As the WikiLeaks story unfolds, it draws forth many themes. Two such, seemingly unconnected and even at odds, are national security and privacy. Yet they are intimately connected.
Set aside issues I discussed here briefly last week – the overclassification problem, the complex prosecutorial issues concerning Julian Assange, and the government’s abysmal failure to better protect classified material – the national security issues were brought out nicely this morning by Gordon Crovitz in his Wall Street Journal column. Take it as given that the main function of government is to secure our rights: In a dangerous world, after all, we abandoned the Articles of Confederation for the Constitution precisely to better protect ourselves. To do that effectively, however, intelligence is necessary; and intelligence that is ample and useful requires confidentiality.
But as Crovitz writes, WikiLeaks will result in less intelligence – and that, he argues, is Assange’s express intention. Thus,
Mr. Assange is misunderstood in the media and among digirati as an advocate of transparency. Instead, this battening down of the information hatches by the U.S. is precisely his goal. The reason he launched WikiLeaks is not that he’s a whistleblower — there’s no wrongdoing inherent in diplomatic cables — but because he hopes to hobble the U.S., which according to his underreported philosophy can best be done if officials lose access to a free flow of information.
Drawing from a pair of essays Assange wrote in 2006, one entitled “Conspiracy as Governance,” a title sure to appeal to anarchists, Crovitz notes that Assange “sees the U.S. as an authoritarian conspiracy.” Not that there isn’t ample evidence, to be sure, for the misuse of that authority, but Assange would cripple even the government’s legitimate functions. As he wrote:
We can marginalize a conspiracy’s ability to act by decreasing total conspiratorial power until it is no longer able to understand, and hence respond effectively to its environment.… An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think efficiently cannot act to preserve itself.
Anarchists may rejoice at that thought, but the implications, not least for privacy, were brought out nicely last week by Theodore Dalrymple, writing in the City Journal. After noting how unremarkable, and even useful, some of the revelations have been, Dalrymple writes that “WikiLeaks goes far beyond the need to expose wrongdoing, or supposed wrongdoing: it is unwittingly doing the work of totalitarianism.” And he adds:
The idea behind WikiLeaks is that life should be an open book, that everything that is said and done should be immediately revealed to everybody, that there should be no secret agreements, deeds, or conversations. In the fanatically puritanical view of WikiLeaks, no one and no organization should have anything to hide. It is scarcely worth arguing against such a childish view of life.
Yet he does, and he argues well.
The actual effect of WikiLeaks is likely to be profound and precisely the opposite of what it supposedly sets out to achieve. Far from making for a more open world, it could make for a much more closed one. Secrecy, or rather the possibility of secrecy, is not the enemy but the precondition of frankness. WikiLeaks will sow distrust and fear, indeed paranoia; people will be increasingly unwilling to express themselves openly in case what they say is taken down by their interlocutor and used in evidence against them, not necessarily by the interlocutor himself.
Indeed, alluding to life in Eastern Europe not that long ago, Dalrymple envisions that “a reign of assumed virtue would be imposed, in which people would say only what they do not think and think only what they do not say.” And he reminds us that “the dissolution of the distinction between the private and public spheres was one of the great aims of totalitarianism.”
But government is different, one hears. And it is. That’s why the presumption in the case of government, unlike in the private sphere, must be in favor of openness. That does not mean, however, that there is no place for secrecy in government, and for institutional measures to secure that secrecy. In fact, the point was well captured by Claire Berlinski at Ricochet, taking off from Dalrymple’s post:
The hypocrisy and double‐standard of journalists, in particular, who fail to understand why the government must sometimes protect its sources of information is mind‐blowing. Journalists, of all people, should understand this better than anyone else. Many sources would lose their jobs, their reputations, their liberty or their lives for talking to journalists on the record. If the people who spoke to us didn’t think we could keep their names out of the story, they would never open their mouths again. Would that make the world more transparent?
The only way you could argue that this logic doesn’t also apply to the US government is by assuming that all journalists only have good intentions and do only good things – all the time – and the US government only has bad intentions and does only bad things – all the time. This appears to be the justification offered by the Guardian, but I suppose that’s to be expected.
At some level, the post‐WikiLeaks world was probably inevitable: as Crovitz puts it, it has “ended the era of innocent optimism about the Web.” But the world is still a dangerous place. Perhaps no one would better understand that, were he here today, than Benjamin Franklin, who in heading the Committee of Secret Correspondence during the Revolutionary War kept most of his dealings secret even from Congress. Come to think of it, even the debates of the Constitutional Convention, years later, were kept secret, and we’re doubtless the better for it.