Well, they’ve done it again. Queensland-boy Julian Assange and his band of merry journalists and IT-nerds have flooded the internet once again with sensitive information that embarrasses several governments, most notably the US, by releasing the content of several hundred thousand diplomatic cables. The revelations in these cables range from salacious information about the ‘blonde Ukranian nurse’ that the Libyan leader Kaddafi hangs out with, to truly important stuff like the widespread misinformation that Arab leaders perpetrate on their own population in the form of covertly urging the Americans to invade Iran whilst openly washing their hands of American actions. This is the third time now that Wikileaks has managed to get an immense amount of public attention on the underbelly of government operations. And more has been promised in that we are to get the inside information on how a big American bank really does business.
What we have seen so far is still fairly benign. The leaks on the Irak and Afghan campaigns show what the term ‘fog of war’ really means, i.e. that mistakes are made, that nasty people can do nasty things if given discretion, and that civil war is not pretty. This is no surprise to those who study war, but it does go counter to the clean image that sides present of themselves in the media (including the image of the islamists: the number of tortured beheaded corpses found in Iraq was quite something. The released documents form an historical record of what Muslims did to each other). The same goes for the diplomatic leaks: few surprises to the insiders, but there is a distinct loss of face. Those who think the public can handle the truth and want open government in general should rejoice (though for reasons entirely unclear to me, some advocates of free information don’t ). The realists amongst us simply note that the ability of governments to maintain an image has just been reduced a notch. Not by much, but it is a reduction in the power of government relative to the discerning portion of their populations, which is of course why governments are displeased.
What will happen to the Wikileaks team? Are we in the age where governments will really be held accountable by their populations? Is the uncovering of sensitive information good or bad for our democracies and international security? These are the issues mused about below.
What will happen to Wikileaks is a guessing same. Here’s mine: a fly cannot irk big beasts for too long without being swatted by them. Soon Julian Assange will get caught, if not by Interpol which seems to be close to putting out a warrant on him, then by the Australian prosecutors who will want to ‘scrutinise whether he has broken the law’, or else some other Western government. Once he is caught, I predict he will spend the rest of his life in the courts. His prior actions make it believable that he would skip bail, so as long as new charges can be brought against him (and diligent American prosecutors can be very creative about these things), he can be kept busy for the rest of his life. The army of pro-bono lawyers that will undoubtedly adopt his case will still not prevent him from being caught in red tape.
There are those that believe Mr. Assange will meet an accident, but I personally think no Western politician can afford to give that order and that he will thus simply be kept busy once caught. Indeed, I would expect him to be relatively well-treated as a person for fear of making a martyr out of him, or the fear of what he has up his sleeve to reveal. Julian Assange in that sense has a fairly clear historical predecessor in the 19th century. A Scot named David Urquhart published confidential state papers of the Russian government and then later of the Victorian government. He even founded several outlets in his attempt to do away with state secrets. This killed his career but he was still allowed to live out his days on ‘the continent’.
How are they going to legally go after the whistle-blowers in future? The most practical suggestion I have seen sofar is to make an awful lot more information copy-righted. If nearly all sensitive material is copy-righted then copyright laws can be used to go after any individual or organisation disseminating it without having to resort to shady ‘national security’ laws. Perhaps other means will be found.
Yet, the genie is out of the bottle. The ability of the internet to disseminate sensitive information around the world in milliseconds will guarantee that other whistle-blowing sites will come and go and that there will be thus remain some forum for widespread leaks. Leaking has undoubtedly become easier. And sexier! The fact that Julian Assange has managed to get random women to sleep with him in Sweden (and who now primarily seem to want to charge him for rape because he didn’t use a condom) is of course an added incentive for any other would-be organiser of these kinds of leaks. Pop-star status and its trappings attract copy-cats.
How much does the ability to put sensitive information on the web and out of reach of governments reduce their power? Hard to say, but I would think not much, at least not in the short run. Governments controlled 40% of GDP yesterday and will do so tomorrow. Most of their activities and their budgets are already quite visible. The real power of governments is in the belief of their populations that they are working in the interest of those populations and that itself requires no secrecy as long as that is what they do. In well-functioning states, few secrets are really important. Secrecy is more aimed at protecting individuals within the bureaucracy from criticism and accountability, but is not really important for the operation of the state as a whole. Far more open-minded states than the Anglo-Saxon model survive perfectly well, notably Sweden or even the Netherlands (not much is secret there). Nevertheless, states have immense resources available to guide information streams, so they have many options open to keep things secret. They can devise more secure internal systems, make it harder to copy information and keep the sensitive information in different data formats. No doubt, they will do this.
A fear propounded by those who see the wikileaks of this world as attacking the nation state, is that telling the world about the internal deliberations of government exposes useful secrets to enemies. This effect seems likely to be minimal, even if far more sensitive material is released than has been released so far. It is already impossible to keep the deliberations of a large group of people secret. Foreign governments and big corporations already can find out pretty accurately what is being thought about them in a big bureaucracy via spying, bribery, poaching of ex-employees, unofficial communication, etc. Apparently, 3 million Americans have security clearance to see sensitive documents. Leaks about internal deliberations are thus not going to be helping our enemies by telling them something they didn’t know.
What about the ability to keep an image? That has of course been reduced, but there the reality is that few in the West are truly interested in the internal deliberations of government or other big organisations for that matter and hence the masses can easily be lead to ignore such leaks. The fact that it is now a little easier for the already well-informed to spot the hypocrisy of any image is immaterial. For the majority of the population, the revelations of greatest interest are probably the salacious bits of gossip about famous politicians.
Does leaking increase accountability? I would say unequivocally yes. The less any organisation can keep a secret, the more an organisation has to keep within the social norms of the society it operates in, which is the essence of accountability. The question is whether we have seen much of real interest so far uncovered by the online journalism of wikileaks. For my taste, the exposure of the war documents will probably make army commanders in the next war be a little more careful than they would otherwise be, and the exposure of the hypocrisy of the Saudi elite should be an eye-opener to the general population, but there has not yet been anything to really bother the rich and powerful. To have true accountability one would want far more insidious information: one would want to know the names of corrupt officials and details of the shady deals done by private organisations. Of course, that is far harder to get since one is then chasing the same information that the police is chasing so one cannot really expect too much there.
There is finally the question whether accountability is really that desirable when it comes to civil servants. One would definitely want accountability in the long-run, but in the short-run there is something to be said for a bit of trust and non-interference.
Hence, on the whole, I’d say Julian Assange is destined for a lifetime of prison food unless he finds a country willing to protect him. Wikileaks should be applauded for its adherence to the ideal of openness and government accountability, but it has not yet opened up the powerful to truly invasive scrutiny of the bad things some of them get up to. Perhaps that is yet to come. I certainly hope so.