Why the Benefits of WikiLeaks Far Outweigh Its Dangers

Why the Benefits of WikiLeaks Far Outweigh Its Dangers

As one of WikiLeaks’ defenders, I feel obligated to respond to Roger’s post.  I have two major disagreements with it.  First, I think it significantly overstates the harm caused by WikiLeaks, although it would be equally erroneous to claim that WikiLeaks has caused no harm whatsoever.  Second — and perhaps more important — it completely ignores the the benefits of WikiLeaks’ disclosures.  Any fair assessment of what WikiLeaks has done, I believe, needs to take both the harms and the benefits into account.

Diplomacy

I have no doubt that some diplomats may respond to WikiLeaks’ disclosures by self-censoring and by avoiding written communications.  But it is difficult to believe that WikiLeaks will have any significant or lasting effect on the US’s ability to engage in diplomacy with friendly or unfriendly governments; after all, this is hardly the first time in U.S. history that diplomatic secrets have been disclosed.  Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, said it best a couple of days ago:

Let me just offer some perspective as somebody who’s been at this a long time. Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time. And I dragged this up the other day when I was looking at some of these prospective releases. And this is a quote from John Adams: ‘How can a government go on, publishing all of their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not. To me, it appears as dangerous and pernicious as it is novel.’

Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments — some governments — deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.

So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another.

Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.

Safety

There is also no question that WikiLeaks’ disclosures — particularly the first batch, which it did not redact to remove informants’ names — have the potential to put lives in danger.  But it is important to acknowledge three things.  First, as the government itself has admitted, there is no evidence that anyone has actually been harmed as a result of the disclosures in the six months since the first release of documents.  Second, WikiLeaks has reformed its practices since the first release, as McClatchy acknowledged in the article linked to above:

Unlike the release earlier this year of intelligence documents about the war in Afghanistan, when WikiLeaks posted on its website unredacted documents that included the names of Afghan informants, WikiLeaks agreed this time not to release more than 250,000 documents because they hadn’t been vetted by the U.S. government.

The newspapers said WikiLeaks had agreed to release only the documents used in preparation for articles that appeared in the five publications, which in addition to Le Monde and The New York Times included Great Britain’s Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel and Spain’s El Pais.

“Together, the five newspapers have carefully edited the raw text used to remove all names and indices whose disclosure could pose risks to individuals,” Le Monde said.

Le Monde also said U.S. officials would have the opportunity to argue their point of view in its columns.

Sunday’s release showed a growing willingness on the part of WikiLeaks, whose founder, Julian Assange, is facing rape charges in Sweden, to cooperate with the government on the document trove.

When the first batch of documents was released this summer, WikiLeaks unapologetically released the names of Afghan informants, which U.S. officials charged could lead to their deaths. In the second batch, released in October, which focused on the Iraq war, WikiLeaks withheld names but didn’t work with the U.S. government to determine what could endanger U.S. national security.

Third, the US government has refused to work with WikiLeaks to limit potential danger to individuals, despite WikiLeaks’ asking for its help:

Assange said that all the documents were redacted “carefully.” “They are all reviewed, and they’re all redacted either by us or by the newspapers concerned,” he said. He added that WikiLeaks “formally asked the State Department for assistance with that. That request was formally rejected.”

The State Department has obviously made a calculated decision that working with WikiLeaks is worse than putting lives in danger.  That indicates either that the US government is more worried about legitimizing WikiLeaks than it is about saving lives or — more likely — that it recognizes that the threat of harm is not actually all that significant.

Transparency

This is the weakest “harm” of all.  It is very difficult to take seriously the idea that, in the absence of WikiLeaks’ disclosures, ordinary Americans would know more about what their government is doing in their name and why.  At no point in its history has the US government been more contemptuous of transparency.  Lies about WMDs, abuse of the state-secrets privilege, black sites for torture, warrantless wiretapping, secret government spying on human-rights activists, misuse of FOIA and classification rules — the list goes on and on.  Indeed, it’s safe to say that the only truly bipartisan belief in politics today is that the less Americans know, the better.  Add in a media whose docility is equally unprecedented, and it is easy to see why the US needs WikiLeaks.

