America Fails The Wikileaks Challenge
March 13, 2011

Free Bradley Manning 314

Image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr

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.

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What To Do About Assange
December 5, 2010

Julian Assange at New Media Days 09 in Copenhagen.
Image via Wikipedia

It took me two weeks, but I’ve negotiated an uneasy truce between my sympathy for government transparency* and my understanding that conducting diplomacy responsibly demands some level of hypocrisy. So here goes.

My sense, as I’ve written before, is that the damage this will do, both to Foggy Bottom’s efforts and their human assets, has been wildly overstated. That said, the negative consequences are real enough that I believe we can condemn Assange for behaving badly. Note that condemning his behavior and prosecuting him for it are two very different things.

Modern small-R republicanism is a balancing act between contradictory forces: transparency and consent of the governed on one side, and the necessity for an civil service to manage some of the affairs of state while operating under some level of secrecy. The test for the state now is to demonstrate that this balance between secrecy and transparency works.** This means proving that the state’s commitment to an open society is real, and that it accepts the risks of governing such a society.

Among those risks: People will access and unveil information that they should not. Individuals can and will cause enormous trouble for the state, even when the state is more or less working the way it should. And sometimes defending a free homeland means doing absolutely nothing about it.

If the Justice Department prosecutes Assange under the (deeply problematic) Espionage Act, then the United States government fails the test and proves that Assange was right about them. About us. So here’s what the government should do instead: Forcefully condemn Assange. (Check.) Then acknowledge that nurturing free and open public discourse in the modern era means accepting the possibility that something like this could occur. Lastly, reaffirm that free and open public discourse is worth that risk.¬†Doing that would not only prove Assange wrong, but turn a considerable headache into a victory for the American system.

*Also for misfits, troublemakers, contrarians, and people with badass mountain fortresses.

**Ironically, Wikileaks has already done some of the work for them. The cable dump made American diplomats look pretty good, overall.

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December 2, 2010

Call me a cynic, but I don’t see WikiLeaks changing much — for better or worse — about the way the government both classifies information and conducts diplomacy. But until the noise subsides, it remains a fascinating curiosity. That’s why two of my favorite takes on The Great Cable Dump of 2010 haven’t been about the political fallout, but about the literary merit of the cables themselves.

The two pieces, authored respectively by Reuel Marc Gerecht and Chris Beam, are at their most interesting where they diverge. Where Gerecht sees “bland and underreported,” Beam sees, “cables read like their own literary genre, with an identifiable sensibility and set of conventions.” I’d chalk that up to their differing backgrounds: Gerecht is a veteran of the CIA, while Beam, as far as I know, has never worked for the federal government in any capacity. One has spent a significant portion of his career mired in the American foreign policy apparatus, while the other comes to the cables, as most of us do, as outside observers getting a peek behind the curtain.

That’s probably why I’m more sympathetic to Beam’s assessment of the cables. For Gerecht, this is nothing remotely alien about the culture of American foreign relations, so there’s nothing to report. But for the rest of us, even the mundanity of these cables (and many of them are staggeringly mundane) is news. The flashes of black humor or psychological insight are even more interesting news. Reading these documents is a little like reading the letters and diary entries of historical figures. They’re history and state given individual character and personality.

Crossposted at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

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