Just recently Wikileaks released 91,000 documents covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004-2010, the Afghan War Diary, which revealed what most of us already knew; we’re not in control. Wikileaks is the bane to authority and power the world over. The US government even tried to destroy it, but failed. So what are the benefits and dangers of the existence of wikileaks. Do the benefits outweigh the danger?
The benefits I see are clear: The world is steadily getting more and more treacherous for whistleblowers. Despite the Whistleblower Protection Act , sounding the alarm can really be sounding your own death bell. Whistleblowers are harassed by all administrations or corporations, regardless of political/religious affiliation, but this really became noticeable during the run up to the Iraq war. They most visible example of the government going out of their way to destroy the life of a whistleblower, the one who told them the excuse for the war they’d been planing for years was BS, was Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame.
There was a really interesting segment on NPR’s This American Life last week covering the 1952-53 case of Reynolds vs US. The case is famous for establishing the “State Secrets Privilege” in the middle of the red scare where by the US government can get a case thrown out of court forever just by saying that to try it would “reveal state secrets”. Up until recently judges weren’t even allowed to see if the evidence would reveal anything, they just had to trust the government that they were telling the truth. The problem was, the case was founded on a lie. A B-29 carrying top secret equipment went down killing most of the crew. The widows sued for negligence and wanted to see the accident report. The government claimed “state secrets” and the supreme court agreed with them. Over half a century later that accident report was declassified and it showed that there was nothing in it about the secret equipment. Instead it revealed a laundry list of negligence on the part of the government. The sick thing is that the government lawyers at the time knew this, but they wanted to get their precedent at the cost of the victims’ families. The government has used this free pass to deny justice many times since, and the Obama administration continues to use it to this day.
I see things like this: a whistleblower going to the government to sound the alarm on something is like going to a crooked cop to report a robbery. Chances are the cop is getting a slice. The likelihood that justice will be done is even lower when it’s the government itself that’s doing something wrong. Politicians, almost by definition, are conniving***. As the saying goes “Nobody likes a tattle-tale”. The only time politicians appreciate whistleblowers is when they can use the whistleblower to score political points. To think otherwise is just naive.
So, if the neighborhood cop is in on the crime, and chances of justice are extremely low, what is the only option? Wikileaks. You publish the information and hope that public outcry at the injustice is so that something is done. (which unfortunately is highly unlikely; most people can’t be bothered to cross the street to vote) It’s sad, but it’s your only option.
So, what are the dangers? Well besides bad PR for authority and possibly some lost revenue for corporations, the most cited danger is that someone might die. This is a very real possibility. I have been trying to find an interview I heard with NPR a year or so ago where somebody from wikileaks, possibly the founder Assange himself, tried to address this very issue. I feel they are better qualified to explain how they feel about the possibility that leaking something might endanger someone’s life. NPR’s Fresh Air had a show on wikileaks that aired July 14th, 2010, you can stream it here. During the discussion it is mentioned that Assange feels that it is very possible that wikileaks might have blood on it’s hands some day as a result of leaking classified information, but that the quest for open government, an end to censorship, and habitual abuse of power is too important to shy away from.
I think wikileaks stresses the importance of principled leaking best:
“Principled leaking has changed the course of history for the better; it can alter the course of history in the present; it can lead us to a better future.
Consider Daniel Ellsberg, working within the US government during the Vietnam War. He comes into contact with the Pentagon Papers, a meticulously kept record of military and strategic planning throughout the war. Those papers reveal the depths to which the US government has sunk in deceiving the population about the war. Yet the public and the media know nothing of this urgent and shocking information. Indeed, secrecy laws are being used to keep the public ignorant of gross dishonesty practiced by their government. In spite of those secrecy laws and at great personal risk, Ellsberg manages to disseminate the Pentagon papers to journalists and to the world. Despite criminal charges against Ellsberg, eventually dropped, the release of the Pentagon papers shocks the world, exposes the government, and helps to shorten the war and save thousands of lives.
The power of principled leaking to embarrass governments, corporations and institutions is amply demonstrated through recent history. The public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions forces them to consider the ethical implications of their actions. Which official will chance a secret, corrupt transaction when the public is likely to find out? What repressive plan will be carried out when it is revealed to the citizenry, not just of its own country, but the world? When the risks of embarrassment and discovery increase, the tables are turned against conspiracy, corruption, exploitation and oppression. Open government answers injustice rather than causing it. Open government exposes and undoes corruption. Open governance is the most effective method of promoting good governance.
Today, with authoritarian governments in power around much of the world, increasing authoritarian tendencies in democratic governments, and increasing amounts of power vested in unaccountable corporations, the need for openness and transparency is greater than ever. In an important sense, WikiLeaks is the first intelligence agency of the people. Better principled and less parochial than any governmental intelligence agency, it is able to be more accurate and relevant. It has no commercial or national interests at heart; its only interest is the revelation of the truth. Unlike the covert activities of state intelligence agencies, WikiLeaks relies upon the power of overt fact to enable and empower citizens to bring feared and corrupt governments and corporations to justice.
WikiLeaks helps every government official, every bureaucrat, and every corporate worker, who becomes privy to embarrassing information that the institution wants to hide but the public needs to know. What conscience cannot contain, and institutional secrecy unjustly conceals, WikiLeaks can broadcast to the world.
WikiLeaks is a buttress against unaccountable and abusive power.
We propose that authoritarian governments, oppressive institutions and corrupt corporations should be subject to the pressure, not merely of international diplomacy, freedom of information laws or even periodic elections, but of something far stronger — the consciences of the people within them.”
*** Ok, not every single politician is conniving, but the vast majority are. The longer you’re in politics, the more likely you’re conniving. I say that because there is a political “game”. In order to get anything you want in politics, you have to play the game. You have to do a few dirty deeds here and there so other politicians will help you with your dirty deeds. Any white knight that tries to charge into the halls of government quickly finds he is charging into a brick wall. If you don’t play ball then you’re a lame duck. Therefore, the longer you’re in politics, the more successful you are, the more likely you’re conniving. You know the saying: “Politicians are like diapers, both should be changed often, and for the same reason.”