Why Wikileaks is Harmful

by Roger Alford

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.


10 Responses

  1. Please forgive me but this is absolutely silly.

    1 Diplomacy: If Bush had invested in diplomacy instead of military force we would not have the disaster called Iraq. Almost without exception diplomats were pushed aside. To now invoke the need for diplomacy is either highly ironic or willfully obtuse.

    2 Safety: If the safety of people would be the prime directive one would demand the immediate halt to the use of drone attacks and other indiscriminate killing techniques. Heck, even the war in Iraq has killed more innocent civilians than it saved. In other words, either be just as concerned about those that are called “collateral damage” or accept the same “collateral damage” when it involves WL.

    3 Transparancy: This is the most ridiculous argument. The US government is increasingly secretive. To the point that innocent bystanders that are tortured under the guise of the War of Terror cannot have their day in court because of National Security. Establishing the torture techniques used is apparently too dangerous for us to know. You are ignoring the already stifling effect the hightened secrecy has had the past decade. As if, without WL, we would be allowed to have trials, see who was meeting the VP to make bussiness deals regarding Iraq, et cetera. Every time possible criminal behaviour is about to be revealed in court State secrecy is invoked.

    All in all the points appear valid, but only if you ignore most of what the US is doing itself.

  2. Roger,

    It seems to me that you could rename your post “Why Whistleblowers are Harmful.” I think any one of your points could apply to any leak. Again, we are back at the question of what differentiates Wikileaks from any other media outlet which publishes leaked government secrets.

    Consider your first point, “Diplomacy.” It should be obvious to anyone that if you write something down, there is a danger of someone it wasn’t intended for reading it (especially if you write it in a digital format). The leaking of written government documents to the media predates Wikileaks and the internet. My guess is that diplomats and other government officials will continue to decide that it is worth the risk to write things down, even after this episode. After all, they continued to do so after the Pentagon Papers and the Downing Street Memo (to pick 2 high profile examples).

    Point two could apply to any media outlet that receives classified information. It is unfortunate if Wikileaks has released names that it should not have, but it seems to be making efforts to prevent this by working closely with other media outlets and inviting the US government to aid in redaction efforts.

    Point three, “transparency,” IMHO usually refers to allowing those outside the government to see what the government is doing, not just greater sharing within the government. The argument that you and Mr. Yost present seems to subvert this understanding of the term. If there is one thing these cables make clear it is that different branches of the government working together does not necessarily make it more accountable. It might just mean a broader effort to cover up wrongdoing and stifle investigations.

  3. The author seems not to have read http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/julian-assange-and-the-computer-conspiracy-“to-destroy-this-invisible-government”/ and thus fails to understand what Assange and Wikileaks are trying to accomplish.

  4. So, should we simply conclude that all goverment officials are the most cowardly gutless pieces of scumbag liars on the planet; and you endorse their gutless cowardice?

    This is the most incredible opportunity that has been visited on the world’s ‘leaders’ (that is if they had a bone of leadership between teh lot of them), for ditching ‘diplomacy’ which is simply another word for LYING, or if you prefer BULLSHIT!

    Consider the politician known as Brad Blanton, from Radical Honesty! He does not practice diplomacy, he has a spine, and is a man of courage and integrity, and what he has to say he says to you to your face, and not in diplomatic language!

    You cannot solve problems while you talk about them in diplomatic language, and when people don’t have the guts to speak their mind honestly and trasnparently. Politicians should say what they say behind closed doors, on the front pages of newspapers; and lawyers should support htem to do so, and then we will have a world focussed on solving problems and integrity, instead of political correct bullshitting!

    Diplomacy is nothing short  of lying and bullshit by politicians who wish to use Orwellian language to BULLSHIT THE PUBLIC; AND YOU ENDORSE IT!


  5. Shouldn’t the question be whether the good effects outweigh the harm?  If so, doesn’t your argument fail by simply ignoring the good?

    “It is only people on the outside looking in who are willing to give Assange a pass.”

