqués potentially undermines everything positive that the U.S. can do in the world.” That’s an absurd statement. Most of the value we deliver as a country has nothing to do with official diplomacy. What the diplomatic leaking does do is undermine official diplomacy. Those leaks would be a lot more reprehensible if our official diplomatic acts were always honest and ethical, and reflected alliances that were also honest and ethically based. But they’re not.

    5) As much as anything, the leaks seem to be an embarrassment to those who are caught saying or doing things privately that they never would say or do in public. In many cases, what they’re saying or doing is difficult to defend.

    5) Which calls into question why these people are in positions of power. Except that…what they’ve been caught doing or saying is often not all that surprising. If we had different people in power, perhaps they would say or do some of the very same things? As Pogo said, “I’ve met the enemy, and he is us.”

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