Leaking Wikis

By Sean Carroll | December 13, 2010 10:31 am

Obviously everyone in the world has heard about Wikileaks and its associated controversies. It seems like the site itself has to keep moving to avoid various attacks, but at the moment it can be found here.

My strong first impulse is to be in favor of shining light in secret places. This can be taken to extremes, of course; there is such a thing as appropriate privacy, for governments and corporations as well as for individuals. But the natural tendency on the part of governments (or bureaucracies more generally) is to go too far to the other extreme, making secrecy routine where it should be exceptional — and using it to cover up embarrassment rather than protecting people’s lives. Something like Wikileaks is a great corrective to this tendency.

I don’t really see, however, how something like the wholesale release of diplomatic cables helps this cause. Some of the cables might have been covered up for pernicious reasons, but for the most part diplomats should have an expectation of privacy in these kinds of communications, as much as an ordinary citizen would when making a phone call. This doesn’t seem like a brave strike against government corruption as much as a bit of leering Peeping-Tommery. I’d personally be happier if Wikileaks were a bit more selective in what it shared with the world.

Personally, the most depressing aspect of the whole affair — even more than the cartoonish responses from craven politicians — has been the attitude of the established media. Sure, they will publish the stories, although usually accompanied by some sort of meek apologia. But on TV and in the op-ed pages, there is enormously more discussion about Julian Assange and Wikileaks itself than about what we have actually learned from the documents. A lot of people in the media these days consider themselves to be more like partners with government, rather than respectful adversaries. I’d love to see more thoughtful pieces about what we’ve learned from all these documents about how the world actually works.

Regardless of the ambiguities, I certainly hope Wikileaks keeps going. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “The press, confined to truth, needs no other legal restraint.” Or as Ruben Bolling more recently tweeted: “If a journalist is walking down the street, and happens to find a box of secret government documents, what should he do?” Telling the truth is always a good first strategy.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: News, Politics
  • Jason Dick

    I agree wholeheartedly. Let me say though that despite the protestations from the media and governments, Wikileaks has been operating for four years now and not a single person has been harmed or killed as a result of their leaks. Given the attention paid to the [i]possibility[/i] of such attacks, I think we can be pretty certain that any well-documented examples, if they existed, would be trumpeted all over the place.

  • Justin

    The argument in favor of releasing *all* the cables goes something like this: The government bureaucracy has deeply entrenched secrecy policies that are contrary to a healthy democracy. This level of secrecy is effectively a conspiracy (of a different kind than a nefarious ‘let’s plot to take over the world’ kind, but still damaging and corrupting). The idea is to disrupt the network that the conspiracy relies on. By routinely exposing (large amounts of) data that the conspiracy wants secret, you damage its ability to operate in secret. It must then either restrict information even more, in which case it stops operating efficiently and becomes less potent (the conspiracy loses power); or it makes less material secret, in which case power shifts back to the people as it should in a democracy.

    (The above is a paraphrasing of an essay Assange wrote some time back.) So the rationale is basically that weakening the sanctity of secret communications in general will force governments back towards transparency, whether they like it or not. This argument has its weaknesses, but there are indeed ways in which wholesale release of data (rather than just the ‘juicy’ bits) serves the purposes of democracy.

  • Skye

    “wholesale release of diplomatic cables” isn’t an accurate characterization of what Wikileaks has done. Of the quarter of a million cable it has, it’s released just over a thousand so far – and all in redacted versions.

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  • Maldoror

    You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to find the charges against Julian Assange dodgy. That and the full-on cyber war that is currently being fought is absolutely worthy of receiving all the media attention it gets. In some sense this is more important than the diplomatic cables: it’s David Cameron’s “Big Society” all right, but not how he envisioned it…

    In addition, there are plenty of cables that are in the public interest (Prince Andrew condoning corruption practices as a formal envoy of the British government; the Vatican not cooperating with Irish police in child molestation; etc.). What we have learned from the MP’s expenses scandal in the UK is that news like this should be on a drip to keep it in the public eye. Otherwise everybody will weather it out, and nothing changes.

  • JM

    The english edition of Spiegel Online (Germany), has a done a nice follow-up of the cables themselves. It’s not a bad idea to take a look at their articles if you want to go beyond the bed stories of Mr. Assange…

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/topic/wikileaks_diplomatic_cables/

  • Mean and Anomalous

    Right on, Sean!

