Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Open Society and its Friends: WikiLeaks

“We must plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no other reason than only freedom can make security more secure.”
(Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol 2, Ch 21)

This citation from Karl Popper’s seminal work defining the foundations of western societies (as we like to see them at any rate) sets the real context for the whole debate over WikiLeaks – a context which seems to have been forgotten by the many members of the political establishment worldwide who have loudly been expressing indignation at the actions of the website and those running it.

There is, of course, a difference between the high ideals and aspirations which are expressed in constitutions all over the world and the nasty cutthroat world of Realpolitik. It’s a jungle out there and principles alone won’t serve to protect you all that well. This is why states need armies and diplomats and all that other cool stuff.

But accepting this reality does not mean that principles, ideals and aspirations are not important, otherwise one ends with the Stalinist cynicism implied in his famous question about the number of brigades commanded by the pope. The basis of all modern societies, inspired by their first Enlightenment incarnations in the USA and France is that might is not right and that government is by the people of the people for the people.

One of the guarantors of these constitutional democratic principles is what is often called “the Fourth Estate,” a free press dedicated to the free dissemination of information which pertains to the public interest and comment thereon. Indeed, the very term “Fourth Estate” has itself its origins in the French Revolution. And this is what makes the issue of WikiLeaks so important.

What has WikiLeaks done which is so wrong? It has published documents which pertain to issues of the public interest, documents originating from (mostly US) government sources, sources in other words which draw all their legitimacy from the fact that they are elected by the people to act in their interests and to pay and oversee others to carry out particular tasks in the public interest and on its behalf. So basically, Wikileaks has been telling the public what the institutions of government have been doing in its name; a basic function of the free press and one which is necessary in any open society to act as a check against the abuse of power.

The arguments against WikiLeaks run along parallel tracks; firstly, the information they have published is confidential and therefore should not be reproduced in the public domain and, secondly, the publication of this information does actual harm – particularly to the USA and their interests as a state. I’ll address the second of these arguments first, as a reflection on it will lead logically to the first one.

In terms of some of the documents published about the war in Afghanistan there may be some cause to worry that the revelation of actual military tactical and strategic information may have endangered some on-going operations, and even the lives of specific individuals. Realising this weakness, and realising that their strength was in the obtaining and publishing of information and not in the evaluation and redacting of it, the WikiLeaks people changed their modus operandi significantly during the publication of the Afghanistan documents and before publishing the second major group of documents, those originating in the US State Department, and obtained the cooperation of The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel to advise them and vet the material prior to publication. If there was actually a problem here, it has been dealt with by adding an instance of professional journalistic oversight.

The further question arises as to the actual concrete harm done by the leaking of diplomatic documents, originating from government sources, with the purpose of publicising them to the people who elected that government, to whom that government is responsible and from whom it derives its legitimation. It is certainly uncomfortable for the State Department to have the honest, plain-talking, confidential reports of its employees around the world publicised for all to read. But the real fault here lies not with WikiLeaks, but with those who put such documents in such a domain that their privacy and confidentiality had already been destroyed. The State Department files which WikiLeaks published were potentially available to up to two million US government workers. As David Rothkopf cogently expressed it, “if a 22-year-old moon-faced army private with a blank Lady Gaga CD in his hand can download a mountain of classified documents and make them public, I wonder how many other slightly more sophisticated actors have been siphoning out more important secrets more discreetly over the past several years.” There can be very little doubt that all the relevant intelligence agencies of the countries (and their political bosses) where, apparently, so much damage was done by the leaking of the documents, whether Iran or Russia or China or any of the others, if they are not completely incompetent, have long been aware of the contents of the documents anyway.

Yes, there was some embarrassment and there will be more, as more documents are published, but the real “harm” done was the exposure of the irresponsible way security procedures were organised within the US government apparatus and the possible future lack of trust on the part of diplomatic employees of the US throughout the world following the realisation that every undiplomatic opinion they state, every honest report they write may be available for the whole world to read. Candour, I suspect, can only be expected – if at all – in handwritten notes on edible paper, sent in the diplomatic pouch.

The primary question anyway is that of the extent to which confidentiality is necessary or even desirable in the dealings and actions of government. I would argue that the right to such confidentiality is a reflection of the trust which the sovereign people can place in their elected governments, exercising power in their name. Apart from a plethora of other issues, the documents published by WikiLeaks are yet another proof that practically all of our governments have proved themselves unworthy of such trust. As John Naughton put it recently in The Guardian:

“What WikiLeaks is really exposing is the extent to which the western democratic system has been hollowed out. In the last decade its political elites have been shown to be incompetent (Ireland, the US and UK in not regulating banks); corrupt (all governments in relation to the arms trade); or recklessly militaristic (the US and UK in Iraq). And yet nowhere have they been called to account in any effective way. Instead they have obfuscated, lied or blustered their way through. And when, finally, the veil of secrecy is lifted, their reflex reaction is to kill the messenger.”

And they’re not even making the pretence of putting on kid gloves to do it. Pressure put on Amazon and other IT businesses to remove WikiLeaks from their servers, on PayPal/Ebay and Mastercard to block attempts from ordinary citizens to donate money, the whole sorry spectacle of the attempt to get Julian Assange to the USA via a sexual abuse charge in Sweden (the precise nature of which seems to be a matter of debate among various Swedish legal officers), there to be tried for treason – if Senator Joe Lieberman has his way – and possibly sentenced to death.

