On last night’s MSNBC show Countdown, hosted by Keith Olbermann, Michael Moore, Olbermann’s guest at the top of the hour, held forth in defense of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. It was a sad moment, a painful display of muddled reasoning on the part of Moore. The fact is that Assange and WikiLeaks deserve to get the scrutiny they are now under, as well as many of the criticisms and questions that are now directed their way.
The stated motives that drive Assange and WikiLeaks are noble ones, and exposing government deception and corruption are, without a doubt, laudable activities – ceteris paribus. It is the height of naiveté for any citizen (or subject) to believe all that his or her government says. What has propelled WikiLeaks forward, both financially and in terms of notoriety, is the fact that there remains so much corruption in government. In the United States, for example, it is beyond any reasonable doubt that the Bush/Cheney administration had no proper casus belli for war with Iraq, and there are no doubt many things about that administration that are yet to be uncovered that will further establish the truth regarding its egregious misconduct and betrayal of the American people. The Iraq war caused the death or injury of hundreds of thousands. If that war was, as so many believe, based largely upon lies, the United States government owes a moral debt of enormous proportions to the international community and its own citizens, and a financial debt of reparations that is of the same enormous proportions. No, it is no wonder that something like WikiLeaks has come into being, and there will likely be many more such upstart organizations. But, as I said, the stated motives and activities of Assange and WikiLeaks are noble and laudable ceteris paribus. The ceteris paribus is where the problems begin. After beginning to publish 251,287 leaked US Embassy cables on November 28 (the number actually published on WikiLeaks’s website seems to be increasing daily), what seemed noble and laudable began to take on a different hue. A strong sentiment began to arise against the irresponsibility of such publication, even though the documents, supposedly, support certain of WikiLeaks’s “journalistic” posts which, as far as I can tell, are no more than commentaries to the effect that the cables demonstrate “the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors,” as though that is somehow surprising. The strong sentiment against WikiLeaks demonstrates that people are beginning to ask questions about whether we want “sunshine” and “transparency” at any cost – even at the cost of undermining the normal diplomatic activities of our own government, activities that may have nothing whatsoever to do with America's questionable wars. The scandal that attaches to the publication of the cables is not so much that WikiLeaks has served to facilitate bona fide whistleblowing (by helping whistleblowers to remain hidden and, supposedly, safe from reprisals), but rather that it is dumping, indiscriminately, a raft of secret and classified government documents into the public domain, under the guise that it allows the public to prove that WikiLeaks is truthful in its “journalistic” claims. Why do I use the words “dumping” and “indiscriminately” regarding what Assange has revealed? Because there is no particular policy under scrutiny. It is just cable after cable referencing a wide range of topics. Clearly, the goal was not to expose any particular crime or governmental transgression, but simply to embarrass. It is hard to understand how gratuitous embarrassment of government furthers the public interest, or is in any way “journalism.” Yet it may very well cause damage that cannot be calculated or predicted, largely because so many topics and issues are the subjects of the cables. In terms of the general prudence and utility of Assange’s revelations, it matters not whether Assange stops at the several hundred now posted, or goes whole hog. And it matters not that many of the cables in his possession were already released to reputable news organizations (although, of course, it matters a great deal to persons “implicated” in each cable). The purpose seems to be a sort of general attack on government itself, based upon a single-minded philosophy of robust “transparency.” We will come to the matter of “transparency” in a moment.
It was not some extreme critic of WikiLeaks who penned this now well-known rebuke of Assange, but the group Reporters Without Borders (RWB), which, generally, finds value in WikiLeaks's activities:
"Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom organisation, regrets the incredible irresponsibility you [Assange] showed when posting your article “Afghan War Diary 2004 - 2010” on the Wikileaks website on 25 July together with 92,000 leaked documents disclosing the names of Afghans who have provided information to the international military coalition that has been in Afghanistan since 2001. Wikileaks has in the past played a useful role by making information available to the US and international public that exposed serious violations of human rights and civil liberties. . . .But revealing the identity of hundreds of people who collaborated with the coalition in Afghanistan is highly dangerous. It would not be hard for the Taliban and other armed groups to use these documents to draw up a list of people for targeting in deadly revenge attacks."
