The Wikileaks releases are political dynamite not just because of the specific issues they discuss. Also, and more importantly, they challenge a dominant mode of foreign policymaking in the U.S. and many other countries: government secrecy dumps—routinely stamping vast amounts of information “top secret,” thereby placing it beyond the eyes of all us “untrustworthy” citizens. For this reason alone, the Wikileaks releases are important—and important for us to continue discussing on this blog.
To take a minor issue first, pooh-poohing the releases as “nothing new” is misplaced. This is obvious from the facts that the releases have dominated headlines worldwide for days, that authoritarian governments have tried to keep their publics from seeing any of them, and that democracies like our own seem to be trying to do the same. (Recently, for instance, I could not access Wikileaks from its U.S. site, although it was easy enough to do so from a European one.) At a minimum, we are getting a detailed look at diplomats’ interpretations of events and relationships that most of us knew about only in broadest stroke. That is very worthwhile—and in any case, there is in fact lots that really is new too.
What about the alleged harm to America’s security and diplomacy that the Wikileaks releases will supposedly cause? I am doubtful about this assertion, as I’ve written before. This is not just because even government officials–with the most interest in claiming harms–have admitted that there have not been any (even while darkly intimating that they are coming). It is primarily because I believe far too much of our foreign policy–as well as too much of our domestic policy–is now conducted behind veils of secrecy that make it difficult if not impossible for citizens to know what is being done in our names.
Sure, it may be true that more information does not necessarily lead to better decisions or outcomes. But less information, strategically released by one side to an issue (the government), is far worse. A basic fact about organizations is that they work to expand their powers and to protect themselves, fervently covering up their own uncertainties, embarrassments, mistakes, and corruption. This is of course true of governments too. In an admittedly small way, Wikileaks challenges that tendency—and provides information that citizens, and hopefully at least some of their elected leaders, can use to upend it. In that regard, kudos to Rep. Ron Paul for being one of the few politicians, Democrat or Republican, to make that point publicly!
In light of the huge and concrete harms that have actually occurred in significant part because of government secrecy, Wikileaks’ releases offer a helpful alternative, with so far only abstract and possible harms. If recent decades of U.S. foreign policy teach us anything, it is that the government and the military sometimes tell the truth–but also sometimes color the facts for their own purposes—sometimes make stupid mistakes–and sometimes lie to the American populace. Those errors and lies cost huge amounts in money and lives. The Tonkin Gulf incident, the build-up to the Iraq War, continuing incidents in Afghanistan—these are only the more egregious and costly cases of numerous others in recent decades.
In other words, the current regime of government secrecy dumps has not worked. In that circumstance, I am open to trying a regime of substantially greater transparency–and think it would likely result in better decisionmaking. Unsurprisingly, our politicians are unwilling to take such an approach. They benefit too much from the lack of accountability it permits. On the contrary, in recent years, they have vastly enlarged Top Secret America and hugely expanded their surveillance of ordinary Americans, all in the name of “security.”
In that circumstance, we are left with the press–some of which has remained skeptical and objective, but much of which has adopted cozy relationships with power—and has often cheer-leaded government policy and even secrecy. That leaves us with various NGOs that try to improve government transparency, like the National Security Archive and Wikileaks.
The Wikileaks releases contain information that I as a U.S. citizen have a right to know. After all, this is the government I support through my tax dollars and vote for in elections. The cables document the extent to which current policies have failed, in ways that the government seldom admits to its own people. To take just two examples: our “allies” in the Middle East failing to stop funding for terrorists, as today’s New York Times reports; and the despair of ground-level American officials about the epidemic corruption in our ally, Afghanistan.
Why should I have to wait for some government bureaucrat to perhaps declassify these materials decades from now—or possibly never? Why is it wrong for me to know in detail about the ways in which my tax dollars and my government are operating? Why should we not have more complete and accurate information, allowing us to check claims of government officials, before we spend trillions of dollars and take hundreds of thousands of lives in our wars?
The argument that we should wait 10 or 20 or 50 years so that serious academics can give us a full explanation of today’s events elevates scholarship over policy. It also naively assumes we can trust our officials to release an objective account of events, even decades later. I seriously doubt that.
