The Duck of Minerva

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Mega-Leaks: Right Idea, Wrong Strategy

December 3, 2010

I’ve been asked over the past week to comment on Wikileaks in the press, primarily to answer the question “is Wikileaks good or bad?” It may seem like a silly way to frame the debate (and I’m grateful to Vikash especially for trying to move the debate forward) but that’s where the media cycle remains. And it’s a fair question for the media to be trying to sort out: the Wikileaks site (currently down) claims that “publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people.” The site’s critics excoriate him for violating the law and putting (variously) national and human security at risk. Some are even branding him a terrorist.

Naturally, I’ve been giving an academic’s answer to this question of Wikileaks’ ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’: it depends.

A Force for Good. Though I seem to have become known as a Wikileaks detractor, I was once quite excited about the organization’s early whistle-blowing work. For example, it exposed corporate dumping of toxic materials off the Africa coast. And it brought to light the apparent shooting of non-combatants by a US helicopter in Baghdad. In such cases, I have argued a platform like Wikileaks serves the public good, while protecting those vulnerable to recrimination. The Geneva Conventions for example, require soldiers to report war crimes they witness, but they provide no mechanism for doing that short of their own chain of command. Whistle-blowing sites like Wikileaks have the potential to fill an important gap in the laws of war.

More Harm Than Good. However this type of targeted activity is not what we have seen in recent months. It is not “whistle-blowing” to simply disseminate private or classified information devoid from any context of wrong-doing. Leaving aside the broader ethical questions of whether, when and how massive document dumps should occur, it seems to me that when they do they probably have the opposite effect as targeted whistle-blowing.

First, they make it very difficult to identify actual cases of wrong-doing within the mass of extraneous data about everyday events they reveal, much of which is unremarkable. In this case, candid off-the-record remarks by diplomats may sell papers, but they do not constitute “wrong-doing.” In fact, as Dan Drezner intimates, hypocrisy and two-faced-ness can be a virtue, not a vice – not only in normal social relations but also among those who govern, and especially in the diplomatic corps. There may well be evidence of specific wrong-doing in these dumps, but if so it’s getting drowned out by a focus on all the fun but meaningless gossip, the foreign policy implications of which are still yet to be determined.

Second, while they may ultimately reveal wrong-doing by some, indiscriminate leaks also make it harder for honest civil servants to go about the business of promoting the public good. As Peter Spiro has pointed out, one of the immediate consequences of this latest leak is likely to be that diplomatic discourse will go increasingly offline. Whereas once information was shared by memo, now frank opinions are likelier to be shared only through verbal communication. This will make it that much more likely that diplomats will misunderstand or misinterpret crucial information.

Ultimately,it will mean something else as well: much less transparency in terms of the ultimate historical record. These cables would have been released to the public eventually after a few decades. If Wikileaks is incentivizing a diplomatic culture in which discretion can only be exercised by avoiding a digital footprint entirely (Rob Farley previously made a similar argument about leaks in the national security sector), then historians and humanity will be all the poorer for it.

How ironic indeed if Wikileaks, champion of “radical transparency,” contributed to a less transparent world by choosing the wrong strategy.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.