Two Theories of Wikileaks, or Just One?

So far as  I can tell, the news coverage of the latest diplomatic infodump breaks along a line orthogonal to ordinary US partisanship. Either:

1. There’s nothing new here, although the possibility of future exposure may hamper diplomatic efforts in the near term.


2. Secrecy is bad, here are some secrets.

Neither perspective is particular liberal or particularly conservative, so it’s dispute that entails odd bedfellows.

In a sense, we can say that these responses line up along the narratives supplied by Julian Assange, or those pushed by the US Government and its allies. But the interesting thing about this is that there’s no real conflict between the two narratives. It could be both the case that secrecy is bad, and the case that this particular set of secrets doesn’t include anything that wasn’t already public or that needed to be public.

My own allegiances are with the second camp in principle, but in practice, regarding the last two sets of leaks, I find the first camp more persuasive. The US has a number of interrelated overclassification problems: many things are secret that ought not to be secret. Worse, many things are classified secret that aren’t even actually secret. That is: much of the information in secret classified documents is also publicly available from other sources!

Another way of putting this is that there’s always a tension between transparency and privacy, and we can only champion a particular set of publications because they disclose information that ought to be transparent, not because they disclose something that ought to be private. (Thus witness the tension over exposing US collaborators and informants in the last infodump.)

In keeping with this, I propose the following standard of rigor on the dispute that needn’t be a dispute:

  • Proponents of the leaks ought to say what, specifically, they revealed that was not already known and needs further attention, and give principled reasons for preserving transparency for such information.
  • Opponents of the leaks ought to say what, specifically, the leaks revealed that shouldn’t have been revealed, and give principled reasons for preserving the secrecy of such information.

Of course, by demanding principled reasons and attention to specific facts, I’m basically siding against Wikileaks itself. I’m claiming that rights and duties are not generic enough to be purely pro-transparency or purely pro-secrecy, especially when we consider that privacy is predicated on a kind of secrecy that is always at odds with transparency. There’s no a priori answer to these questions, because the particular facts matter. Yet Wikileaks treats them as having been settled a priori, as if the only relevant fact can be summed up by a nursery rhyme:

“Secrets, secrets, they’re no fun!
Secrets, secrets, hurt someone.”

As such, I do not believe that Wikileaks has a principled reason for releasing each piece of data. That lack of principle is implicit in the way the infodumps are carried out, scattershot, without redaction. That’s what distinguishes Wikileaks from, for instance, the New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers. Yet because Wikileaks or something like it is unavoidable in the world we now inhabit, we ought to consider how to respond to it. Surely sharing its unprincipled relationship to data is not the answer. (If you disagree, could I have your credit card info please?)

Indeed, for a priori moralists, they seem to have missed the memo on self-consistency. In an amusing performative contradiction, the administrators of and contributors to Wikileaks (not to be confused with its public representative/lighting rod, Julian Assange) is itself quite secretive.

10 thoughts on “Two Theories of Wikileaks, or Just One?”

  1. I'm not sure I get the argument here. First of all, it seems a little reductive to say that the only two options for a principled position are "secrets" or "no secrets." (So, although I agree with you that referencing specific leaks, in general, may add strength to one's position in an argument with an opponent, I'm just not sure that that necessarily obviates the possibility that one can hold a more absolutist position about this.) Even if someone actually held the (reductive) principled position "State secrets are always bad" (without any further conditions or qualifications), I don't think that person is necessarily required by his or own position to justify that belief by reference to specific "revealed secrets" in order to remain consistently opposed to State secrecy.

    Similarly, I can be opposed to Wikileaks as a matter of principle because, say, I think right of governments to control State information trumps the rights of individuals and/or private-sector businesses to take it upon themselves to reveal State information. And I can hold that principled belief without any reference to actual secrets. In fact, I think if I held that position, I would pretty much be required to hold it in the absence of concrete examples (since I wouldn't want to know those specifics, nor would I want anyone else to know them).

    1. I must not have been clear.

      Let me see if I can clarify: I meant to say that that the case for the leak of the diplomatic cables seems to be absolutist, while the case against it seems not to be: "all secrets are bad" or "these secrets were good, and it was bad to release them." Assange seems to me to be an absolutist when it comes to opposing state secrets, as evidenced by his essays. In contrast, I don't believe that there are any folks who are absolutists in support of state secrets. Something is always too much for the pro-secrecy crowd: secret torture, secret cover-ups of friendly-fire incidents, secret support for genocidal regimes, secret election fraud, whatever.