Of course, there is a need for secrecy in some cases. The classic one: troop movements in the midst of a war—or delicate diplomatic negotiations in real time. The interesting thing, however, is the extent to which government officials strategically use leaks themselves to advance their positions in many situations. Exhibit A: the buildup to the Iraq War. And again, those who should provide some check on the politicians, instead often act as mouthpieces for government positions. Exhibit B: Judith Miller of the New York Times.
The argument that most Americans don’t pay attention to foreign policy issues may be true. But so what? Even if true, and only a small foreign policy elite in government, academia, and the media pays attention most of the time, I think it is worthwhile to have Wikileaks-style material available, if only for them—so that they can more easily awaken the American public to the folly of so many of our policies. More generally, if we had less secrecy about the trillions of dollars being wasted in places like Iraq and Afghanistan vs. the actual risks posed to us there, many more Americans might become interested—and disgusted enough to mobilize against our security policy rat-hole.
As for the claim that Wikileaks is engaging in a deplorable “document dump,” the reality is that this release is being done slowly, in coordination with major media around the globe. And Wikileaks has improved its ways of doing so, in particular redacting names. I’m all in favor of targeted releases of information on specific instances of hidden criminality or waste, of course. But the reality is that there is a wealth of other matters that governments do that are not “criminal” or “corrupt”–but that citizens should know about to gain a fuller picture of what their politicians, bureaucrats, and soldiers are doing in our names and with our money. In that respect, even if Wikileaks were simply “dumping” large numbers of documents, this would pale by comparison to the government’s security dumps.
Some have written that they fear these releases will simply drive more governmental communications into oral form, resulting in worse decisionmaking and less information in real time. This is of course speculative—so let me add my own speculation. The instinct to “cover your ass” is one of the most common in any organization. I am confident that, up and down the chain of command, government functionaries will be reluctant to take questionable actions without written authorization, if for no other reason than CYA.
The “torture memorandums” in the Bush administration offer a prime example. One reason for their preparation and approval at the highest levels was to reassure government officials who would actually do the dirty work that they would not be prosecuted. Without such written support, the possibility of prosecution would probably have deterred many from taking such dubious actions.
Will foreign officials be more reluctant to speak to American diplomats off the record—or, worse yet, stop inviting them to their cocktail parties and weddings? Again, I doubt it. Those officials invariably have ulterior motives for speaking or socializing with a superpower. To think that they will cut us off in the future is shortsighted. To think that they have always been candid with our diplomats in the past is naïve. To continue with the secrecy that has enveloped these kinds of contacts in the past is perverse.
If anything, we need more openness to avoid the costly missteps that crafty foreign leaders have manipulated us into in the past, due in part to our own misjudgment and credulity. The possibility of disclosures could in fact make our diplomats think twice about what they are seeing and being told overseas. If anything, we need more of that, given the gullibility and group-think of military and governmental officialdom. Exhibit C: Iraqi National Congress leader, Ahmed Chalabi; Exhibit D: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the “Taliban leader” with whom we “negotiated” this year, to the tune of untold American dollars—before discovering him to be a fraud.
Will the State Department instruct employees to be less blunt in their assessments of democratic leaders, for fear of offending their tender sensibilities, if the info ever came out? Please. These are all adults engaged in politics, not children in a pre-school class. Democratic leaders are used to being called names by their own countrymen. If they don’t have thick skins, they have no business being in their offices.
As for hurting the feelings of various despots around the world, some of them admittedly “our” despots, I say, Good. In any case, someone like Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, or anyone savvy enough to get the world’s only superpower to do his bidding, is not going to be fooled into thinking that a diplomat’s smile and handshake represent his real feelings. Nor is he going to be shocked to find himself described in frank terms to American officials.
All that said, I have little doubt that “patriotic” government officials are already scrambling to come up with new ways to secure their vast secrecy dumps from (horrors!) the American people. Joe Lieberman is already demonstrating the bluntest and most questionable ways in which our “public servants” are doing that. But I am doubtful that the secrecy regime can be much more severe than it is today—and hopeful that the Internet, combined with the occasional conscience-stricken government official, will keep things at least as open as they are now.
Who knows? Unlikely as it seems, the disclosures and the debate might prompt more Americans to question our secrecy dumps. That might even move some brave politicians to change current policies toward real transparency.