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.