And for all we know, the Taliban already has, despite the confident claims of some that there is no proof that anything WikiLeaks has ever done has ever led to any harm to innocents. It would be one thing if WikiLeaks’s methods were sure to hit the nefarious targets that it hopes to hit. But it cannot be sure that this will be the outcome of its actions, given its current methods, which seem blunderbuss. According to RWB, “The argument with which you [Assange and WikiLeaks] defend yourself, namely that Wikileaks is not made up of journalists, is not convincing. WikiLeaks is an information outlet [emphasis added] and, as such, is subject to the same rules of publishing responsibility as any other media.” Of course, I suppose that assertion depends upon just what “information outlet” actually means. In any case, one can hope that WikiLeaks does have some equivalent sense of responsibility. On the WikiLeaks website Assange claims that WikiLeaks does accept those rules. But, apparently, not quite. Assange’s decision to distance himself from the conclusion that WikiLeaks is about journalism, in his reply to RWB, betrays a serious confusion about what WikiLeaks in fact is. It appears that it wants the legal protections that bona fide journalists enjoy (it likes to make references to the First Amendment) without the responsibilities that go along with them. Did I say bona fide journalists? It appears that the word “journalism” is under much stress these days. There are many who would like to define journalism down, especially in an age of instant blogs, in which putting two sentences together on the internet seems to entitle one to a press pass. Myriads, it seems, have claimed the “right” to be recognized as members in good standing of The Fourth Estate. We may now come to see the problem with placing so much writing and “reportage” under the banner of “journalism.” The problem, of course, is that it cheapens it. The founders could not have foreseen this particular problem because they could not have foreseen the internet and the drastic lowering of the bar of entry to exchanges of ideas and information across vast geographical distances. A vibrant democracy needs its “press,” to be sure, but that does not mean that it is tenable to include as its members, for all purposes, everyone who has a computer and the minimal ability to write prose. It is unknowable what Assange’s document dumps may lead too, now or in the future. Sure, it would be great to find out about the smoking guns that we all suspect are buried within the hidden vaults of governments around the world. But what may also be revealed in the process are things that may lead to serious harms. It simply has to be relevant, and of some ethical exigency, that what has been poured into the public domain, with no prior warning to the communicants and authors, are thoughts and opinions and strategies and plans that are best kept within closed channels because their revelation could very well undermine sensitive negotiations and fragile but important geopolitical relationships that make all the difference in aid relief, trade talks, and even to the probability of war or the achievement of peace. Assange operates from a fatally flawed assumption, i.e. that the people have a right to know everything that government ministers know and do. The people do not have any such right, and the fact that they do not is a matter of both prudence and principle. In fact, we expect our governments to keep all sorts of information out of public view, some of which is about us, our families, and our friends. We, in fact, charge our government with the obligation to keep this information out of the public domain, just as we assume that it must maintain its own secrets to function effectively on behalf of its people. Those, like Michael Moore, who argue that Assange is providing the public with the "truth" use that word rather loosely. Truth is a contextual affair. Disembodied diplomatic cables and memos do not constitute the “truth” of policy positions, or even actual plans. They, like other stand-alone pieces of paper, are often no more than data points that must be stitched together with other data points before any coherent insight can emerge. Taken alone, they can lead to dangerous (and false) conclusions and impressions. To take a hypothetical example, that a cable reveals that “Prime Minister X hates President Y” might provide a salacious tidbit. It does not tell you whether such a conclusion is the correct statement of an attitude, or a misimpression, or even whether Prime Minister X was simply having a bad hair day. The legal scholar, Jeffrey Rosen, in discussing privacy in the internet age, has written about the problem of “synecdoche,” a term he uses to describe the tendency to jump to conclusions about a person based upon a few data points. The problem of synecdoche applies to diplomatic cables and leaked memos, too. That governments often do tawdry and even evil things does not make the problem of synecdoche less of a problem. Governments, too, have some “right to be let alone” to do their work on behalf of their peoples, to quote a famous 1890 Harvard Law Review article by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. Much has been said to compare Assange’s data dumps to what Daniel Ellsberg did with The Pentagon Papers. Even Ellsberg has blessed Assange as a kindred spirit, fighting for transparency against the machinations of government, claiming that the criticisms leveled against Assange are the same ones leveled against himself during the Nixon years. The criticisms may well be the same, but Ellsberg’s inability to see the difference between The New York Times and WikiLeaks must be a form of willful blindness. WikiLeaks claims that all sorts of checks and balances and filters are