In the Age of WikiLeaks, the End of Secrecy?

In the Age of WikiLeaks, the End of Secrecy?

In the Age of WikiLeaks, the End of Secrecy?

For a healthy democracy, transparency is the best medicine.


“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.”
         —Benjamin Franklin

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,, 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.

The End of Secrecy
Let’s posit that what Assange is doing is “radical transparency,” i.e., publishing everything he can get his hands on. He has not, in fact, been doing that, though he is obviously publishing a great deal of raw material. Given that the Internet is a realm of abundance—not scarcity, like the old ink- and airtime-based media—this is a feature, not a bug. Raw-data dumps of previously private or secret information are now part of the media landscape. As Max Frankel, former executive editor of the New York Times, recently put it, “The threat of massive leaks will persist so long as there are massive secrets.”

Security expert Bruce Schneier makes a similar point. “Secrets are only as secure as the least trusted person who knows them,” he wrote on his blog a few weeks after Cablegate erupted. “The more people who know a secret, the more likely it is to be made public.” Somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 military and diplomatic personnel had access to the SIPRNet system that Bradley Manning is alleged to have tapped. The government doesn’t know precisely how many people overall have security clearances to classified information. Based on reporting from the Government Accountability Office, Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert, estimates that this number is 2.5 million.

In other words, since this kind of “radical transparency” is technologically feasible, like it or not, it is a given. Efforts to stop it will fail, just as efforts to stop file-sharing by killing Napster failed. As Schneier sagely points out, “Just as the music and movie industries are going to have to change their business models for the Internet era, governments are going to have to change their secrecy models. I don’t know what those new models will be, but they will be different.”

Fourteen years ago, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan led the bipartisan Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. Its recommendations are worth revisiting in light of WikiLeaks. “It is time for a new way of thinking about secrecy,” the commission’s report began. “Secrecy is a form of government regulation. Americans are familiar with the tendency to over-regulate in other areas. What is different with secrecy is that the public cannot know the extent or the content of the regulation.” The Moynihan Commission was examining a condition not unlike that of the present day, where millions of people had security clearances and hundreds of thousands of new “top secret” documents, whose disclosure could presumably cause “exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” were created each year. But the commission was convinced that the culture of secrecy was out of control and hurting the country:

Excessive secrecy has significant consequences for the national interest when, as a result, policymakers are not fully informed, government is not held accountable for its actions, and the public cannot engage in informed debate. This remains a dangerous world; some secrecy is vital to save lives, bring miscreants to justice, protect national security, and engage in effective diplomacy. Yet as Justice Potter Stewart noted in his opinion in the Pentagon Papers case, when everything is secret, nothing is secret. Even as billions of dollars are spent each year on government secrecy, the classification and personnel security systems have not always succeeded at their core task of protecting those secrets most critical to the national security. The classification system, for example, is used too often to deny the public an understanding of the policymaking process, rather than for the necessary protection of intelligence activities and other highly sensitive matters.

Well before Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and thumb-size memory sticks, Moynihan foresaw that the information age would make the culture of government secrecy untenable, even picturing a time “when fourteen-year-old hackers in Australia or Newfoundland” could penetrate the government’s most sensitive secrets. With his commission, mandated by an act of Congress, he tried to turn the paradigm on its head. “The great discovery of Western science, somewhere in the seventeenth century,” he wrote, “was the principle of openness. A scientist who judged he had discovered something, published it. Often to great controversy, leading to rejection, acceptance, modification, whatever. Which is to say, to knowledge. In this setting science advanced, as nowhere else and never before.”

It is long past time for governments to embrace this paradigm. “Where you’re open, things will not be WikiLeaked,” says Christopher Graham, Britain’s information minister. “Quite a lot of this is only exciting because we didn’t know it.” He adds, “The best form of defense is transparency—much more proactive publication of what organizations do. It’s an attitude of, ‘OK. You want to know? Here it is.’” Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the City University of New York Journalism School, argues that government should be transparent by default, and have to justify when it chooses to make something secret, not the reverse. And he, too, sees something positive in the impact of WikiLeaks. “Perhaps the lesson of WikiLeaks should be that the open air is less fearsome than we’d thought,” he blogged. “That should lead to less secrecy. After all, the only sure defense against leaks is transparency.”

People who think more transparency will lead only to the hiding of secrets deeper in the bureaucracy, or that it will prevent government officials from conducting any kind of meaningful business, and that as a result we will know less, not more, about the workings of government or the powerful should think again. By that logic, we should require less public disclosure, not more. Why ask campaign contributors or lobbyists to disclose any of their activities? In fact, when people think what they’re doing is subject to public view, their behavior generally changes for the better. Thus Cablegate—which exposed many sovereign powers to a new level of public scrutiny, warning them that more such scrutiny is always a possibility in the future—should, on balance, lead to better behavior. Why? Because the cost of maintaining the contradictions between what you say in public and what you do really has just gone up another notch.

