Monday, 6 December 2010


I've been struggling to reach an opinion on the Wikileaks issue since it erupted.

On the one hand, I am firmly in favour of openness in government, and firmly against many of the abuses that Wikileaks and others have uncovered.  If secrecy allows governments to engage in such abuses away from the watchful (?) eye of the voters, then disclosure is good, surely?  It has also amused me to see the governments who assured us that if we had nothing to hide, then we had nothing to fear from disclosure, suddenly demonstrating that they seem to have something to hide.

On the other hand, I do accept that some information does need to be kept secret, and that doing so is in all our interests.  Who is this Assange person to assess this, I wonder?  I also worry that the whole affair is developing into a personality cult around Assange, and wonder whether the ultimate aim is to knock down the unnecessary curtains around abuse or build up the podium under Assange?

But David Allen Green has clarified it a little for me.  He has the same dilemma.  On the one hand:
Transparency in diplomatic and governmental matters is important, for behind the cloak of secrecy and plausible deniability can lie malice, selfishness and incompetence. Open access to reliable information enables us to participate effectively in a democratic society: in particular, voters can get beyond the self-serving spin of politicians and media outlets. In the wise words of Louis Brandeis, one of the greatest jurists in American history, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
...but nevertheless:
But transparency is not the only liberal value. There are others, and these are important, too.
For example, there is the value of legitimacy: those who wield power in the public interest should normally have some democratic mandate or accountability.
However, no one has voted for WikiLeaks, nor does it have any form of democratic supervision. Indeed, it is accountable to no one at all. One may think that this is a good thing: that with such absolute autonomy WikiLeaks can do things that it otherwise might not be able to do. One could even take comfort that WikiLeaks represents the "good guys" and is "doing the right thing".
There it is; there is the source of my unease.  It is an unease that flows form the process, not the disclosures themselves.  It is that Wikileaks has set itself up and is trying very hard to operate in a way that cannot be overseen by law.

This is wrong.  This is an issue in which a fine balance needs to be struck, between the benefits of disclosure and its cleansing effect on the activities of governments, and the harm that could flow from uninhibited disclosure.  We have institutions, independent of government, which are set up with the express remit of reaching such decisions; they are called Courts.

That is where this matter should be taken; there should be an immunity law allowing any official or their proxy in possession of information to take it, anonymously, to a Court and apply for it to be disclosed.  If the information is above a threshold of triviality, then the administration should be invited to explain why the information should be withheld.  The Court should then be tasked with looking critically at the administration response, rejecting it unless clearly justified, and be given the power to grant immunity to the official allowing him to publish (perhaps in a redacted form).

(Yes, yes, none of us can use the Courts because it is too scary and expensive.  But that is another argument, one for reforming our Court system.)

In this way, Wikileaks could operate within the law, and be subject to an oversight that would give it legitemacy.


  1. The US hounds a teenager who hacked into its defence computers, but apparently did no harm (he should be congratulated for finding the weaknesses!). Now they don't seem to be active in trying to find who leaked these papers, and are just concentrating their efforts on the person who published them.
    Surely the person in the US establishment who released them is the real person that they should be after?

  2. I thought they already had a US intelligence source thought to be the leaker under arrest?

  3. They are indeed going for the source; I have heard of one US politician demanding that he be tried for treason so that he can be executed.

    Note though that Assange does not appear to have committed any criminal act in the US. That is, presumably, why the DDoS attacks were launched and the Swedish allegations were revived. In short, all possible forms of dirty tricks are being played, and every available string is being pulled, in order to prevent Assange from publicising the fact that the US plays dirty tricks and pulls strings in order to achieve its ends?

  4. On balance, I think Wikileaks is a bad thing. Certainly, interesting and useful information will drip into the public sphere as a result, but in the end, for a Government to make decent judgments about things, it needs to build on frank comments from (e.g.) diplomats etc. All Wikileaks will do is make such channels of communication more bland and the decisions of Governments, less astute.

  5. Yes.

    There is a case for disclosure of these things, where the security risk is low and the hypocrisy or wrongdoing that would be exposed is serious. Wikileaks has no standing to make this assessment. So far, the recent round of disclosures seems to be either trivial, or trivial and risky.

  6. Newsnight last night indicated he had anarchist leanings, if so, his motivation is not to keep us informed but to attack government. Moreover, even if we do argue that leaks are good in principle, we can never make leaks universal. At the moment the US is in the limelight. Will an equal amount of material be leaked against the Russians, or the Arabs? Presumably not, so all he is doing is disadvantaging one side against another. Whatever the failings of the Americans, it is not clear to me that Russia or the Arabs are immaculate (to coin a word for the day).

  7. Exactly - the leaks may be justifiable, but Assange has no authority to assess that.

    I agree it is unfair on the non-Mafia, non-Terrorist states that all the leaks will inevitably be against them, but don't see that as a reason to conceal wrongdoing by them.

  8. The Court system wouldn't work in my opinion. Those that do and say the right things would be appointed, because so much would be at stake.

    Albert, I completely disagree that the information should not be published because the wrong doing of others won't be published. We can all make inferences. In my book, crime is crime (or in a stricter sense, violation is violation) and should be dealt with.

    Did we lock up the editor of the Daily Telegraph for publishing MPs expenses which was also stolen information? No. Should we lock up Assange? No. As far as I can see, no information so far has endangered lives and for once, it might make the US be more responsible in its actions. Why is this happening and why is it approved of? Because America did become imperialist under Bush and it should sort out Israel and Palestine without being partisan. I am pleased to see the US being held to account. I hope other countries, like China and Russia, will be too. This is possibly a start.

    Wikileaks is now saying it is a publisher. This may be posturing, but as P identified, it is on a sticky wicket being perceived as a constant publicity machine. Appalling atrocities should be aired, but tittle tattle tries to convey to the authorities don't mess with us.

    The game may escalate which would be dangerous to Wikileaks if it results in them losing the support of the people. A deal needs to be struck, whereby Assange will comply but on his terms. The way he is being dealt by the Swedes, the US and us is bordering on disgraceful.

    Albert, don't believe everything you hear on Newsnight; Wikileaks' actions to date seem warranted in my opinion. Why is the US still jumping up and down? Well, it makes you wonder what has been covered up. Does it matter Assange is labelled an anarchist? Whose interest is that in?

    In my opinion Wikileaks to date makes the world a better place and is a reaction to where we are at. A balance in what is released does seem to be being struck. Is it right? That depends on the information released, but the guys managing it are far from stupid, P.