I’m not for a minute claiming here that Assange is a saint. If he has committed crimes of sexual abuse in Sweden then the allegations must be investigated and he should be charged and tried for them. But this is purely a matter for the Swedish police and prosecutors, independent of any political influence. And if the Swedes take the independence of their judicial system seriously, this must now preclude them extraditing him to the USA, where the utterances of Senator Lieberman may have ensured that there is little possibility of him getting a fair trial, should he be arraigned for anything. If treason (for a non-American!) is the charge, then he could even expect the death penalty – reason enough for Sweden to refuse to extradite him!

Listening to Senator Lieberman, I feel very worried. There are two possibilities and both are frightening; either the senator really believes what he is saying, in which case he exhibits a stupidity and dangerous naivety frightening in a public representative of so many years experience, or he is indulging in a cynical, vicious, small-minded, vindictive witch-hunt. And to think that this man came within a few hanging chads of Dick Cheney’s job – truly, in retrospect, America in 2000 had the choice between typhus and cholera!

We are now in the tenth year since the attack on the Twin Towers. Watching the WikiLeaks spectacle unfold, I tend to think that the terrorists have achieved more than they dared to dream. Through the reactions of fear, siege-mentality and the dangerous indulged temptation to flail out blindly at almost any (rightly or wrongly) perceived threat, they have managed to strike a deep blow at the basic values underpinning western society; values like openness, accountability, the rule of law and due process, faith and trust in the power of integrity to face down fanaticism and terror. The political leadership in the USA has reacted precisely the way Osama bin Laden hoped and they are too stupid to realise it or too cynical to care.

In a better, more honest society, WikiLeaks would not be necessary. As it is, these people are vital and, thanks to the nature of the internet, they and many like them will be almost impossible to subdue. Unless, of course, the politicians are prepared to wage open war on the internet itself. There are signs that moves are afoot in this direction, but here, I hope and believe, the citizens will finally tell them they’ve gone too far. Moreover, given that large sections of the press, the conventional Fourth Estate, is under the private control of a few immensely rich individuals, with their own political agendas, we can indeed be thankful that the largely non-regulated, non-centralised internet provides both a platform and means for the publication and dissemination of the activities of our governments acting in our names. Or, as is promised in future leaks, the corrupt dealings of some of those financial institutions who have been given billions in public funding following the recent financial crisis, for which they themselves are largely responsible.

I’ll finish this as I started, with a reference to Karl Popper. In The Open Society he quotes with approval a comment from Kant: “Kant remarked once in a very different spirit that the sentence 'Truthfulness is the best policy' might indeed be questionable, whilst the sentence 'Truthfulness is better than policy' is beyond dispute.” It is because the political classes have lost any respect for the value of truthfulness that the work of groups like WikiLeaks is so important. Our leaders and representatives really only need one thing to make the whistle-blowers superfluous. It’s called integrity.


  1. Wikileak is more change Obama can imaging. We NEED transparency for our global society that we created an cannot control.To many crises. Would we have gone to Iraq over Weapons of mass destruction is we could read the cables first ? Climate Summit ? Redesign our 200 years old political system now. How can a few wise people understand these complex global issues pending ? How can we survive ? Shutting down WL is naive. At least the cork out of the bottle. Fact is that secrets are harder to keep anno 2010. Discuss it is the only option.

  2. It seems possible there's going to be an attempt to shut down the internet or at least the web which is the way most people access. Already, in the US, the plan is to control content and distribution. The FCC has already declared that it has control over the internet, broadband radio and a host of other services. This whole business is very strange.

  3. To cut a long com(pli)ment short: Chapeau!

  4. I posted this short video on my site, and it basically says that the entire wikileaks thing was a pscyop. The leaks weren't really leaks, but a clandestine operation started by the CIA...

    Not spamming.....really.

  5. I don't see what the excitement is about..we all know this stuff goes on ..and has since politics,diplomacy etc. came into being in the beginning of the human race.. so now things like the King Of Saudia Arabia said are now out in the open..a little common sense thinking and you would he was thinking that anyway...what makes me chuckle as I sit in the frozen tundra of Canada is how the old knee jerk the U.S. is the bogey man reaction is being shouted far and near..they all do it and have been since the beginning..

  6. An unintended consequence of the WikiLeaks hullabaloo has been to create a rallying point for underground hacktivists, folks I smarmily refer to as Space Monkeys (from Fight Club, if you've seen it): the threat to cybersecurity has never been more clear and I wonder what kind of draconian measures we are likely to see in the coming years.

  7. My argument on WikiLeaks is that you could get all the information (and more) from academic books and papers written over more than a century.
    The very idea that a system with 3 million accessors is secure is a joke.
    What has been released, embarrassment aside, suits US foreign policy anyway.
    Much more important is the treatment of Assange and threats made against him.

  8. I think most of the comments fall into two categories:

    1.) What's the fuss about? These are silly secrets (most of them) and we're better off with more openness.

    2.) As Susan, James and (to an extent) Neil/allcoppedout suggest, there is an impending challenge and attempt to control the internet by governments. The internet, as a medium for free, uncensored expression is a thorn in the eye for all statist control-freaks. From this vantage, I see the activities of various WikiLeaks hacker supporters in the past week to ion-cannon PayPal, Mastercard, et al. with concern. While I understand their motivations, such activities provide lots of lovely ammunition for those government elements who are holding their rusty knives ready to castrate the web.

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