Benefits

And that leads me to the factor that Roger ignores: the benefits of WikiLeaks’ disclosures.  All of the dangers that Roger mentions are speculative, however real they may be.  By contrast, the benefits of the disclosures are both real and immediate.  Here, for example, is Juan Cole on what we have learned from WikiLeaks about the Middle East:

1. The British government’s official inquiry into how it got involved in the Iraq War was deeply compromised by the government’s pledge to protect the Bush administration in the course of it.

2. Afghan President Hamid Karzai routinely pardons drug dealers and corrupt officials.

3. Karzai’s brother, Ahmad Wali, is called a corrupt drug dealer. He is chief of the provincial council of Qandahar and said to be more powerful than the province’s governor. A US official wrote, “While we must deal with AWK as the head of the Provincial Council, he is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker. End Note.”

4. The Boston Globe reports of Senator John Kerry that he urged the return of the Golan Heights to Syria in return for peace: “In the meeting last February with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Kerry said Syria should be involved simultaneously in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, saying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “needs to compromise and work the return of the Golan Heights into a formula for peace,’’ according to the summary of Kerry’s remarks.”

5. Israeli General admits that Israel’s narrow focus on its qualitative military edge often conflicts with the global interests of the United States.

6. Former US-appointed interim prime minister of Iraq in 2004-early 2005, Iyad Allawi, is Alleged to have urged a US attack on Iran. He denies the report.

7. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told the US to forget about democracy in Iraq and instead install a dictator (“the Iraqis are too tough.”) He also warned the US to stay in Iraq militarily, asserting that otherwise the Iranians would take over the country. Mubarak had vigorously opposed the US march to war against Iraq in 2002-2003.

8.The Israelis wanted military dictator Pervez Musharraf to remain in power.

9. Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the current Pakistani chief of staff, allegedly considered making a coup in spring, 2009, when Nawaz Sharif was leading a popular movement in the streets to demand the reinstatement of the dismissed supreme court chief justice. Kayani considered moving against President Asaf Ali Zardari in case his weakness might allow Nawaz to return to power.

10. Aside from that occasion, Kayani, is said to have learned from dictator Gen. Musharraf not to try to rule directly. He is adept at staying behind the scenes but using other institutions to protect the interests of the military. He succeeded in foiling an American plan to put civilian politicians in control of the military. (Obviously, this French assessment of Kayani was made before, or in ignorance of, his having toyed with a coup in spring 2009).

Here is Salon on the ten most important revelations in the diplomatic cables:

Diplomats as spies: As part of an intelligence gathering effort, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 ordered diplomats overseas and at the U.N. to collect personal information on foreign officials including credit card and frequent flier numbers and biometric information. Read that cable here, and the New York Times’ writeup here. While this may not be shocking to foreign policy wonks, it is certainly embarrassing for the United States and calls into question how much — and how frequently — the role of diplomat and spy has been blurred.

Secret war in Yemen: The Obama administration has secretly launched missile attacks on suspected terrorists in Yemen, with the Yemeni government taking responsibility and consistently lying about it. While the attacks have drawn relatively little public attention, dozens of civilians along with some suspected terrorists have reportedly been killed. Salon’s account of the Yemen revelation is here. The January 2010 cable describing a meeting between Yemen’s president and Gen. David Petraeus is here.

Iran and North Korea: American intelligence believes Iran has received 19 missiles from North Korea with a range up to 2,000 miles, making them the longest-range missiles in the Iranian arsenal. The Times’ story on the missiles is here. The Times says it did not publish the cable at the request of the Obama administration. It has not been posted by WikiLeaks.

Gates skeptical on Iran attack: Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, in a meeting with his French counterpart in February of this year, said that “he believed a conventional strike by any nation would only delay Iranian plans by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker.” That cable is here.

Saudis want U.S. to bomb Iran: Several Arab leaders have privately urged the U.S. to launch an attack on Iran to stall or stop its nuclear program. Most memorably, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is reported to have “told you [the U.S.] to cut off the head of the snake,” according to a Saudi diplomat . That cable is here. And here is the Guardian’s write-up.

