Given that my security clearance is so low I can’t even get behind the New Yorker paywall, it’s probably wise for me to approach broad pronouncements on the impact of the Wikileaks cable dump with a certain amount of epistemic humility (which, granted, I haven’t always done). But for now let’s take the Secretary of Defense at his word when he says that this was a mild irritant to the United States government and its interests, not a genuine threat. If that’s the case, then it strikes me that the challenge Wikileaks poses to the US is more philosophical than anything else.
This challenge attacks directly America’s conception of itself as a free and open society. To understand how it does that, we first need to make explicit some key features of open societies: namely that they contain major legal institutions and statutes designed to protect both whistleblowers and critics of the state. Additional statutes ensure that any individual accused of a crime is entitled to a fair hearing and (both before and, if applicable, after conviction) humane treatment.
In any society that shares these features, the state runs some pretty major risks, including the possibility of a major leak like the Wikileaks cable dump. So the Wikileaks challenge as articulated by someone who supports the cable dump (which, to be clear, I do not) might go something like this:
Any attributes America shares with a true open society are merely cosmetic. In reality, the United States government’s primary interest is not in making sure even its least well-off citizens prosper, but in securing and maintaining power for an elite few. For these elite, maintaining the illusion of an open society while consolidating their influence requires a softer touch. Expansive secrecy and information asymmetry are among their most important instruments of power, and if their monopoly on these instruments are threatened, the illusion of an open society will start to break down as the elite regresses into using more traditionally authoritarian methods of control.
On the other hand, of course, a truly open society could absorb a threat to state secrecy without too much of a fuss. People may get put on trial for criminal acts, but you won’t see any real cracks in those legal statutes and institutions I was talking about.
So how has the United States government performed? Well, there was some noise early on about extraditing Julian Assange to the US and trying him under the Espionage Act, but that seems less likely before. If Assange is not brought to the US, then we will have just barely passed the Wikileaks challenge on that front.
But there will still be Bradley Manning, the alleged leaker, to contend with. Though Manning, a US citizen, has only recently been formally charged, for months he has been held in solitary confinement and subjected to the sort of brutal, humiliating conditions you wouldn’t exactly expect from the government of an open society. More recently, President Barack Obama has tacitly endorsed this sort of inhumane treatment.
So with regards to Bradley Manning, the United States government’s response to the Wikileaks challenge has been an abject failure. That should be particularly dismaying to anyone who thinks the pro-cable dump case I laid out above is cynical and wrong. America’s open society features are far more than cosmetic, but far less than what they could be. And if the Manning case has made one thing clear, it’s that we’re headed in exactly the wrong direction on these issues.
In the aftermath of the cable dump, the United States had a perfect opportunity to demonstrate its ability to withstand and even profit from the potential risks of an open society. Bradley Manning’s treatment is evidence of the exact opposite reaction. I still believe — have to believe, actually — that the pro-cable dump argument is wrong. Too bad that the United States government has inadvertently become its most strident advocate.