Monday, December 13, 2010

Julian's Wiki Leaks Upon Us

...freedom's a joke we're just taking a piss
And the whole world must watch the sad comic display
If you're still free start running away.
Because we're coming for you. --Bright Eyes, "Landlocked Blues"

I couldn't resist the quote--made early in the days of the Iraq invasion--from one of my favorite songs of this millennium. It's not exactly on point when it comes to Julian Assange's Wiki-Leaks dump (OK, not quite a dump, more a pisciata, to use the Italian), but there are a few relevant similarities. One is that "freedom" is here being used to spray junk indiscriminately; another is that our diplomacy's workings are here being displayed for effects both "sad" and "comic".

I have to retract some of my comments in my previous post on Wiki-Leaks, though. I thought the first round of leaked documents had a specific purpose: to reveal the weak spots in our Afghan campaign. I didn't really agree with the objective, but to me it was an expression of free press that recalled the Pentagon Papers. This round is more indiscriminate; it seems to be an abuse. Pvt. Manning's alleged release of the documents (another aspect I had wrong last time) and Assange's posting of them seem to have had no reason other than to show that they could. I agree with Secretary of State Clinton and others who have pointed out that, for the most part, the documents provide a vindication of the efforts of our diplomatic corps, all over the world.

There are plenty of victims, some deserving and some less so. The fact that the head of Yemen's government took credit for strikes on his domestic terrorists when we did them doesn't surprise nor appall, though it might cause some loss of face. The criticisms of Afghan President Karzai don't say much new, either; he may be erratic (zigzagging because of the tightrope he walks), his government corrupt (but still I haven't seen any accusations against him personally), but he remains indispensable for our hopes. The description of Italian P.M. Silvio Berlusconi as "feckless, vain, and ineffective" is right on target, and the disclosure may be (finally!) the straw that breaks his government's back. My reading of the situation there is that the government is capable and has adequate confidence from the public (despite the withdrawal of the neo-Fascist faction headed by Gianfranco Fini), but everyone is sick unto death of seeing and hearing him. Secretary Clinton will survive, but her department has been embarrassed by its inability to keep its secret opinions under wraps and her political fortunes have suffered a deep wound.

Rather than the leaks themselves and any possible purpose in them, what I see resulting are a variety of unintended consequences. The openness and access to the diplomatic cables which a young Army intelligence officer could access, copy, and slip into the hands of an unprincipled rogue were the product of an attempt to allow policy-makers all sorts of information to allow them to "connect the dots", a signal failure of our intelligence in the time leading up to 9/11, but now dots will once again be dissociated. Cyber wars break out as unnamed parties attack Wiki-leaks and sympathetic attackers go after those that deny services to them. American diplomats will find more secure ways to transmit and hide their most sensitive assessments. Assange will once again be forced to confront the peculiarities of sex crime laws in Sweden, and the U.S. Department of Justice will examine centuries-old laws to see if they provide some conceivable justification for indictment and possible extradition.

When I was younger, back in the days of Watergate cover-ups and Vietnam deceptions, I challenged my high school civics teacher: why did a democracy need secrecy? I still believe foreign policy options should be debated openly, and facts need to be presented so the public can weigh upon them (even if those issues rarely if ever rise to the importance on the electorate of the domestic economy). What the Wiki-Leaks provide, though, especially this round's disclosures, is something much less than facts, and generally don't meet our "need to know" test.

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