Why Wikileaks is Harmful
One of the underlying issues in the Wikileaks controversy is whether Julian Assange is truly that harmful. His defenders, and even some of his critics, maintain that Assange is not that dangerous. I disagree.
Diplomacy. Diplomacy will be immeasurably more difficult if what government officials say in secret to one another can never be trusted to remain secret. Covert or confidential planning in the national interest, or to further international peace and security, is now compromised. As Simon Chesterman has argued:
The message that is almost certainly going through every major power is: be careful what you commit to writing. In place of candid assessments and provocative analysis, many important decisions will now be based on oral briefings and meetings that are not recorded in minutes. Decision-makers will be wary of openness even with their closest staff…. Such self-censorship will lead to worse decisions and less accountability for the decisions that are made. It seems a high price to pay for gossip.
Safety. Why would anyone–whistleblower, drug cartel mole, counter-terrorist informant, or Afghan ally–ever entrust confidential information to any government official if his identity could be made public on Wikileaks and used against him by his enemies? Keith Yost of MIT has nicely summarized some of the havoc Assange has wreaked on the world:
In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Julian Assange … was asked if he would ever refrain from releasing information he knew might get someone killed. The question was not just hypothetical: a year and a half earlier, Assange had published a study that detailed technical vulnerabilities in actively employed U.S. Army countermeasures against improvised explosive devices. There was no conceivable benefit to publishing the information. The Army needed no extra pressure to address the vulnerabilities — it was already desperately searching for new countermeasures to protect its soldiers. The only beneficiaries were insurgents, who, using Assange’s gift, could better murder U.S. servicemen. In response to the interview question, Assange was blase. Yes, he admitted, there might be some “blood on our hands,” some “collateral damage, if you will.” But unlike the journalistic world at large, he didn’t feel it was his duty to weigh and pass judgment on the value of the information he made public. Transparency, the WikiLeaks founder obstinately insisted, would create a better society for all, and we must be willing to break a few eggs to make the omelette…. He has revealed the names of Afghan civilians who collaborate with U.S. forces, a move that was greeted with joy by Taliban commanders, who quickly promised to hunt down and execute those named. He has betrayed the identities of human rights activists and journalists who, at great risk to themselves, passed information on their conditions to U.S. diplomats. In discussing one source, a diplomat pleads: “Please Protect,” and for good reason — with the informant’s identity now known, there is a serious risk that this the poor woman who trusted the United States will be whisked off to prison or worse.
Transparency. Ironically, Assange’s efforts will actually promote more government secrecy, not less. There will be less sharing of information. The firewalls will be raised higher. As Simon Chesterman put it, “The perverse consequence of this guerrilla transparency will in fact be greater secrecy, worse decision-making, and less accountability in the United States and elsewhere.” Yost agrees:
The greatest irony is that by proving transparency can be used for evil as well as good, Assange hasn’t just harmed our national security, he’s poisoned the very movement he purports to lead. After 9/11, we worked hard to tear down the walls between agencies and encourage a free flow of information that would better help us connect the dots on issues such as terrorism. It is likely that in the aftermath of WikiLeaks’ attack, our government will return to its Cold War ways, silo-ing information, reducing what it writes down, and securing itself against releases, good or bad.
It is interesting that almost no one in the U.S. government–Democrat or Republican–is publicly blasé about the threat. It is only people on the outside looking in who are willing to give Assange a pass.