Tag: wikileaks (Page 1 of 2)

Where are the Women? Julian Assange Meets Todd Akin

The left (and even the semi-left) has been legitimately stewed in the past week or so about Todd Akin’s remarks about rape. Akin is apparently under the impression that women can’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape,” thus simplifying the whole ugly and complicated abortion-as-a-result-of-rape debate. Others have showed what an asshole this guy is – I have no need to repeat that here. What I liked about the responses to the now-hopefully-unelectable Akin was that women and womanhood became front and center. I read narratives about women who had become pregnant from rape, who had babies and who had abortions. It made me think and feel for the people involved, and I saw a lot of solidarity around something that is close to a political consensus in the US: rape is not okay.
Right next to articles about Akin, though, are articles about Julian Assange. Assange is attempting to escape extradition from the UK to Sweden on charges of rape, molestation, and abuse by seeking political asylum in Ecuador (or, currently, the Ecuador embassy in the UK). Where are the women there?

Assange is accused of rape. He is accused of having sex with a woman while she was asleep (which a British politician called “bad sexual etiquette,” not rape, apparently because she had consensual sex with him before she fell asleep. This apparently made his penetrating her without her consent simply ‘rude’ rather than rape). It was also apparently only “really bad manners” if Assange had sex with a woman who consented to having sex with him with a condom, sans condom, not telling her. What’s the difference, after all? Pregnancy, disease ….

But Assange’s cause has become a crusade. Those who would defend Assange claim that Sweden would extradite Assange to the United States, which might him on ‘more serious’ charges like espionage (since rape is not that serious, apparently, especially when it is just ‘rude’). While there is some doubt to that story, even assuming it were true, does that mean it is okay not to explore rape charges?

I have a radical idea for Julian Assange: how about not being ‘rude’ and arousing suspicion of rape? How about, if you decide that you’re going to break a lot of US laws exposing the US government, abstaining from behavior that might leave you wanted for rape in a state allied to the US? How about hurting leftist politics more than you help it because of an egocentric decision that put you at risk when you could have easily avoided the risk?

But more than that – if WikiLeaks is all about showing the invisible – where are the women? Even if we were to assume that their charges are false and a product of US government conspiracy (which seems unlikely to me, given that I hope a machine like the US government could make a better conspiracy), the women (and what might have happened to their bodies) are often invisible in the discussion of Assange, who is characterized as a political prisoner. In a number of accounts, women are getting blamed for Assange being wanted for questioning, and a number of groups of ‘women against rape’ have come out, certain the charges against Assange are false, to identify charges against him as political, and the women who levied the charges as liars.

Not deciding whether Assange ‘did it’ or not – none of us have the evidence to know that – I want to know why we’re so sure (and the women are so vilified) when an impressive, rebellious guy is accused of rape. After all, good leftists would never do that, right? Turns out, I think, wrong – but, either way, the blinders to women (potential) victims of this redefinition of rape seem particularly ironic, especially given the commonalities of ignorance it has with Akin’s recent comments.

(Brief aside/conclusion): I’m about the biggest anti-government leftist there is. I firmly believe that the US should apologize for its imperialism, stop screwing with other people around the world, pay reparations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and actively seek a socialist economy. For me, WikiLeaks is a hard thing. Do I like information-uncovering espionage? Definitely. Its the sort of thing that gets my blood boiling. But leftist anti-government action has never really seemed to be what WikiLeaks is about. In fact, I’ve been following WikiLeaks on twitter since its inception, and the content seems to be more about WikiLeaks generally and Julian Assange specifically than it is about intelligence secrets, government interference, and the sort of stuff WikiLeaks said it was about – information. WikiLeaks has, several times, claimed to be holding its best information in the case of its own demise. REALLY? Because I don’t care whether WikiLeaks exists or not if the politics of it were followed through on – and I would say that even if I were a principal in WikiLeaks. But stardom and self-preservation seem to be more important to WikiLeaks than the politics, and I lose respect. Even were Julian Assange a purely political prisoner, I’ve counted literally thousands of tweets about him and Bradley Manning, and very few if any about the nameless political prisoners held longer and for less reason in Gitmo. REALLY? So if this post came off as a little anti-WikiLeaks, …well, fair enough. Even though I’d think of myself as their most likely audience.