used before one of its data dumps, but this claim is dubious in the wake of recent events. Here is what we know about The Pentagon Papers, however: they were about a specific American policy and initiative; they were vetted, prior to publication, by an established editorial board, in dialogue with the highest levels of government – an editorial board that operated within a tradition of journalistic professionalism, integrity and ethics, and with a clear sense of the gravity of what was about to be revealed. It is not clear that there is anything even close to this level of deliberation or scrutiny at WikiLeaks, despite what some of its defenders are claiming. After all, WikiLeaks is not comprised of journalists (it calls itself a “media” organization, which can mean many different things), unless “journalism” is defined, untenably broadly in my view, as the activity of gatekeeping document and data dumps into the public domain. Who and what is Julian Assange? It is hard to say. The word “hero” is bandied about, and in some respects, perhaps his aims are heroic – in the broad definition of the word. But what is clear is that he, and others like him, must be put under much more scrutiny, their heroics notwithstanding. We cannot afford to give Assange’s irresponsibility a pass because he has exposed terrible things about government any more than we can afford to excuse an under-aged teenage boy who steals his parents’ car keys and, while out drinking and driving, saves the life of an old man having a heart attack on the side of the road. Means matter as much as ends. There are very questionable things about Assange’s means, and these can easily lead to atrocities of different kinds. Yes, governments must be held accountable for what they do, and even brought down when absolutely necessary. Perhaps, in Assange’s own mind, he is a sort of Beowulf, and all governments are Grendels. It is not up to Assange, acting alone, with a rag-tag band of righters of wrongs, to make that determination for the rest of the world. And, of course, it is not the case that all governments are Grendels, even though all governments have Grendels in them. Governments do much more than the evil things they are known for – they also make civilization possible. This is, perhaps, a nuisance complication that Assange has opted to put aside, as many crusaders opt to put aside the complications in their worldviews and actions. But the complications, nevertheless, remain. There is a growing sentiment against the idea of secrets, as though all secrets are somehow bad – evidence of things untoward, grimy, vicious. It may be that our government has too many secrets, i.e. too many documents stamped “classified” for no good reason. But governments cannot function without some secrets, just as you and I cannot function without some measure of privacy and a small collection of our own secrets. Diplomacy, as just one example, is quite often a game of misdirection, bluffing and affectation. It is hard to see how it could be otherwise, alas, here in the Earthly City. But through all of the mud and murk, diplomacy preserves a vital line of communication between states. Undermine the mechanisms of diplomacy, and what is threatened is that line, which may be the difference between life and death, peace and war, social flourishing and social collapse. What onlookers don’t often understand is that diplomats understand the nature of the very serious game that they play, and they understand the subtle cues that signal that the next statement or message is exigent and no longer part of the normal murk. We non-diplomats don’t understand it all because we have not been initiated into the game. That this line is vital is as true as it is true that those lines are also the conduits of things that are not so salutary, for diplomacy is also, and often, a weapon of the state. And so it goes. What we need are more real whistleblowers – people like Ellsberg who are in an actual position to actually know and actually understand the true facts regarding illegalities, public betrayals and breaches of ethics that arise within particular government organs, and who are willing to put themselves on the line to expose such things, in the public interest. These are the real heroes. But even real whistleblowing carries legal and ethical obligations – as well as obligations of prudence – that must be observed on the part of the whistleblower. That is why not all whistleblowing is heroic, since some whistleblowers have no clue about such obligations. The whistleblower who is an arrogating anarchist or mere muckraker, or who has nothing at stake, or who has no ethics other than a self-articulated “ethics of transparency” (or whatever) with a special sense that it is up to him/her alone to right the wrongs of the world (or his/her government or his/her corporation), is no hero. Assange dumps (or transfers to reputable news organizations) documents provided by leakers, whistleblowers. Does he know their motives? Does it matter to him that their leaks violate duties of loyalty and oaths they have taken? Does he know for certain whether the documents he receives are all the documents there are (he himself has, allegedly, held back highly encrypted documents, supposedly beneficial to the public, as a form of blackmail against others)? How can he be sure of their authenticity? Does he care that he may be used as a tool for a leaker’s vendetta? He confidently answers all of these questions as you might think, but there is reason to doubt. There are those who argue that these same questions can be put to The Washington Post or Der Spiegel. But should we, as citizens, not be concerned that WikiLeaks is no Washington Post or Der Spiegel? Should we, as citizens, not question the credentials, internal capacities and