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WikiLeaks: For Better or Worse -- or Both?

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WikiLeaks has been making big headlines again -- most recently, with the arrest of spokesperson and Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange, based on allegations that he committed two sexual assaults in Sweden. As readers are likely well aware, in late November of this year, Wikileaks released some 250,000 diplomatic cables and documents. The documents then trickled out from major news organizations, week after week.

WikiLeaks, of course, is in the business of exposing secret information. It has leaked everything from classified information about the United States's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to secrets of Scientology, not to mention the initiation ritual of the Alpha Sigma Tau sorority.

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Because of my own unique experiences with government secrecy in the Watergate years, and because I have written about the excessive secrecy of the Bush II presidency, I have received a number of media inquiries asking if I am interested in publicly defending Assange. However, when radio and television producers discover my feelings about this matter, they quickly see that my take on WikiLeaks will make neither exciting news, nor very good theater.

Notwithstanding the media's portrayal of the situation, this is not a black-and-white issue. Nor is this situation one where you must be either wholly for, or wholly against, WikiLeaks. Those who see Assange and other WikiLeaks members as evil and horrifying are just as wrong as those who find them heroic and praiseworthy. In fact, the organization and its work is all those things, which is both its strength and its weakness. In this sense, the organization is very much like the topic with which it deals, secrecy and openness: inherently conflicted.

I find it troubling that this highly-secret organization, exploiting Internet anonymity, has failed to develop a clear set of criteria as to which secrets should be exposed, and which ought to remain secret. Accordingly, it seems to me that WikiLeaks is exposing for the sake of exposing, and that its members may have little appreciation for the true nature of secrecy.

The WikiLeaks Assumption: Secrecy Is Bad, If Not Outright Evil

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WikiLeaks describes its mission rather broadly, characterizing itself as " a non-profit media organization dedicated to bringing important news and information to the public" through "an innovative, secure and anonymous way for independent sources around the world to leak information to our journalists." WikiLeaks says it is interested in publishing "material of ethical, political and historical significance while keeping the identity of our sources anonymous, thus providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices."

If the "revealing of suppressed and censored injustices" were truly the controlling criterion of the organization's decisions of when to leak, then it would be simply irrational to take issue with its mission. However, a close look at the secrets the organization has actually exposed, thus far, shows that -- with some noble exceptions -- their selection of the information that they are publicizing has little to do with "injustices." And, it has everything to do with the simple fact that this information was previously considered secret. Their actions tell us much more than their words.

Consider, for example, the leaks of which the organization is most proud, and which it sets forth on its webpage as exemplars of its work. It describes the 250,000 cables of U.S. Embassy communications traffic as documents that "will give people around the world an unprecedented insight into the US Government's foreign activities." However, as anyone who has looked at these cables knows, they do not feature "injustices"; rather, they simply chronicle the day-to-day workings of our foreign service as it looks out for American interests abroad.

The cables have embarrassed us all because of their private candor, not because of injustices they reveal. And unsurprisingly, there is no evidence that the release of this information has served any useful purpose. To contend that this work constitutes a set of "suppressed and censored injustices" is absurd.

Similarly, the so-called "Iraq War Logs" released by WikiLeaks are described as detailing "events as seen and heard by the US military troops on the ground in Iraq . . ." The organization contends that these "are the first real glimpse into the secret history of the war that the United States government has been privy to throughout."

While a case can be made that all war is "unjust," that is not the nature of the material WikiLeaks has published. Rather, WikiLeaks has simply published revelations about the horrors that accompany all wars. Releasing this raw data has done nothing to heal the wounds of war; rather, it pours salt into them.

Meanwhile, as far I can tell, there is no real claim of injustice whatsoever in WikiLeaks's releasing the secrets of Scientology, or the rituals of Alpha Sigma Tau sorority, and other such TMZ-level information. Yet these leaks are consistent with what I can only conclude is the WikiLeaks assumption underlying all the leaks they publish: That secrecy is always bad, and openness is always good.

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This, however, is a deeply flawed assumption. In looking at WikiLeaks's material, I can find only one apparent restraint on their releasing information, which they adopted after the fact -- that the information's release must not cause the death of anyone involved. It certainly was a good afterthought, but they need to think a bit more about what they are doing, before they go ahead and do it, with no better pretext than simply that they are making what was secret, public.

The antidote to excessive secrecy, when and where it exists, is not wanton openness. In fact, there are often good and real reasons for secrecy, far short of a revelation's causing someone's death.

The Nature Of Secrecy: Philosopher Sissela Bok's Analysis

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John Dean was White House legal counsel to President Nixon for a thousand days. Dean also served as chief minority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee and as an associate deputy attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice. He is author of the book, (more...)
 

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