How the Sausage is Made

Two years ago, Der Spiegel published an audio recording of secret negotiations involving many of the world’s most important leaders meeting together on Friday, December 18, 2009, during the Copenhagen climate summit:

The world’s most powerful politicians were gathered in the “Arne Jacobsen” conference room in Copenhagen’s Bella Center, negotiating ways to protect the world’s climate. US President Barack Obama was perched on the edge of a wooden chair with blue upholstery, talking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The blue turban of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was bobbing over the tops of a few hastily assembled potted plants. The meeting was soon dubbed the “mini-summit of the 25.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was there, representing the African continent, and Mexican President Felipe Calderon was standing nearby. Only one important world leader was missing, an absence that came to symbolize the failure of the climate summit: Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao…

Now, for the first time, SPIEGEL is in a position to reconstruct the decisive hour-and-a-half meeting on that fateful Friday. Audio recordings of historical significance, in the form of two sound files that total 1.2 gigabytes in size and that were created by accident, serve as the basis for the analysis. The Copenhagen protocol shows how the meeting Gordon Brown called “the most important conference since the Second World War” ended in a diplomatic zero.

The video posted above includes many of the most important sound snippets, accompanied by photos of the speakers and some important contextual information.

Der Spiegel‘s online version of the article includes key quotations from the meeting. Essentially, European leaders like Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown were urging their colleagues to come to an agreement about both near-term and long-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Asian negotiators, including top Chinese diplomat He Yafei, argued against the sizable emissions reductions target under discussion (50%), even though “Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg pointed out that it was the Indians who had proposed the inclusion of concrete emissions reductions for the industrialized nations in the treaty.”

European leaders and China’s negotiator Yafei had a surprisingly tense back-and-forth exchange that nicely summarizes some of the most important international politics undergirding the climate change debate. The western leaders accused the Chinese of seeking double standards, wanting to free ride on environmental commitments made by the affluent states:

The words suddenly burst out of French President Nicolas Sarkozy: “I say this with all due respect and in all friendship.” Everyone in the room, which included two dozen heads of state, knew that he meant precisely the opposite of what he was saying. “With all due respect to China,” the French president continued, speaking in French.

The West, Sarkozy said, had pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent. “And in return, China, which will soon be the biggest economic power in the world, says to the world: Commitments apply to you, but not to us.”

Sarkozy, gaining momentum, then said: “This is utterly unacceptable!” And then the French president stoked the diplomatic conflict even further when he said: “This is about the essentials, and one has to react to this hypocrisy!”

Angela Merkel also joined the fray, by referencing the scientific evidence necessitating that China join a binding agreement for significant emissions reductions:

Merkel took one last stab. The reduction of greenhouse gases by 50 percent, that is, limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, was a reference to what is written in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. Then she directed a dramatic appeal at the countries seeking to block the treaty: “Let us suppose 100 percent reduction, that is, no CO2 in the developed countries anymore. Even then, with the (target of) two degrees, you have to reduce carbon emissions in the developing countries. That is the truth.”

China’s negotiator, He Yafei was unmoved, and placed the blame for climate change — as well as the responsibility to act — squarely on the shoulders of affluent states:

The Chinese negotiator… took on the French president’s gaffe, and said: “I heard President Sarkozy talk about hypocrisy. I think I’m trying to avoid such words myself. I am trying to go into the arguments and debate about historical responsibility.”

He Yafei decided to give the group a lesson in history: “People tend to forget where it is from. In the past 200 years of industrialization developed countries contributed more than 80 percent of emissions. Whoever created this problem is responsible for the catastrophe we are facing.”

Seeking to break the impasse, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke pragmatically about the need for action from both the advanced economies and the large developing states (India and China).

“From the perspective of the developed countries, in order for us to be able to mobilize the political will within each of our countries to not only engage in substantial mitigation efforts ourselves, which are very difficult, but to also then channel some of the resources from our countries into developing countries, is a very heavy lift,” Obama said. Then, speaking directly to China, he added: “If there is no sense of mutuality in this process, it is going to be difficult for us to ever move forward in a significant way.”

However, Obama also suggested in his remarks that the problem need not be addressed in the current meeting since “We will try to give some opportunities for its resolution outside of this multilateral setting.”

Indeed, not long after this meeting, the US, China, India and other players cut a deal involving near-term (2020) emissions reduction targets that countries would set for themselves. This was described by climate activist Bryony Worthington as a “voluntary ‘pledge and review later’ type agreement with minimum enforcement.” Worthington and many other observers thus considered the summit “a spectacular failure on many levels.”