financial resources of upstart “media" outlets such as WikiLeaks? Is it the stated mission of The Washington Post or Der Spiegel to explode or embarrass the organs of government? Should we, as citizens, while identifying with some of the moral outrage that motivates WikiLeaks, not also be wary of its raison d’etre as compared to that of long-established and reputable news organizations? The old expression about the road to hell being paved with good intentions comes to mind. It is hackneyed, but often true. Lord knows there are many things I would like to know about my own government. Why has Mr. Obama not called for hearings to look into the possible war crimes of his predecessor? What is the real policy logic that keeps the United States in Afghanistan even though the war seems to make no sense? What did Congress know about the dangers of the rising levels of debt, and when did it know it? Why did Rahm Emanuel really leave the heights of government service to seek to become, of all things, a mayor? But I cannot sanction knowing these things at all or any cost. Good investigative journalism that follows leads, vets sources, and that is responsible to a tribunal of editors, lawyers, ethicists and the reprisals of those who consume the news is the preferred mechanism for finding out what the public needs to know. To turn over to outsiders the obligation – the civic obligation – to find answers to questions like these may very well be a sign that the citizenry has lost its way, and a proper understanding of its own power. As for Mr. Moore, perhaps he needs to be reminded that being a liberal (as we both are) is to hold a more or less coherent collection of positions on the proper role and scope of government. It is not reducible to pummeling and embarrassing government at every opportunity, or maintaining a permanent inimical stance toward it, for in a democracy (however imperfect) such amounts to becoming enemies of – ourselves. When we cheer, as did Mr. Moore, the release of thousands of pages of our own country’s diplomatic cables (in a very real sense, our cables) into the hands of enemies and friends alike, with no regard to the recklessness of such an act, we have clearly taken leave of our senses, even if in that dump we find out things that we have always wanted to know, and needed to know, if such turns out to be the case. If this cannot be understood, we are in trouble. Indeed, it may be that many look to WikiLeaks and Assange as heroes, white knights, because the corporate media has turned their news divisions into profit centers, neutralizing their power to scrutinize, aggressively, those we elect to serve our interests. Assange states that this is one of the reasons WikiLeaks and similar organization have come into existence. I agree. It is one of the reasons. But if so, the solution would seem to be a return – somehow – to the types of reporting and journalism that serve the important purposes that The Fourth Estate is supposed to serve. When journalists are too interested in cozying-up to power, when they are more concerned with career ladders, ratings, and the opinions of the suits in the executive suites than they are with the truth, the ground is cleared for people like Assange to come in and attempt to do what corporate news organizations are failing to do. Assange is the child of the failure of corporate news organizations. When journalism does its job properly, we need not think we must rely upon data dumps of diplomatic cables. When it does not, as it has not – certainly not regarding our imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – someone will think it his or her duty to fix things on his or her own terms. It is an understandable impulse – the same impulse that triggers vigilantism. WikiLeaks exists because we have failed, as citizens, to make The Fourth Estate do the job that it is supposed to do. We have chosen to, instead, consume a steady diet of tabloid quality junk, opinion shows, and extremist rants by middle-brow pundits and know-nothings. If we are what we eat, the citizenry is in poor health, indeed. It is no mystery, then, that The Fourth Estate is in poor health as well, and our democracy is threatened by it. No one yet knows exactly what laws WikiLeaks may have broken. Perhaps none. But even if none, that fact alone does not shunt aside the charge of recklessness. And, frankly, if recklessness with the lives and reputations of others is not illegal it will only be a matter of time before it becomes illegal, so long as logic and reasonableness drive law. If WikiLeaks comes to an end, somehow, it will be due, largely, to its own hubris and irresponsibility - two typical and sometimes tragic qualities of zealots. The philosopher Aristotle knew that there can be too much of anything, even virtue. Good ideas, taken to an extreme, can cause evil. So it may be in the case of the paean to transparency (whether into governments or businesses) that has become so ubiquitous. Transparency must serve good purposes. Transparency for the sake of itself does not. We are now in dangerous waters. There is much that needs to be given serious deliberation, and the call for total transparency into government is one of them. More transparency is not always better, although it is often better. What the WikiLeaks affair has led to is the opportunity to put under a microscope the meaning and purpose of “transparency,” the meaning and purposes of “journalism,” and the tenable limits of free speech – perhaps a chore that must be carried out anew by each generation, especially one that, for the first time in history, has tools for the instant and wide dissemination of data and information. It appears that we need to roll up our sleeves and get ready for the chore, once again. It will be worth the time and effort.