This was originally entitled: War of Wikileaks: secrecy vs. anonymity.
Click on WikiLeaks for the WikiLeaks home page. [Added 7/7/11]
Click on WikiLeaks | Media for current articles in The Guardian. [Added 7/14/11].
Click on Media Fix for links to updates on Julian Assange and Wikileaks. [Added 4/14/11]
Click on In Conversation with Julian Assange Part I and Part II for Julian Assange’s philosophy and view of the world. [Added 7/7/11].
Julian Assange and the Wikileaks crew are not spies. They have not revealed the secrets of the United States government or any other government to a hostile foreign power, unless the government regards the American people itself as an enemy
They are not hackers. Their investigative reporting is limited. They are more like publishers or syndicators. They provide a venue in which you can send secret documents and expect to see them published. They are doing what the New York Times did in 1971 when it published the secret Pentagon Papers.
But they are doing more than trying to inform the public. They are waging a nonviolent form of warfare against governments and institutions whose functioning depends on secrecy. They do this by attacking their ability to keep secrets. These institutions are then faced with a dilemma: (1) cease honest communication internally, in which their operations are hampered, or (2) risk having their real purposes and activities know, in which case their operations are hampered.
Assange regards the U.S. military-diplomatic-intelligence establishment as the equivalent of a terrorist network. It operates by means of violence concealed by lies. From his standpoint, inhibiting internal communications within the U.S. State Department is a feature, not a bug. In his words:
The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.
Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.
A government or any other organization needs free and frank internal communication to function well. But if an organization engages in criminal activities, open communication creates a risk that its activities might be revealed. An organization that says one thing in public and does another in private risks disillusioning its members when it tells them the truth, and risks losing touch with reality to the extent it doesn’t. Assange’s aim is to heighten these contradictions.
Assange is completely right that our government has conspiratorial functions. What else would you call the fact that a small percentage of our governing class governs and acts in our name according to information which is freely shared amongst them but which cannot be shared amongst their constituency? And we all probably knew that this was more or less the case; anyone who was surprised that our embassies are doing dirty, secretive, and disingenuous political work as a matter of course is naïve.
But Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms or something, precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more. Instead, he is trying to strangle the links that make the conspiracy possible, to expose the necessary porousness of the American state’s conspiratorial network in hopes that the security state will then try to shrink its computational network in response, thereby making itself dumber and slower and smaller.
Some thuggish politicians and commentators have openly called for Assange’s murder. That such things can be said in public is a measure of how barbaric our political discourse has become. But I don’t think his enemies will try to assassinate him. What I expect the United States government and his other opponents to do is to fight him in terms of information – and disinformation.
As much as Wilileaks’ targets rely on secrecy, Wikileaks relies on anonymity. Wikileaks reportedly has about 40 core members and 800 key supporters, most of them unknown to the public. They go about their business while the semi-fugitive Julian Assange functions as the public face of Wikileaks.
My guess is that the CIA and other intelligence agencies will strike back by trying to discover just who they are, and then, if they can’t bring criminal charges against them, try to smear their reputations and hound them out of their jobs. I don’t know enough to guess whether Assange’s legal troubles in Sweden are an example of this.
Another tactic would be to plant bogus information and use it to discredit Wikileaks. The Pinochet dictatorship in Chile once planted false atrocity stories on Amnesty International and then, when Amnesty published them as true, used them to discredit the human rights organization.
The foundation of Wikileaks is its ability to guarantee anonymity to whistleblowers. It could survive the unmasking of some of its own members, but it could not survive the loss of that absolute guarantee. So I am sure intelligence agencies are working overnight to penetrate Wikileaks’ security.
Wikileaks’ effectiveness depends on public trust that it has the integrity and competence to assure the documents it publishes are authentic. Trust is hard to gain, easy to lose and easy to undermine. It would take one big foulup to undermine that trust. Of course, foulups can occur without sabotage or subversion.
As a newspaper reporter, I have written articles based on confidential documents leaked from Kodak, Xerox and other companies. I never felt I was doing anything wrong; it was part of my job. On the other hand, I only disclosed information that in some way affected the well-being of the readers of the newspaper. I didn’t expose secrets just for the sake of embarrassing people.
Also, I sometimes was told things in confidence, and respected the confidence. As a reporter, I sometimes was told things “not for attribution,” which meant that I agreed not to reveal who told me, and “off the record,” which meant that I could not refer to the information at all, although I was free to re-discover from independent sources on my own.
I’m not comfortable with a world in which any kind of private communication can be published, and subjected to the worst possible interpretation. I’m thinking of the hacking by climate change deniers of the e-mails of scientists at the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit, and the publication of e-mails circulated among members of Journolist, a list-serve for 100 or so liberal journalists. The scientists and the journalists found their most thoughtless statements blown up and subject to the worst possible interpretation. I would hate to have something like this done to me.
