In the Age of WikiLeaks, the End of Secrecy?
“In one direction we can reach out and touch the time when the leaders of the Soviet Union thought that the explosion at the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl could be kept secret from the rest of the world. In the other direction we can see a time—already upon us—when fourteen-year-old hackers in Australia or Newfoundland can make their way into the most sensitive areas of national security or international finance. The central concern of government in the future will not be information, but analysis. We need government agencies staffed with argumentative people who can live with ambiguity and look upon secrecy as a sign of insecurity.”
——Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan,
Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, 1997
“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
For some time now, our leaders have been saying that they understand—nay, that they embrace—the disruptive potential of the Internet. Take President Obama, who used networked technology so adroitly in his 2008 election campaign. Here he is talking about the power of the Internet at a town hall meeting with students in Shanghai in 2009, where he memorably declared:
I am a big believer in technology, and I’m a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information. I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable. They can begin to think for themselves. That generates new ideas. It encourages creativity.
Obama added, “The truth is that because in the United States information is free…I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me. I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger, and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don’t want to hear.”
Or take Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. No American official has been more eloquent in expressing support for the power of the Internet than Clinton, who gave a highly visible speech on “Internet freedom” on January 21, 2010, in Washington, where she waxed poetic about how “the spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet,” adding:
The Internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them. This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, e-mails, social networks and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship….
Now, ultimately, this issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one Internet, one global community and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors.
The words are nice, but unfortunately theirs has been a kind of bloodless embrace, a rhetorical gesture to a changing culture without any real content and certainly no loss of control. Yes, as a candidate Obama allowed his supporters to use his online social network, my.BarackObama.com, to organize a 20,000-strong petition objecting to his flip-flopping on the issue of warrantless wiretapping. But after an e-mail response and a few hours of question-deflecting by his advisers on his blog, the issue was dropped. Most politicians, including Obama, have used the Internet to consolidate their power, not to empower others for any other purpose.
To be sure, they’ve been fascinated by the Internet’s potential to challenge the status quo elsewhere. President Obama deftly used YouTube to address the Iranian people directly at the beginning of his administration, posting a message of friendship at the time of the Nowruz (springtime) celebrations that, according to YouTube’s open tracking analytics, was indeed widely watched inside Iran. And administration officials like Clinton have spoken out often in defense of bloggers’ free speech rights, and condemned countries like China, Egypt, Iran, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Vietnam for clamping down on the Internet and cracking down on human rights activists using online social network platforms.
But the reason the recent confrontation between WikiLeaks and the US government is a pivotal event is that, unlike these other applications of technology to politics, this time the free flow of information is threatening the establishment with difficult questions. And not by embarrassing one politician or bureaucrat but by exposing systemic details of how America conducts its foreign and military policies. Or, as writer Bruce Sterling memorably put it, “Julian Assange has hacked a superpower.” The result is a series of deeply uncomfortable contradictions.
The idea that the wondrous “new nervous system” for the planet that Clinton saw being created by all this online freedom might want to turn its attention to the most powerful country on the planet shouldn’t be a shock to leaders like her. But when the State Department cables started to leak, she fell back on a much older way of seeing the world. “The United States strongly condemns the illegal disclosure of classified information,” she said in her prepared statement the day the news broke. “It puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems.” She added later, “Disclosures like these tear at the fabric of the proper function of responsible government.” The notion that lying to the American public, or the world, about the conduct of foreign or military policy might be more damaging to the fabric of international relations or to the functioning of responsible government was not addressed.
‘You Can’t Handle the Truth’?
Here is Clinton’s problem: in the networked age, when the watched can also be the watchers, nothing less than the credibility of authority itself is at stake. Western governments presumably rest on the consent of the governed, but only if the governed trust the word of those who would govern them. In this changed environment, the people formerly known as the authorities can re-earn that trust only by being more transparent, and by eliminating the contradictions between what they say and what they do. Compounding this challenge, today when a crisis strikes, information moves faster than the “authorities” can know using their own, slower methods. WikiLeaks, and other channels for the unauthorized release and spread of information, are symptoms of this change, not its cause.
Unfortunately there is a large gap between what American officials have told the public about their actions and what they have actually done. Transparency may be the best medicine for a healthy democracy, but from the government’s perspective, the problem with the WikiLeaks revelations from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, plus the State Department cables, may well be that they expose too much. Not in the sense of giving away military secrets that endanger troops in the field or human rights workers; so far both the Pentagon and the State Department have explicitly admitted that no such harm has occurred (though the original release of the Afghanistan war records may have placed some civilian informants in danger from the Taliban).
Rather, the war logs and diplomatic cables show that the nine-year war in Afghanistan is doomed. And this is not something the governments fighting that war want to tell their public. As Javier Moreno, editor of El País, wrote in a long essay explaining why his paper decided to work with WikiLeaks in publishing the State Department cables,
Tens of thousands of soldiers are fighting a war in Afghanistan that their respective leaders know is not winnable. Tens of thousands of soldiers are shoring up a government known around the world to be corrupt, but which is tolerated by those who sent the soldiers there in the first place. The WikiLeaks cables show that none of the Western powers believes that Afghanistan can become a credible nation in the medium term, and much less become a viable democracy, despite the stated aims of those whose soldiers are fighting and dying there. Few people have been surprised to learn that the Afghan president has been salting away millions of dollars in overseas aid in foreign bank accounts with the full cognizance of his patrons.
He added, “We may have suspected our governments of underhand dealings, but we did not have the proof that WikiLeaks has provided. We now know that our governments were aware of the situations mentioned above, and, what is more, they have hidden the facts from us.”
Instead of an honest discussion about what the war logs and cables tell us in toto, we have been treated to a bizarre and contradictory set of responses. Sometimes, what Julian Assange has done is portrayed as worse than what Al Qaeda has done. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: “He should be treated as an enemy combatant and WikiLeaks should be closed down permanently and decisively.” And other times, we are told that the so-called revelations are actually pretty humdrum. Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest.” Nothing to see here; move along please.
There is only one way to reconcile these seemingly contradictory messages coming from the government and its allies in Congress and the media. At some fundamental level, they probably understand that the conditions for maintaining their monopoly on critical information have been broken. But they apparently still hope that the next Bradley Manning, the alleged leaker, will be dissuaded from an act of conscience if he believes either that the personal cost will be too high or that his actions won’t make a difference. Of course, neither approach will work, as long as millions of other government employees have access to the information the government is trying to hide. The Age of Transparency is here not because of one transnational online network dedicated to open information and whistleblowing named WikiLeaks but because the knowledge of how to build and maintain such networks is widespread.