    Maybe those people are sick of being “outsiders”, having no say and no power to influence corrupt governments that are controlled entirely by the rich.

    If you approve of the existing power structures, then no doubt Assange will appear harmful to you.  But not everybody thinks things are peachy-keen the way they are.

  6. Speaking as a former career Foreign Service Officer, I’ll state bluntly that transparency will definitely suffer. It already had, prior to WikiLeaks, when new court rulings made e-mails discoverable in courts of law. When an officer had something to say that could be construed (true or not) as potentially libelous, it stayed out of e-mails and out of cables. Instead, it was handled over the phone, secure or not depending on the subject.

    Sure, there’s a record that a phone call was made, but the content was utterly opaque, unless the lines were tapped and recorded. ‘Gutless behavior?’ Perhaps, but behavior that kept one out of the courts and bankruptcy. I think the word ‘prudent’ is more apt.

    “Transparency? Isn’t that a quality of glass?”

    If one needs to report dirt, even just rumored dirt, one’s going to think long and hard about whether to put it into a more-or-less easily revealed medium.

    The leaks here will also cause interlocutors to think twice about how much or even whether they will talk. There are countries where embarrassing the powers-that-be has consequences more severe than firing. I think some of the supporters of the WikiLeaks project believe the world is populated by unicorns, rainbows, and public interest lawyers wielding their mighty wands of justice. In other words, naive twits.

  7. Kevin Heller has a nice response to my post here.


  8. “I think some of the supporters of the WikiLeaks project believe the world is populated by unicorns, rainbows, and public interest lawyers wielding their mighty wands of justice”

    I’m not sure which supporters you’re referring to, but to the contrary, I think most supporters understand that the world’s governments are extremely corrupt and primarily serve the interests of the wealthy.  They don’t think the world is populated by unicorns, they think it’s run by criminals. Why don’t you read what Assange himself says about why he started Wikileaks?

    I’ll point you to this discovery in the Wikileaks documents:

    The Ambassador asked if the corruption and infighting are worse now than before in Kazakhstan. Idenov paused, thought, and then replied, “No, not really. It’s business as usual.
    They’re confused by the corrupt excesses of capitalism. “If Goldman Sachs executives can make $50 million a year and then run America’s economy in Washington, what’s so different about what we do?’ they ask.

  9. John, AKA Former Career Service Officer,

    Crikey moses.. I was aware most of you are gutless, but clearly had rainbow ideas about how gutless you bunch are; when you are so petrified to speak honestly!

    The citizens aren’t asking you to spend your time writing gossip for People Magazine, that could be libelous, but to provide your expert opinions based upon the facts available to you; honestly!

    You ever heard “this is my conclusion, based upon the following facts….”; how can that be libelous??? And if it can, who makes these moron laws?

    Or which definiton of libel are you talking about; don’t sound like this one: “a false and malicious publication printed for the purpose of defaming a living person.”

    But tehn again, how many foreign service officers, or goverment officials are interested in ‘FACTS’? Perhaps that is why they are petrified of being accused of libel? Cause they aint intersted in doing jobs based on facts and impartial analysis of such facts, they are more interested in promoting the slanting of facts for the benefit of their particual political ideology, so they can continue as parasites of taxpaying citizens? Hmmmm less than Stanley Milgram’s 8%? 

    Now just imagine how many problems we could have solved if foreign service officers and poltiicians considered brutal honesty and trasnparency as more important than their political status or fragile ego’s???

    Wikileaks/Julian Assange is to gutless coward foreign service officers and politicians suffering from honesty and transparency incompetence (ie. Dunning & Kruger Effect Psychological Integrity/Ego-Incompetence); what Galileo Galilei was to the Catholic Church!!

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  1. […] Alford of Opinio Juris has a good post explaining why the recent leak of State Department cables is harmful and counterproductive. His co-blogger, Kevin Jon Heller, has a post explaining why Alford’s case is overstated. […]