But this is reality of the world we live in. So far as I know, nobody asked for an injunction to stop publication of those e-mails.
And after all, if government agencies are free to read my e-mail, listen to my phone conversations, examine my financial records and find out what books I’ve bought and borrowed, why shouldn’t I have the right to know what they’re doing? How can I perform my duty as a citizen of a democracy if the government’s significant decisions are made behind the veil of secrecy?
Peter Galison, a Harvard historian of science, estimated in a 2004 article that the U.S. government had 7.5 billion pages of classified documents on file – equal to all the books, periodicals and documents in the Library of Congress! And this summer, Dana Priest and Bill Arkin reported in the Washington Post about the vast network of secret organizations that has sprung up in the wake of the war on terror – 1,271 top secret government organizations and 1,931 top secret contractors with more than 850,000 people with top secret clearances at more than 10,000 locations. No single individual in the government knows exactly what they do.
Wikileaks is not an ideal answer to out-of-control growth in secrecy, but I don’t know a better one. Under the circumstances, Julian Assange and his friends are heroes.
[Video added 12/13/10. Hat tip to Zunguzungu.]
Click on Conspiracy as Governance for Julian Assange’s statement of his political theory.
Click on Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy and Wikileaks, Now for astute analysis by Aaron Bady on his Zungazunga web log. My own thinking about Wikileaks is based largely on these two web log posts. I recommend reading both of them in their entirety.
Click on Interesting Question for Julian Assange’s web log from 2006-2007. It is worth reading as the product of an original mind, but the only part obviously relevant to Wikileaks is what I quoted above.
Click on Julian Assange answers your questions for a recent interview in The Guardian.
Click on TIME interview with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange for a recent interview in Time magazine.
Click on An Interview With Wikileaks’ Julian Assange for a recent interview in Forbes magazine. Assange said that one of his intellectual influences is American libertarianism, and that capitalism requires dissemination of accurate information to function well.
Click on “The Truth Will Always Win” for Julian Assange’s op-ed column in The Australian. [Added 12/7/10]
Click on Julian Assange’s mission for total transparency for a recent New Yorker profile of Julian Assange.
Click on Julian Assange Wikipedia biography for detailed biographical information.
Click on The culture of conspiracy, the conspiracy of culture for comments by “Doctor Science” on the Obsidian Wings web log.
Click on Removing Knowledge for Peter Galison’s 2004 article in Critical Inquiry on classified documents.
Click on A hidden world, growing beyond control for the Washington Post series on the proliferation of secret intelligence agencies. The site includes a web log on continuing developments on this question.
Leaked information is not necessarily more accurate or significant than public information. A confidential State Department report published by Wikileaks does not necessarily contain better information than a good article published by the McClatchey newspaper syndicate or a peer-reviewed article in a political science journal. In fact, secret information is more likely to be bogus than public information because it does not have to meet the test of criticism.
Nevertheless, leaked information of lesser significance is more newsworthy that public information of greater significance. The economics and culture of journalism is oriented toward exclusive information. The leaking of classified information plays into this. In my opinion, much government information is classified as secret just so that it can be leaked exclusively to favored reporters.
Wikileaks is cleverly taking advantage of this syndrome. Rather than posting all its State Department cables on the Internet for all the world to see, it has made deals with certain newspapers – The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El Pais – to publish them exclusively. That was smart. It gives these newspapers an incentive to make the most of the information; it gives them a vested interest in Wikileaks continued survival. It also raises some delicate questions about conflicts of interest.
Sooner or later Wikileaks copycats will emerge. Even if the original Wikileaks goes down, its model for disseminating information will continue, but the standards for evaluating information will inevitably decline. Governments, corporations and even terrorist organizations will learn to use the weaker copycat organizations, or even set up front organizations of their own, to disseminate false information.
We live in interesting times.
Click on The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy for comment by Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality pioneer and critic of Internet culture. [Added 12/23/10]
Click on Wikileaks Exposes Internet’s Dissent Tax, not Nerd Supremacy for a rejoiner. [Added 12/23/10]
Click on The Blast Shack for comment by SF writer Bruce Sterling, author of the non-fiction The Hacker Crackdown. [Added 12/23/10]
Click on Hacker Culture: A Response to Bruce Sterling on Wikileaks for a rejoiner. [Added 12/23/10]
View Julian Assange’s spoof of a MasterCard commercial. [Added 7/14/11].
Click on How Arab governments tried to silence WikiLeaks for an article in The Guardian about attacks on Arab newspapers that published WikiLeaks information. [Added 7/14/11]
Click on Dear Julian: It Was Not the Wikileaks for an Egyptian view of WikiLeaks and the Arab Spring. [Added 7/14/11]
View the Southern Avenger’s view of Wikileaks on The American Conservative web site. [Added 7/29/11]