  • http://tristram.squarespace.com Tristram Brelstaff

    Some of the Wikileaks team have split off to form OpenLeaks:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenLeaks

  • costanza

    Having spent some number of years working in a classified environment, I can safely say that something like Wikileaks can do some damage. I f (say) the Russians (for example) have a more accurate missile….we know this and it’s classified. the Russians KNOW they have a more accurate missile…the reason it’s classified is to protect the SOURCE. Stuff that is classified often is so to protect (often) the lives of the source. The info contained in the leaked stuff is usually incidental.

  • http://grey.colorado.edu/mingus Brian Mingus

    Wikileaks isn’t a wiki.

  • jpd

    fixed that for you:
    If (say) my government (for example) has killed civilians….the government knows this and it’s classified. My government KNOWs they have killed civilians…the reason it’s classified is to protect the government from embarassment. Stuff that is classified often is so to protect (often) the shame of my government. The info contained in the leaked stuff is usually incidental.

  • Aaron

    The cable leaks are for the most part really banal. But some of them, like the state department covering up for an American corporation (DynCorp) procuring young boys for a party, actually show a great deal of badness.

    http://blogs.houstonpress.com/hairballs/2010/12/wikileaks_texas_company_helped.php

    There is certainly some need for operational security, but it’s a bad idea to conceptualize this in the same terms as personal privacy. The government certainly didn’t treat them like that — millions of people had access to this database. These aren’t the equivalent of phone calls, but the equivalent of official memos.

  • Carl Brannen

    To see if releasing secret cables is moral or not, let’s put the shoe on the other foot.

    Would it be moral for your boss to have access to all of your communications? Not just what you say on the telephone or email at work, but also the personal things you whisper to your lover at night? Would that make you a better person? A better employee?

  • Maldoror

    Carl, putting the left shoe on the right foot clearly does not work.

  • Brian Too

    Do you notice though, that everyone is interested in the leaked material? And I mean everyone.

    The strongest drum beater for security, the rule of law, sovereign rights to diplomatic propriety, privacy, whatnot. They still eagerly pore over the leaked documents.

    How many people voluntarily look away? You have to be entirely apolitical and inward turned not to be interested.

  • Brad H

    I’m just waiting for them to leak the truth about Area 51! :-)

  • John Ramsden

    The most significant releases, regarding Iran and North Korea, seem to share one feature: By highlighting neighbouring countries’ true attitudes (Saudi Arabia and China respectively), these leaks are evidence of tacit support by those countries, which in the event of a punch up involving the US they might have denied had the leaks not publicly established the facts. In other words those leaks serve an ass-covering purpose, to spread responsibility for what might happen if the worst came to the worst.

    Also, publication of many of the criticisms in the less significant leaks also arguably benefit the US, as a reproach to the subjects or again a sharing of accountability, even at the cost of a few bruised egos.

    So you don’t have to wear a very thick tin hat to believe that overall the leak saga is a backhanded benefit to the US, and therefore might well have been tacitly sanctioned, with the genuinely embarrassing or damaging material (if any) simply a useful prop or, if you like, a price worth paying, to support the fiction of the leaks being unintentional.

  • Tanath

    It bears repeating that Wikileaks has been very selective in releasing the cables. Almost every one of them has been previously published by other Papers (NYT, Guardian, etc.), sometimes with less redaction than the Wikileaks versions. The “dump” is a lie.
    See “Anti-WikiLeaks lies and propaganda – from TNR, Lauer, Feinstein and more”:
    http://goo.gl/PXByS

  • boonie

    Sean, I have a great deal of respect for your blog, but I would repeat what Skye and Tanath have noted. It doesn’t change the essential thrust of your post, but it kind of guts your central caveat, no ?

  • jick

    For some reason the title reminds me of one of my favorite badass lines in fantasy literature:

    “I shit better men than you.”

    (from A Song of Ice and Fire by GRR Martin)

    Sean, if you’re leaking wikis, you should go see a doctor. Or a reporter. Probably both.

  • psmith

    Wikileaks is not the issue. Media will publish the information that comes into their possession. In rare cases they will show intelligent circumspection, but don’t depend on it. You can depend on them being opportunists who will grab at anything, regardless of its morality.

