Leaving aside Julian Assange’s enigmatic personality and pending criminal charges, dumping a massive amount of unseen diplomatic cables into the hands of eager major media outlets may require a great deal of audacity, but it is hardly the action of a heroic humanitarian journalist. Assange has devised a clever way allowing people with any sort of sensitive information to anonymously release it for publication and international scrutiny. What he hasn’t done is uncover some sort of massive international conspiracy, or inform the public of a rough equivalent of, say, the Watergate scandal. The cables that were leaked have, so far at least, not shown the potential to exact any major change in governments across the world, or reframe political debates to focus on matters that are truly pressing: environmental issues, cuts to social programs, or the widening economic disparities between the world’s wealthiest and poorest countries.
In fact, that content of the leaks has been mostly just embarrassing, giving us glimpses of diplomatic conversations that, for example, refer to North Korea as a “spoiled child,” and notes China’s growing annoyance with the country that counts them as their only international ally. Or there is the example of a US diplomatic referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as “risk-averse and rarely creative.” Generally, the leaks confirmed suspicions that most people already had (“you mean the Afghan government is corrupt?!”), or gave us something to point and laugh about, knowing that, somewhere, a diplomat with a cushy job was burying a red face into his or her hands.
What the leaks could do, however, is to ensure that government officials are even more tight-lipped than before, and guarantee that even less of the “confidential” information that could actually provide a platform for change will reach the general public.
Late in 2010, a leaked cable reached the media stating that former Environment Minister Jim Prentice had discussed the possibility of bringing in tighter regulations for the Alberta oil sands, in response to worries over Canada’s green reputation internationally. Shortly after the date of the leaked conversation, Prentice resigned his post to become Vice-President of CIBC, and was replaced by John Baird, and, eventually, Peter Kent. This points us towards what seems a logical conclusion, that Prentice’s own concerns on the environment led to him being ushered out the door. Rather than causing a public outcry, this story appeared on the media radar, and faded just as quickly. Taking this example into consideration, I would argue that WikiLeaks will provide us with more in allowing us to reflect on our own apathy and jaded view about politics themselves, than it will by exacting any direct and meaningful change.
Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks and source of top-secret government information leak, was jailed yesterday in London after an extradition hearing on allegations of sexual assault. Reviled by governments and revered by supporters, Assange has become the poster boy for the penetration of the security that once defined the privileged information of the American government.
There are two ways to look at the moral status of Julian Assange. If you have faith (even carefully reasoned faith) that your government acts justly when it declares a document “confidential”, then it is simpler to argue that Julian Assange was wrong for publicizing the thousands of diplomatic cables and hundreds of thousands of military dispatches now known as the Wikileaks documents. If, however, you believe that certain principles supersede the declarations of a government, then you may be inclined toward my position. Not only did Julian Assange not break any laws in his home country, but actually he was right to give access to secretive information that offered immeasurable insight into the operations of governments all over the world.
A democracy thrives on information. The heart and soul of a democratic system is its ability to debate, to engage, to persuade, and to inform. While some politicians prefer to think that the populace must only make choices come voting time, a healthy democracy makes an informed choice.
The Wikileaks docs are information. It may not seem that this needs to be said, but I want to distinguish these documents from their typical qualifier—classified. Yes, they are (were) classified information. But it is that very word that is in question, so be careful not to reason backwards: the fact that the information is (was) verboten, does not change its status as information.
Is all information need-to-know information? When asking yourself this, it is important to wonder whom the secrecy benefits. I think this is the crux of the question: if the secrecy protects us from our enemies, then we should welcome it. If the secrecy protects our government from us, there is a more sinister agenda afoot. Or perhaps the secrecy protects us from our enemies, and also protects our governments from us (who, presumably, we have the power to dispose of).
For the sake of the most alluring debate, let’s assume that the third option is correct. Our governments are secretive to keep our enemies at bay. But they are also keeping us at bay. If by informing ourselves we also inform our enemies that is a small sacrifice for a larger good.
Furthermore, our enemies are not merely factual entities. While sometimes they alert us to their presence with threats or attacks, who they are is largely identified and characterized by our governments. Then those same governments tell us that they must keep information about their international operations confidential, so as not to alert enemies that they have, at least in part, defined.
So far, I have been generally arguing from an American perspective. All these documents were the property of the US government who applied the “confidential” label. But we have already seen dramatic changes internationally as citizens recognize their own suspicions in a diplomatic cable. While it is not certain that the Wikileaks info-dump is causally linked to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, speculations abound. At the very least, the documents gave Canadians a chance to snicker into their sleeves about American diplomats snitting over anti-American television programs.
He gave us that, at least.