The final deal was made, as Der Spiegel notes, without direct input from the Europeans. In other words, the key decisions were not made at the meeting documented in the audio recording. In fact, the high-level mini-summit adjourned at the request of the Chinese negotiator, and the major developing states met separately:

The Indians had reserved a room one floor down, where Prime Minister Singh met with his counterparts, Brazilian President Lula da Silva and South Africa President Jacob Zuma. Wen Jiabao was also there.

Shortly before 7 p.m., US President Obama burst into the cozy little meeting of rising economic powers.

At that meeting, everything that was important to the Europeans was removed from the draft agreement, particularly the concrete emissions reduction targets. Later on, the Europeans — like the other diplomats from all the other powerless countries, who had been left to wait in the plenary chamber — had no choice but to rubberstamp the meager result.

IR scholars rarely have access to this kind of (nearly) real-time “insider” data, though it is telling that virtually all of the world leaders make claims that we would have expected. In that way, this audio recording is like the Wikileaks documents. The evidence reveals what we think we already know about how the sausage is made.

Note: Thanks to Miranda Schreurs (posting on a mailing list) for pointing me to the audio recording.


Quick Gitmo Post

Regarding the revelations in the latest diplo-document-dump, there are some good questions to be asked. Charli is wondering who actually did the leaking and Ben Wittes is concerned about the effect that this will have on not only the government, but the detainees themselves:

Should it most upset the government, for whom the story represents yet another devastating failure to keep important secrets? Or should it most upset detainee counsel, for whom this trove means the public release of huge amounts of unsubstantiated speculation about clients who have not been charged and against whom it is far easier to write down disparaging information in intelligence reports than it is to prove such allegations in court. For both intelligence and civil liberties reasons, there are very good reasons a lot of this material has not been made public.

I’m just going to say that there’s not a lot new here. As the New York Times itself writes:

The Guantánamo assessments seem unlikely to end the long-running debate about America’s most controversial prison. The documents can be mined for evidence supporting beliefs across the political spectrum about the relative perils posed by the detainees and whether the government’s system of holding most without trials is justified.

Basically, the story in the Times just highlights the already known facts: that many individuals are at Guantanamo because of shoddy evidence but cannot be returned to their home countries because they are either considered to be dangerous, whatever evidence was held against them was gained through torture, or there is a substantial chance that their home governments would torture them upon return. It also highlights the fact that the methodology/process for sorting out who should be sent to Guantanamo was flawed, at best.

Again, these are already things that were well known. The documents just seem to shed some light as to who is actually there. It really doesn’t offer us much information as to what to do with the hard cases of individuals like Khalid Sheik Mohammed who would seem to be guilty of major terrorist crimes, but who has been handled so poorly as to make a fair trial nearly impossible.

Right now, the only good I can see coming of this is reminding people that Gitmo is still there, that there are still people in it and that no one seems willing to do anything about it. But really, you have to wonder whether the ‘big issue’ here will be that of Gitmo  itself or that the documents were leaked in the first place. Right now I’m going to put my money on the later.

Early Questions About the Guantanamo Leak

… which hit the stands this evening via NYT, WAPO, the Telegraph and numerous other media outlets; courtesy of Wikileaks, many say.

Interestingly, NYT reports Wikileaks was not responsible for this release, claiming the documents were originally leaked to Wikileaks but were released to the media by “another party”:

These articles are based on a huge trove of secret documents leaked last year to the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks and made available to The New York Times by another source on the condition of anonymity.

If not Wikileaks, who? Well, who knows? Openleaks, founded by defectors from Wikileaks last year, might be the source, given that a) those who founded Openleaks claim they took the submissions architecture with them along with access to materials that had been submitted prior to the split and b) the scattershot media strategy is a contrast to Assange’s erstwhile special relationship with NYT, Guardian and Der Spiegel – a relationship criticized by Wikileaks insiders that had contributed to the splintering of the organization last year.

However, an anonymous, indiscriminate release regarding a vulnerable human population strikes me as a strange inaugral effort from an organization designed to be more transparent and careful with human subjects protocols than its predecessor.

Additionally, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, founder of Openleaks, wrote in his new memoir Inside Wikileaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website that Openleaks had no intention of publishing material removed from Assange’s control along with the submissions platform (presumably because of security risks):

Children shouldn’t play with guns. That was our argument for removing the submissions platform from Julian’s control… we did tnot take this step to damage Julian personally. We were not motivated by revenge. And we did not want to get our own hands on the material, or divert it to Openleaks. We just decided to take away these dangerous toys so that Julian could not do harm to anyone else. We will only return the material to Julian if and when he can prove that he can store the material securely and handle it carefully and responsibly…

If Domsheit-Berg is a credible source (the entire memoir outlines just how insecure sensitive WL materials were during much of its existence), another possibility is that materials still under Assange’s control ended up in a third party’s hands through another means.