      I couldn't tell whether your own position was an absolute anti-secret position or not, but if it's not absolutist, don't you owe an account of what, specifically, justifies a leak? If you support a leak without specifics, it seems like you can only support it on principle, that is, absolutely.

      That puts you in the same position as pro-secrecy people (I suppose that's me, in this case) who owe an account of what, specifically, makes a leak problematic or unjustified. I'd say the damage to the US capacity to negotiate with autocratic regimes, along with the support that the leaks have given to those who want to go to war with Iran, are at the heart of my case. Because of those things, the leaks have bad consequences, and so far as I can tell, they don't have good consequences (nothing useful was exposed, much of it was already public knowledge without the specifics) so we ought to say that the leaks are wrong or unjustified.

      Of course, perhaps I'm missing some important information in the diplomatic cables that is essential to democratic accountability. If you can tell me what that is, I'll have to re-evaluate. But at present, you haven't given any specifics that justify your position. Therefore, unless I'm missing something, I think we must conclude that your support is either absolutist or unjustified.

      If it's absolutist, I'd be interested to work out the details of your position, on the possibility that you might be right to stand on principle and I might be wrong to see nuance in acts that are absolutely evil. (Cf. nuances on slavery or gencoide.) If it's unjustified, shouldn't you amend your position?

  2. By the way, I think I made a mistake when I wrote that, "It could be both the case that secrecy is bad, and the case that this particular set of secrets doesn’t include anything that wasn’t already public or that needed to be public."

    As Assange points out, revealing non-conspiratorial secrets has the effect of putting other secret-keepers on notice that their secrets may also be revealed. So there are two theories, not one. Damn. Sorry for the confusion: we only need nuance and detail if we eschew absolutism.

  3. On this view, could a state exercise absolute control over some kinds of information without being totalitarian? Could it carry on absolutely secret diplomatic negotiations, for instance, without being totalitarian? Sometimes it's necessary to have secret negotiations, after all, and there's a difference between negotiating in secret and acting in secret on the basis of those deliberations. I'd be interested to hear the case against such secrecy.

    There's a kind of contagion I'm worried about here. Something like: lying about WMDs means that the state can't be justified in keeping my social security number secret. I know you'll say that my social security number is different from diplomatic cables. But doesn't that mean that, even on the principle you've enunciated, one has to point to what it is about the leaked information that makes it a candidate for disclosure? Thus, you have to enunciate the specifics in principle, even if not the specific facts.

    But I'd say that diplomatic cables can be secret for a good reason. For instance, consider the way that these leaks have enhanced the likelihood of an attack, either American or Israeli, on Iran. The publication of the private support of Arab governments for that action has tremendous public relations consequences, and not to the good. Hypocrisy is good sometimes, especially when it comes from an attempt to be better than we are. ("Hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue.")

  4. "Thus, you have to enunciate the specifics in principle, even if not the specific facts."

    Yes, I totally agree. This is what I mean when I say that there can be a non-absolutist, nuanced, but still "principled" position that doesn't make referece to particular case-studies as its justification.

    "could a state exercise absolute control over some kinds of information without being totalitarian?"

    I'm inclined to say no. I think a State could exercise total control over some particular piece of information and not be totalitarian, but not over entire kinds of information.

    1. "not over entire kinds of information."

      I don't mean to get all metaphysical, but what do you mean by "kinds" of information? What's a kind? How do we decide whether the information is a "kind" or simply some subset of a kind, i.e. a "particular piece"?

      Are diplomatic cables a "kind"? Are "accounts of Dagestani weddings" a kind? Are cables or accounts of weddings being kept secret if the broad outlines are already publicly available?

  5. I suppose I would say that one can have a non-absolutist and nuanced position that is still based on principle and doesn’t require reference to the specific details of some specific case as justification. That’s how I see my position– such that I have a decided “position” on this at all, which I wouldn’t necessarily claim– as I elaborated it here.

    So my “principle” would be something like: “A State ought not exercise totalitarian control over information that concerns its constituents. As it appears to more and more closely approximate this kind of totalitarian information-control, violations of that secrecy are more and more justified.”

  6. I think the absolutist nature of the problem comes from Wikileaks itself–the information is being released pell-mell without regard to value. Although we can have a more nuanced position, our position on Wikileaks is limited by the methodology of the infodump.

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