Friday, December 17, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of WikiLeaks

In the last month Julian Assange, has gone from journalist to lightning rod. Recently his organization, WikiLeaks, released 250,000 US diplomatic cables (essentially emails from diplomats that are called cables because they were once sent via telegraph). Although most of the documents weren't classified, they were written with the understanding they would be private. They have given the world a never before seen look inside American diplomat discussions.  The impact of this can be seen in Assange's victory in the online poll for Time Magazine's Person of the Year (though Time actually gave Mark Zuckerburg the award).

That certainly doesn't mean he's well loved. After all, Hitler won person of the year in 1938. In fact, several groups have separated themselves from Wikileaks since the cable leaks. The site lost it's domain name just days after Amazon dropped the site from its web servers. PayPal froze the account of the foundation accepting donations or the site. Visa and MasterCard have reportedly stopped transactions for those trying to donate money to the organization. The Swiss bank PostFinance has put a hold on the legal defense funds of the founder who was recently arrested on separate, but very controversial, rape charges. He was released on bail yesterday thanks to support from none other than Michael Moore. Assange's home nation of Australia has even threatened to cancel his passport. In response, many of these organizations have themselves been attacked online by "hacktivists" from the pseudo-organization Anonymous.

Although I don't agree with the illegal hacks against these companies, I don't feel much sympathy for them. World governments are understandably upset about their secrets being exposed, but for these companies to jump the gun before any rulings have been made is, in my opinion, cowardice. To understand the strong reactions to these cables it's important to understand what exactly is in them. Clarifying the information is difficult, because it's history's largest classified information release. One of the main things revealed is how American diplomats see and describe foreign leaders. One of the five newspapers given the documents, Der Spiegel, even put summaries of each on the cover. Let me warn you, they're not flattering.

here are the translations

Another uncomfortable revelation was that American diplomats have been asked to spy on other members of the United Nations. Also, it was revealed that the Chinese government hacked into Google, the computers of US officials, and the Dalai Lama. China is also apparently more ready to abandon their ally, and all around troublemaker, North Korea than previously thought. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt have all asked the US to attack Iran. It revealed that American officials do not have much respect for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's new kind of authoritarianism. Even going as far as to say the current president “plays Robin to Putin’s Batman”. There was even evidence of Afghanistan's top down corruption, a secret military action in Pakistan, and missile strikes in Yemen.

As shocking as these cables are, they aren't the first controversial releases from WikiLeaks. Earlier this year they released a video of an event in Baghdad nicknamed Collateral Murder. Later this year, but before the most recent release, Afghan War documents and Iraq War documents were both leaked. Assange has also hinted at his next target to expose, the banking industry. These major releases have made this organization globally infamous. There have been calls for Julian Assange's arrest and assassination from several world leaders. That's why I'd like to take a chance on this tiny part of the internet to discuss this overwhelming issue. So here are what I see as the good, the bad, and the ugly of WikiLeaks:

The Good: Exposing truth, like sunlight, is often the best disinfectant. Most of what I have learned from the leaks have been information that either should not have happened or when it happened the world should have been informed about it. I don't want my government doing things they don't want me to know. It's also important to know that WikiLeaks is just a conduit for the released information. They were not the ones who actually removed it and have a journalistic obligation to publish what is brought to them. Best of all, even the existence of this organization and the threat it brings improves transparency and diplomatic professionalism. Currently there is too much secrecy, so any movement away is positive. These complex relationships show just our complicated our interventionist foreign policy is. If our government could no longer keep such damaging secrets about what it’s doing abroad, then it would have to change what it's doing abroad.

The Bad: These releases have the potential to create great instability in the world. It's been been a political and diplomatic disaster for the United States. It's made at least a dozen world leaders look deceitful, inept, or worse. It will make it that much more difficult to deal with controversial nations like Russia, China, Yemen, etc. There has also been fake documents released. The Pakistani media published fabricated cables claiming the Indian generals are genocidal. For two nations with so much tension, and nuclear weapons, these could have been disastrous. The recent controversy has put a damper on the general support for government openness. For example, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2010, which is ten years in the making, was expected to pass through Congress this month. Instead it has been halted by politicians worried by the new WikiLeaks controversy.

The Ugly: The released documents will probably result in more information being labeled classified. One of the least mentioned things about the cable leaks is that the information was already available to millions of military and government employees. It's alleged that a simple army private gave the information to WikiLeaks. That's actually pretty open. The recent controversy will only make that less so. It might also decrease the connectivity between the offices of government made ten years ago in response to 9/11. Perhaps the biggest impact these leaks will have is that honest international discussion will be harder. When you observe anything, it changes, simply because of your presence. Like CSPAN did for the American Congress, these leaks may hinder conversation because no one wants to talk directly anymore. If every conversation becomes public, then every conservation becomes political. Less diplomatic and more pandering. Professionalism has a cost, real valuable conversation. These complicated negotiations can't work if there is no privacy at the negotiation table.

WikiLeaks' actual negotiation table in Stockholm, Sweden

It's certainly embarrassing. There are clear short term problems created. But that doesn't tell us if it's good in the long run. The most important thing to remember is that what is being exposed to the American people is what is being done in the name of the American people. We have a right to know what is being done in our name. I can understand privacy at the negotiation table, but we should know they are at the table. Many claim that this information puts lives at risk, yet I haven't heard any concrete examples. A better question is whether more Americans are at risk if these types of secrets are never revealed? Perhaps our foreign policy would be less complicated and less intrusive. There will certainly be a backlash of privacy, but Julian Assange predicts American secret expansion will only be temporary.

The conversation isn't about Julian Assange or even WikiLeaks. It's about the entire idea of releasing this kind of information to the public. With or without WikiLeaks, the technology now exists to allow copycats to leak documents while maintaining anonymity. Like the Xerox for the Pentagon Papers, the hero or villain isn't a person, but a thumb drive and the internet. I would certainly like to see more information revealed about truly dangerous and corrupt governments. But even when the focus is on the US I think on net it is good (and so does the original whistleblower from the Pentagon Papers). It's possible that WikiLeak-type organizations should be restrained. There are certain things that deserve at least temporary secrecy. That's what American court cases about media leaks are for, deciding on the details. Though according to polls, it doesn't look good for Julian Assange from the perspective of the average American opinion. But I'm often more comfortable not agreeing with average Americans.

If you'd like to read more here is the WikiLeaks' new url. Here's their Wikipedia page. Here's how they've mostly been making public comments, their Twitter page.


  1. Fake ones are really dangerous. It can harm beyond imagination if they are not identified as fake

  2. Luckily they all have been identified. Though I guess we wouldn't know if they weren't.

  3. Dilemma of what to believe and what not !!!

  4. Well I don't think the dilemma is that large. My guess is with so much media attention, any false information will be identified.


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.