    The real issue is that someone stole the information. This person broke the conditions of their employment and necessarily lied and practised deception to extract the information.
    Is this amoral behaviour really the kind of behaviour we want to encourage? Amorality has no boundaries and threatens far more than a few daft diplomatic cables. Do you consider it is OK to steal the proprietary secrets of your company? Is it OK steal the missile defence plans? Is it OK to steal your boss’s private communications?
    But this is not the same you say. Do you really expect a person who has abandoned principled behaviour to make fine distinctions based on principles?

    We all recognise the need to expose egregious wrong doing and that this supersedes other commitments. This is the test we should be applying when judging the behaviour of the various actors in this little tempest. Principled people will expose egregious wrong doing, unprincipled people will steal anything that supports their narrow world view.

  • http://changingnewsroom.wordpress.com Carrie Brown-Smith

    As Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, they did NOT just indiscriminately release all the cables. http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/12/10/wikileaks_media/index.html

  • James

    Indeed, they have been selective in deciding which documents to release. In that case, why not just release the important stuff (such as the USA’s bugging of other UN states and other aforementioned revelations), without the trivial extra banalities like diplomatic gossip? And on the other side, why reveal the list of vulnerable terrorist targets? What noble purpose does that serve?

    My instincts are to support this stuff, as I have in the past, but I’d prefer it they provided a rather more righteous flag to rally behind.

  • psmith

    @22 – according to Glenn Greenwald, Wikileaks provided all 251,000 cables to the newspapers. That seems pretty indiscriminate. I would call this strategy the delegation of blame. Greenwald goes on to say that “WikiLeaks has done very little other than publish the specific cables that have been first released by newspapers around the world, including with the redactions applied by those papers.” which would seem to confirm my theory of delegation of blame (and work).

  • Cynthia

    Sunlight is the best disinfectant. If a government is embarrassed by disclosure, it is either doing something it should not be doing, or it is incompetent at keeping it’s secrets. Freedom of the press is all the citizens have to keep the government from committing horrific crimes in our names. As we have seen in the past few decades, a compliant and lazy press has resulted in governments doing horrible things.

  • Eugene

    Well, the “attacks” on Julian Assange is designed not to take out Wikileaks (I am pretty sure there are smart enough people out there to figure out that “leaking stuff on the internet” is not exactly a new idea), it’s designed to deflect attention from people paying attention to the substance of the cable leaks.

    Of course, the media, and most of the rest of the population, bought it hook line and sinker. I mean, what do we expect ? Actual intellectual discourse??

    <== only partly being sarcastic.

  • Cynthia

    The last time one man created so much controversy, legend has it he was nailed to a cross! Most Christians in America may have been convinced of this had they not devolved into warmongering fascists, who only worship wealth and power. Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee come to mind here.

  • Anchor

    “A lot of people in the media these days consider themselves to be more like partners with government, rather than respectful adversaries.”

    Yeah. In a nut-shell.

    This sordid excuse for ‘journalism’ has been going on gangbusters since 9-11-01.

    Tell us something we really didn’t know. (Although I’m positive that you know we already knew it too).

  • Thomas Larsson

    Wikileaks reminds me a lot about climategate. Isn’t it funny that the same people who preach openness in one case whine about privacy in the other. Or vice versa.

  • psmith

    @27: See this Youtube video of a flash mob and share the joy (Hallelujah chorus).
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=SXh7JR9oKVE

  • Emile

    Sean,

    I take your argument here to be basically “sometimes government does bad things and hides them, but often good government requires secrecy — for example, diplomacy.” This argument was made, in fact, by an ex-diplomat here: http://buildingmarkets.org/blogs/blog/2010/11/29/in-defense-of-secrecy/

    For a fairly devastating rebuttal of that particular case I would encourage you to read http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com/2010/12/07/two-handed-engine-wikileaks-the-defense-of-diplomatic-secrecy-and-east-timor/ Personally it did much to convince me that the “necessary secrecy” argument, if not obviously wrong, certainly can’t be taken as given.

  • http://rednyrg721.livejournal.com r721

    The Guardian seems to have a nice round-up about what we learned from cables so far, regularly updated:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/29/wikileaks-embassy-cables-key-points

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  • Milan

    Thank you Emile!!!

    that was by far the most well written text on the subject…

    I would like to see Sean reply to this as well…

  • carlsag

    Mostly the public is not going to slog through all these documents but where are all these people writing and editing wikipedia ? The information is there and good writers need to make it live. How the war on a day to day account takes place is a story that can now be told. Once these abuses are out in the open it will be impossible for them to continue. Courage is contagious.

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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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