Carne Ross is a British diplomat who resigned his post at the United Nations over the dissimulation that his government practiced during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. “From now on, it will be ever more difficult for governments to claim one thing and do another,” says Ross. “For in making such claims, they are making themselves vulnerable to WikiLeaks of their own.” If all it takes is one person with a USB drive, the “least trusted person” whose conscience may be pricked by a contradiction in his or her government’s behavior, that information can move into public view more easily than ever before. That is the reality of the twenty-first century. It would be far better for all of us if our governments and other powerful institutions got with the business of accepting that transparency will be a new fact of life, and take steps to align their words with their deeds. In that respect, Hillary Clinton should thank Julian Assange rather than apologize to world leaders for what he did.

Judging from another “Internet freedom” speech Clinton gave in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, a new era of openness and candor is not upon us. She declared America’s support for the “freedom to connect” online “to solve shared problems and expose public corruption,” and she insisted that “governments also have a duty to be transparent,” but insisted that WikiLeaks could somehow be walled off from these principles because it “began with an act of theft.” “Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase,” she declared, as if that meant the information in those documents was somehow unfit for public consumption or discussion simply because they weren’t leaked in the proper way, say to Bob Woodward. For someone who has tried to be an Internet progressive, it was a singularly ostrichlike move. And unfortunately for Clinton and all the other world leaders, burying your head in the sand doesn’t make bottom-up transparency disappear.

Two, Three, Many Leaks

That’s because the genie has escaped from the bottle. Whatever else you may say about Assange, his greatest contribution to global enlightenment is the idea of a viable “stateless news organization,” to use Jay Rosen’s phrase, beholden to no country’s laws and dedicated to bringing government information into public view. Even if Assange—who has just lost round one of his fight to avoid extradition to Sweden to face rape charges—goes to jail and WikiLeaks is somehow shut down, others are already following in his footsteps. Or as futurist Mark Pesce nicely put it, “The failures of WikiLeaks provide the blueprint for the systems which will follow it.”

Since Cablegate, several independent WikiLeaks-style projects have announced themselves, including: (focused on the European Union); (the Balkan countries); (Indonesia); (Russia); two competing environmental efforts, each claiming the name GreenLeaks; and the Al-Jazeera Transparency Unit, which in January began publishing (with the Guardian) a cache of documents from inside the Palestinian Authority that exposed the minutes of high-level PA negotiating sessions with Israel and the United States. Some recent graduates of the CUNY Journalism School launched a simple tool, Localeaks, for publishers interested in attracting whistleblowers. And even the New York Times announced it may create a special portal for would-be leakers.

Perhaps the most important of these fledgling efforts is, which is being built by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Herbert Snorrason and other former WikiLeaks associates. Of all these efforts, OpenLeaks is most likely to have the technological and cryptographic skills needed to succeed in a world filled with shady actors opposed to transparency. And unlike WikiLeaks, it is designed to be decentralized.

In mid-December, Domscheit-Berg told me that OpenLeaks was trying to correct mistakes in the WikiLeaks approach. “I am not into being a leader, and I don’t trust the whole concept of leaders either,” he said, adding, “If you follow the debate around why we left the WL [WikiLeaks] project, you will find that a strikingly important detail.” He described OpenLeaks as more of a technological service provider to many media organizations, as well as others with an interest in opening up information, like NGOs and labor unions. Instead of acting as a central hub for leaks, it will provide a dedicated website for handling leaks to each entity. In his view, this approach has several advantages:

Firstly, the system will scale better with each new participant. Secondly, the source is the one that will have a say in who should exclusively be granted first access to material, while also ensuring that material will be distributed to others in the system after a period of exclusive access. Thirdly, we will make use of existing resources, experience, manpower etc [to] deal with submissions more efficiently. Fourthly, we will be able to deliver information more directly to where it matters and will be used, while remaining a neutral service ourselves. And last but not least, this approach will create a large union of shared interests in the defense of the rights to run an anonymous post-drop in the digital world.

Of course, we can’t take for granted that the powers that be will let this happen without a fight. In that respect, the battle over WikiLeaks has had another salutary effect: it has delivered a wake-up call to everyone who thought the free and open Internet was a settled fact. Freedom of the press is no longer the exclusive province of those who own one, but while the Internet has drastically lowered the barriers to entry into the public sphere, it has not eliminated them. Right now, unpopular or disruptive speech online will probably exist in a twilight zone, semi-free, sometimes capable of threatening powerful institutions and other times subject to their whims. What’s needed is much more robust discussion of how the Internet can become a genuinely free public arena, a global town square where anyone can speak. Or, to be more precise, an Internet whose underlying architecture is really free of government or corporate control, as decentralized and uncontrollable as life itself.

This essay is adapted from Micah Sifry’s new book, WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency.

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