Everyone’s abuzz about WikiLeaks dumping thousands of confidential State Department and (in October) Iraq War documents on the Internet. We’ve heard opinions on the import and value of the disclosed information, the role of whistle-blowers and conversely the necessity of confidentiality, especially in diplomacy. We’ve heard claims and counterclaims about the damage caused. Even if one agrees that some degree of confidentiality is necessary, which I do, we’ve rightly been asked to consider again whether the government classifies much more than need be, the same issue that precipitated the 1966 Freedom of Information Act. One thing is clear. Pontificate as we might, not one of us is likely to read even a fraction, much less all, of the 100 Thousand plus disclosed documents. That pertains for any indiscriminate information dump of this scale. So it’s fair to conclude that ultimately the symbolism of disclosure may be more the point than any individual revelation.
Tempting as it may be to weigh in on these or any other related issues, I’d like to take a longer view of this event and, more importantly, to suggest a context that we may want to consider. As such, far more interesting to me than any of the many reports and analysis was Time Magazine managing editor Rick Stengel’s November 30 Skype interview of Julian Assange. The transcript (and accompanying audio) can be found on Time’s website and is well worth a look. Two things struck me about this interview.
First was Mr. Assange, who claims himself to be a high-minded whistle blower, but comes off as a self-righteous, if not arrogant, self-proclaimed truth teller. This is not to suggest for a moment that forcing more openness is not a good thing. But transparency apparently is not WikiLeaks’ objective. In his words, …it is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it's our goal to achieve a more just society. In all fairness, he adds transparency and openness tends to lead in that direction, but who makes him the arbiter of what constitutes a just society? Of course any of us can make that judgment for ourselves and even share our opinion with others. Bloggers (myself included) and columnists regularly do so. But we’re talking about the effective and (to some large degree) arbitrary wholesale declassification of what in many cases can fairly be called legitimately private communications. Yes, government must be held to a much higher standard — the public has a significant right to know more than might generally be disclosed — but let’s not be hypocritical here. Each and every one of us maintains a degree of privacy including what we deem privileged communications. We would be totally outraged by its disclosure, not only because we see it as an invasion but also because it might result in more unintended than intended consequences. It might hurt us; more importantly others.
Second is a stark reminder that in the digital age especially, even the largest and most powerful of societies is vulnerable to the action of a small group of people (no one knows the size of WikiLeaks’ organization) or of a single individual like Assange. While expressing what in another context would be one of those some of my best friends remarks and admitting the Russians and Chinese might well not make his just society list, his objective is clearly to undermine the United States. Indeed, some have characterized these information dumps as terrorist acts (by implication) analogous to Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks. Perhaps that goes too far — we use the word terrorist much too loosely. I’m sure Assange both deplores bin Laden and cringes at any such comparison. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t discount, intended or not, the effective relationship of the two and the multiplier effect.
Bin Laden may be an Islamic extremist, but he is a strategic thinker. His targeting of the World Trade Center (twice) was premised on the idea that disrupting financial markets would be especially damaging to the United States. Adding the Pentagon and (it is assumed) Capital Hill would produce a threefer in that regard. One could argue (augmented by self-inflicted wounds) that our financial stability has not been the same since. But it wasn’t only the direct effect on our financial base; he also suckered us into the war in Afghanistan, the mother of all military sinkholes to which (as with the financial debacle) we happily added Iraq. Bin Laden knew that big powers have trouble doing little things and going to war with boots on the ground was more likely than some focused finite retaliatory strikes. Both the financial and military consequences are intertwined and have drained us in profound ways. Together they have called into question our preeminent position in the world and have undermined our internal confidence, not to mention potentially our political stability.
WikiLeaks moves have been no less strategic. Its Iraq dump brought no new revelations to a subject exhaustively examined by investigative reporting. In some ways, it served more as a look at what we can do to you boast. The latest revelations again may have produced no big surprises but they cover much wider ground and thus may be far more damaging. It isn’t, as others have noted, what was revealed per se. Rather it potentially undermines the trust we have established throughout the world behind the scenes, places not subject to the inevitable posturing evident in many public pronouncements. Governments across the world, while in some cases expressing annoyance, have largely discounted the impact. Perhaps, but it’s hard to believe that communications will be as free on either side and that can’t be good. The end result, especially the multiplier effect, is to weaken the United States.
Superpower nations have been laid low before, and in the context of world history, we’ve had quite a good run. But in the past competitor nation states have usually precipitated the decline and fall. This is not to discount internal arrogance or corruption (or in our case the potentially lethal growing gap between rich and poor) that degrade a society from within. Also, long before the digital age individuals like Gandhi were able to spur a movement that, one could argue, didn’t simply free the Indian continent of British rule, but also effectively brought down the Empire.
Maybe bin Laden and Assange are not both terrorists or even co-conspirators but both are playing a role in undermining and, as such, diminishing our power as a nation. They may be getting a lot of help as we continue to bicker with one another just as we avoid facing more than today’s news bulletin and ultimately seem in the game only for our individual selves. We do ask what our country can do for us not the other way around. We may pay lip service to asking that it do less, but not of course at the expense of doing with less ourselves. For so many reasons, their vastly different motivations notwithstanding, we are vulnerable to the bin Laden’s and the Assange’s; to the multiplier effect. That’s what we might really want to think about in considering the now exposed State Department cables.