With the latest drop of classified US documents – this time some 250,000 diplomatic dispatches – there seems to be a growing backlash, not only among those whose arrogant secrecy is being punctured and their Beltway apologists in the media, but even among some American progressives. The reasoning is pretty simple: wholesale dumps of documents, rather than selecting out the ones where, say, laws are being violated, not only buries important information in minutiae, but in this case undermines US diplomatic efforts by making public (and threatening to do so in the future) things like internal risk assessments which the public has no particular need to know, but which can be counterproductive or damaging to the principals.
But such criticisms miss the point of WikiLeaks. The organization is neither liberal nor conservative. It takes no sides, other than the side of openness and against secrecy. Think of WikiLeaks as a global parallel to the ACLU’s First Amendment absolutism. The ACLU will defend skinheads or pornographers as vigorously as political dissidents, because they’re implementing a principle without regard to who benefits or doesn’t, on the basis that upholding the principle itself is more important than the particulars of any one case.
Similarly, WikiLeaks functions in the Internet age to sunshine secret operations, on the assumption that they shouldn’t be secret. Agree or disagree with the principle, but that’s what they do. And on balance, in 2010, there’s far more being kept out of the public eye that shouldn’t be than there is legitimate need-to-know information.
So while I don’t really care about plastic surgery in Azerbaijan, or much of the other gossip and sausage-making in the latest release, I do care that our political leaders are frequently saying one thing in public and another in private, or burying the evidence of extensive war crimes (as has been documented in past releases). And it’s worth Azerbaijan gossip, or the occasional diplomatic setback, for that information to be made public. At minimum, the example of it gives leaders in many countries – not just the US – some additional pause about their ability to pull off such duplicity.
The real question with WikiLeaks is whether it should be an absolutist organization, or whether it should be making judgment calls about what it releases. It has already done the latter in some cases; in the previous Afghan and Iraq war dumps, for example, it withheld information (such as informants’ identities) that it felt could endanger lives. But beyond that standard, WikiLeaks has chosen the absolutist path, and it’s a defensible choice. Were it to cherry-pick, it would open itself up to all sorts of other criticisms: that it had no authority or mandate to make such judgments, that it was politically biased in its selections of what to withhold or make public, and so on. Wholesale document dumps reduce the debate on WikiLeaks to a much simpler one: is the principle of making the secrets of nations, corporations, and other powerful entities public whenever possible useful, or not?
Given the inherent tendency of such institutions to abuse their power and then hide their abuses, yes, it is useful. Absolutely. And that WikiLeaks continues to do so in the face of relentless efforts to discredit and destroy it is not only useful, but heroic.
But apparently the White House is serious in expecting us to take the following at face value in response to the latest WikiLeaks response:
I suppose those very few people who are naive and foolish enough to “come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government” get what they deserve, but really, democracy? Open government? In which war zone? In which part of the Middle East? (Many of the dispatches released by WikiLeaks concern that part of the world.) Relating to which covert ops and spying operations? Guantanamo? Our letting which of our favorite pet dictatorships “render” and torture whichever prisoners we don’t want to soil our dirty little hands with? Our meddling in the affairs of which other sovereign government — in other words, in which other country in which the US, in these dispatches, is practicing “diplomacy”?
Of course, the White House parses its words very carefully, so it’s useful to note in the above sentence that the Obama administration is not claiming that it (or any other US administration) actually promotes “democracy and open government” — only that a few deluded, idealistic souls actually think we might help them do it. But don’t expect that point to be noticed by most Americans. The White House clearly doesn’t expect it.
Up is down. Peace is war. And WikiLeaks are the bad guys.
These guys deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. Seriously. They’ve done far more to shine a spotlight on the ugly practices of American (and allied Western) warmaking than any other institution in memory.
(They won’t get it, though. The Peace Prize goes primarily to plucky Third World democracy activists and to warmaking Western political leaders who provide counterintuitive paeans to peace.)
The latest – a document dump of some 250,000 US diplomatic dispatches – is a host of unsavory American practices that archivists will be burrowing through for years.
The thing is, while these revelations will set off all sorts of diplomatic crises for the US (and those heroic efforts, not the revelations themselves, will be the focus of lapdog US media attention), there’s really nothing unusual in them. This is undoubtably how the US has been conducting its foreign policy for years, in Republican and Democratic administrations alike: with arrogance, contempt for other countries, and with the assumption of a nearly unlimited authority to manipulate domestic affairs in other countries to the US’s liking. The previous sentence could easily describe the whole of America’s Cold War operations, and nothing’s changed since then.
Here’s a little tidbit to brighten your holiday weekend.
This recent story from the Onion was funny: Frustrated Obama Sends Nation Rambling 75,000-Word E-Mail
The credulous response from the satire-impaired Fox Nation was perhaps funnier: Fox Nation readers confuse Onion article with real news
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