La Riposte

Monday, November 29, 2010

Focused on Wikileaks, Missing the Big Picture

The newspapers and blogs are predictably awash today with reaction to the latest release by Wikileaks, and the sum total of this sound and fury covers the spectrum from the funny (Dr. Charli Carpenter as a Julian Assange supporter) to the predictable (US government claims Wikileaks is going to get someone killed) to the disturbing (US Congressman working to get Wikileaks labeled as a Foreign Terrorist Organization).

It’s worth considering a few of the common themes in these discussions:
  1. Wikileaks is telling us nothing we didn’t know before. That seems to be the premise of Dr. Carpenter’s post at Duck of Minerva.Really? If this is the case, then why the furor? 
  2. Diplomats need a forum where they can tell lies, order UN regulations to be broken, and make unnecessarily snarky remarks about foreign dignitaries without being subjected to scrutiny by the public that they represent. That’s the moral of the story where Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber interprets Saki's "Tobermory" as a commentary on the need to keep some things quiet for the benefit of polite society.
  3. Wikileaks workers (and any those of any other organization that helps spread such documents) are terrorists and as such should be subjected to the full range of US instruments of power. Galrahn at Information Dissemination doesn’t seem to think this is the right course of action, but thinks the broadness of the current US law may allow it, and says that something must be done to “stand up” to Assange and his ilk.
  4. Government and conservative talking heads are continuing the tired tropes that “loose lips sink ships” – but so far, no sailors are to be seen bobbing in the waters, causing Nancy Youseff to raise the very legitimate question of how long the Administration and its supporters can keep using this line before they have to make like Jerry McGuire and “show us the bodies!”
So, a few thoughts. First, I believe that it’s a little early for bloggers to be writing off this release (or others) considering the volume of the material and their own probable lack of primary source research – really, have any of them read through all, the majority, or even a significant fraction of the total releases of this or previous leaks?

Second, Henry Farrell takes the wrong moral from Tobermory. The story was not meant to show why it was in fact a bad idea to teach cats to talk, but to suggest that society might perhaps need to change so that even if cats could repeat verbatim the private conversations of their owners, those people might not be terribly concerned. Among the various cables are passages that refer to various personages in unflattering terms, and are, frankly, completely unnecessary. Comparing Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev to Batman and Robin? It would be more accurate and diplomatic to simply say “Although technically subordinate to President Medvedev, Putin continues to exert a disproportionately high degree of influence on Kremlin policies” – and no one could fault the author for such an analysis sans the accompanying baggage of insulting characterizations. If people (especially diplomats) simply spoke and wrote as if there were a Rolling Stone reporter in the room, there would be fewer out-of-work Generals and red faces in the State Department. As to the morally dubious instructions to spy on Ban Ki Moon and similarly disquieting revelations, it is useful to consider the words of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, in 1816, "It is strangely absurd to suppose that a million of human beings, collected together, are not under the same moral laws which bind each of them separately."  Thus to suppose that agents of the government of such a collection of millions receives some special dispensation to behave badly, and should not be held responsible by the public that elected them (or the officials who appointed them) strains credulity.

Third, the attempt to paint Wikileaks with the broad brush of “terrorism” is frankly so Orwellian that it taxes the imagination, and raises questions about who couldn’t be labeled as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The only criteria are to be foreign-based, and to have the potential to threaten US interests or nationals. Well, lots of organizations are based in other countries, and every organization has the potential to threaten US interests. All it takes is a week-long consultative process between the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Attorney General to bestow the label, which essentially places restriction on movement and funding, and makes giving support (i.e. a PayPal donation to Wikileaks) a crime for US citizens.

And there’s really no need to beat the dead horse of the lack of tangible damage to US property or personnel (or that of any country, for that matter) any further. Despite its repeated allegations, neither the US nor any other government has brought to light any evidence that current operations have been compromised or that anyone’s actually come to harm. In fact, several partner nations have spoken out to say that their relationship with the US will be undamaged by the revelations in these cables.

So, what should we be learning from the fuss over Cablegate? Probably this. Those who focus too narrowly on Wikileaks miss the bigger picture. Should Assange be shut down, another similar organization will only rise to take his place. The technology exists, as well as an undercurrent of civil discontent with the excesses of governments, big businesses, and religions. It is the same sort of confluence of discontent and technology that was seen with the printing press in the 15th Century.

A more important question is to consider the future of politics, diplomacy, warfare, and daily life in the coming “Age of Transparency” – where the inability to guarantee secure communications and a greater intrusion into previously “private” aspects of life such as political and religious beliefs, sexual mores, shopping habits, income, debt and interpersonal communication will be facilitated by the growing ubiquity of electronic technologies – both for individuals, corporations, and governments.

This is a rich subject that bears exploration by the best minds of the blogosphere, a task they might more readily attend to were they not so focused on a single symptom rather than the underlying condition.

1 comment:

  1. Ben Franklin didn't have a "Rubberhose" type backdoor "encryption" conduit calling home to Daddy Julian Assange with peoples dirty lil' secrets w/out their knowledge that is masquerading as a free security feature provided freely by the one and only Julius Assange.

    I found the "Rubberhose" link via Wikipedia on Assange just last night, did a lil' experiment after finding his famous whole disk cryptography tool. (A great tool to say the least), were it not for the backdoor calling home to daddy Assange during the data encryption process of the totally phony secret data I intended to encrypt...And sent in plain text at that.

    Oh yeah, he will protect the contributors of the info (the leaking "contributors" as he calls them), w/ his life.....Too bad it is he, the thief in the night mainly that he protects.

    If you use Rubberhose, you better never connect a computer containing that drive to the net. It will call Daddy Assange immediately.

    Brilliant. Evil, but brilliant.

    How is that for really big picture?