Israel bluffing on Iran threats? The government of Israel, which has been publicly vocal about the possibility of launching airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear program, was not considering such an attack, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told his Russian counterpart on a trip to Moscow in June 2009. The cable describing Lieberman’s trip to Russia is here. A story on the cable from the Israeli press is here.

Fears of uranium in Pakistan: The U.S. has since 2007 tried to get enriched uranium at a Pakistani nuclear reactor out of that country, fearing that the uranium could fall into unfriendly hands and be used to make a bomb. The effort has been unsuccessful. The Times’ story on this is here. The cable has not been published.

Fatah had warning of Gaza invasion? Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told an American congressional delegation that Israel had asked Egypt and Fatah, the Palestian movement that governs the West Bank, “if they were willing to assume control of Gaza once Israel defeated Hamas” prior to Israeli’s devastating attack on Gaza in late 2008. That revelation comes in a June 2009 cable that you can read here. Haaretz’s writeup is here.

Afghan corruption: The U.S. government deals regularly with a brother of President Hamid Karzai whom it believes to be corrupt and a drug trafficker. That’s the conclusion of a cable from October 2009 about Ahmed Wali Karzai, who has also been reported to be on the CIA payroll. This does not come as a shock, but it amounts to official recognition that a U.S. partner in Afghanistan is implicated in criminal enterprises. AFP has more on this story.

Undiplomatic name-calling: This is probably less important than the revelations above, but it is already making waves in the international press: Several of the cables have U.S. diplomats describing foreign leaders in unfriendly terms — from comparing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler to calling Russia’s Vladimir Putin “alpha-dog” and French President Nicolas Sarkozy “the emperor with no clothes.” The CBC has more.

Cole and Salon focus only on the recent disclosures.  We should also not forget about the Guantanamo operating manual, which demonstrated that the US government was lying about not hiding detainees from the ICRC, and the video of the 2007 helicopter attack in Iraq that killed two Reuters employees, which Reuters itself could not obtain.

These revelations — and I could add countless others — did not result from the transparency of the US government.  They did not result from the work of intrepid journalists working for mainstream newspapers.  They resulted from WikiLeaks.

Do the benefits of WikiLeaks outweigh the potential harms?  Readers will, of course, decide that for themselves.  I will give the final word to Daniel Ellsberg, responding to a question about WikiLeaks and the power of “raw information in a democracy”:

I still put my hopes in it, and in democracy – our democracy. A democracy requires this information. Unauthorized disclosures are the lifeblood of a republic. That remains true. We can’t rely only on the authorized handouts from the government any more now than we could under [British King] George III. The First Amendment was a marvelous invention, one of our best contributions to human society. And it deserves to be instituted in every country. Not many have a First Amendment, we are very lucky in that….

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Vlad Perju

Kevin, Excellent post.  My point was not to weigh in the balance the competing interests, but to try and articulate why the government has a legitimate and compelling interest to stop Wikileaks.  It seems many don’t understand why we should have state secrets at all.  You, of course, are not among them.  To be sure, there are costs and benefits to what Wikileaks is doing.  In many ways we are engaging in a classic free speech debate about society’s interest in unfettered discussion, debate, and disclosure. My sense is that the law has already decided the question of the relative merits and demerits of such disclosures, and it is on my side.  There are criminal penalties available to discourage unfiltered disclosure of official state secrets.  There also are safety mechanisms to protect against government abuse, including domestic laws and international treaties.  Free and fair elections are the most obvious check on government abuse. Perhaps the best answer is that we need Assange to be prosecuted so he can raise First Amendment defenses and the courts can weigh the competing interests we have identified.  If that happens, despite all the protections afforded for political speech, I bet the courts will take… Read more »

Kevin Jon Heller

Roger,

I agree with you about the need for courts to resolve the First Amendment issues that Steve blogged about.  And I’m sure you’re right about the outcome for Assange — although I would hope that a court, even one that convicted him, would take seriously the need to encourage and protect whistleblowers and those that publish their leaks, mainstream media or otherwise.

Kevin Jon Heller

As for elections being a check on government abuse, we’ll have to agree to disagree about that one.  Free and fair elections brought us Obama, who is at least as bad, and arguably even worse, than Bush when it comes to government secrecy.  Unfortunately, most Americans couldn’t care less about transparency — especially not in an age in which both parties have perfected the art of using the threat of terrorism to justify even the most indefensible invasions of basic civil liberties.

Ben
Ben

Is it just me or does it seem to be a bit hypocritical, if a government launches of huge outcry and starts to take immediate action when laws of disclosure are breached and state secrets ar revealed, but does not seem to very keen to prosecute the systematic and widespread torture by their own citizens, which can (at least now) be proven due to these documents. I would be very interesting to know how the US Justice Department responded to the information which is now available.

Liz
Liz

I’m not a lawyer, but isn’t the law centered in large degree around precedent? So the fact that certain kernels of information gleened from the 250,000 released documents seems informative to you, and doesn’t seem to be too large of a security risk thus far, doesn’t really touch on the larger point does it? The harm that can be done by permitting such risk.

And I do not hold the assumption that any and all information will result in a transparency that will lend itself towards ‘smarter’ less confrontational government, myself. As though ‘the people’ are a smart animal that react knowledgeably when presented with partial information. That’s virtually never true. There’s a reason propaganda works. For instance, a very very large portion of the population wanted to ‘nuke Afghanistan into the stone age’ after the attacks. They (well, most of them) calmed down after a few years. 

Most of what has been revealed so far shows that American private communication with foreign leaders generally reflects the same sentiments offered by U.S. officials in public. Not so much the case for foreign governments (esp non-democratic ones). And we do have to work with these governments.

Liz
Liz

Thinking further on this, disclosure without context isn’t disclosure, it can be incredibly misleading. And Julian holds the keys to context on what is disclosed here.

I’m reminded of the incident when journalist Segrina and an Italian agent were shot at a checkpoint in Iraq. When the full report came out, her testimony was fallacious…as would be expected from most first-hand testimony following a traumatic event. The car never stopped, the agent slowed down and placed his hand out the window with a cell phone and waved it. The sniper was in the right, no knowing who was in that car but knowing that he wouldn’t stop after warning and held an item that was routinely used to detonate explosive ordinance out the window. For all he knew the person in the car was an insurgent waving them all goodbye.

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[…] and counterproductive. His co-blogger, Kevin Jon Heller, has a post explaining why Alford’s case is overstated. Both are well worth a read. FILED UNDER: National Security, Quick Picks, Robert […]

Jim
Jim

Response…Oddly enough there is precedent having to do with this case:
NEW YORK TIMES CO. v. UNITED STATES, 403 U.S. 713 (1971)
aka “the pentagon papers case”

Keili
Keili

I appreciate every non-hyperbolic response to a news story – a rare occurrence in the age of the 24 hour news cycle. This post does a great job weighing the good and the bad of wiki-leaks.  I think that Secretary of State Clinton’s response to this wiki-leaks fiasco is nothing short of perfection.

The facebook phenomenon lead to extreme exhibitionism – and now school career counsellors, news shows, and teachers warn students/prospective employees to use more discretion with their online personas.  The U.S. needs to learn its lesson the same way unhireable sorority girls do – by engaging in more truthful international relations, or stop “leaking like a sieve.”  The most preferable response being the latter.

Cover-ups and tall-tales like the Pat Tillman scandal are an insult to the American public and international community.  Finally the digital aged has brought a mechanism for some honesty.

Mark
Mark

Response…Assange is not a criminal, in the first instance, he is a saboteur, waging war against the US. Why should the American people suffer at all from any such attacks on diplomatic privacy, and the evenflow of diplomatic communication, just because this man assumes all this evil is lurking behind the legally organized control of such information, and the US is to be exposed. He is singling out American held documents and undermining the intention behind their being kept private. Whether he redacts or not, he is wrong to the extremity of wrongness in his high-handed purging of diplomatic conventions of privacy, letting the chips fall where they may as to harm caused.   Kevin is made stupid by his own sophistication in not realizing this.