Or Wikileaks did the release after all. Or both Wikileaks and Openleaks had the information and tied to get the jump on one another. Or a third party did the leak but Wikileaks wants to get credit by tweeting all the news coverage with “Wikileaks” in the headline while blaming Openleaks – whoever is handling the Wikileaks twitter feed these days is presenting the second version of events:

Domschiet, NYT, Guardian, attempted Gitmo spoiler against our 8 group coalition. We had intel on them and published first.

Thoughts, links and info from readers as things develop are most welcome. If both Wikileaks and Openleaks are behind this release, it may be interesting to watch what variation in the reportage tells us about the contrast in how the two organizations operate. At any rate, the politics of the leak itself will be just as interesting as the evidence in the documents.

My only other reaction for now is that while the past four major WL releases were carefully framed to make US foreign policy decisions in the war on terror look bad, this new release may well have – or have been calculated to have – the opposite effect. While some news sources are stressing that “children and senile old men are among the detainees” other are almost making Obama look too soft on Guantanamo detainees (breaking news from the leak includes detainees’ threats against interrogators and claims of a nuclear holocaust if bin Laden is captured). Benajmin Wittes has a few similar thoughts.

The Administration’s response as of an hour ago is here.


Wikileaks, the Daily Telegraph and the ‘Special Relationship’

In his Introduction to the recent New York Times collection of materials on Wikileaks, Open Secrets Bill Keller comments on the way in which the newspapers involved shaped the leaks in accordance with their own agendas. Thus, the Guardian gave extensive coverage to leaked US army accounts of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, reflecting their scepticism about the war; the NYT, on the other hand, took the view that they had already given front page coverage to all the major incidents and so gave this matter much less emphasis. There is no doubt that the Guardian’s perspective was much more in line with that of Julian Assange – but that hasn’t prevented a major fall-out between Wikileaks and the Guardian over the latter’s book and its portrayal of Assange and so now, rather incongruously, the Daily Telegraph, the voice of the Conservative Party in the UK, has become the major recipient of new Wikileaks material. It is interesting to see what they have made of it, where their emphasis lies.
The short answer seems to be that they are interested in highlighting the extent to which Anglo-American relations have soured in recent years. This partly comes through in the material on Libya and the release of al-Mehgrahi in 2009, which admittedly could be seen as serving a Conservative agenda given that it was the last  Labour Government that behaved disingenuously, but goes wider than that.  For example, we have also been told how the US spied on the Foreign Office and gave British nuclear secrets to the Russians. This is all pretty much on a par with telling us about the religious affiliation of the Pope but the emphasis given by the Telegraph suggests that for this newspaper at least  the ‘Special Relationship’ is no longer very special and they are happy to advertise this fact.

What makes this of wider interest is that it fits with other straws in the wind. Consider, for example, the obvious lack of any personal chemistry between President Obama and David Cameron. This isn’t particularly surprising – they have very little in common apart from the possession of first class intellects – but what is rather surprising is that the government doesn’t seem to be concerned by this state of affairs.  Tony Blair clearly regarded establishing a personal relationship with whoever is elected US President as part of the job-description of the British Prime Minister, and most of his predecessors would have agreed, but not Mr Cameron. There is a fascinating contrast here between the PM’s attitude and that of France’s President Sarkozy who has gone out of his way to ingratiate himself with the US President, a role-reversal which has left French public opinion bemused and a little irritated. 
Nor is this simply a matter of personal chemistry.  Foreign Secretary William Hague’s briefings on his current tour of the Middle East have been very critical of Israeli belligerence in a way that opens up a  more substantial gap between British and American policy on the region than has been apparent for a long time. The contrast with Tony Blair’s position on Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006, where Blair was alone among European leaders in refusing to call for an early cease fire, is striking.
It may be that we are witnessing a real moment of change in Britain’s foreign policy.  We should be clear that this doesn’t amount to a re-orientation towards a European as opposed to an Atlantic identity; even though Cameron has better personal relations with both Sarkozy and Angela Merkel than he has with Obama – and it’s difficult to think of any time since 1945 when something similar could be said of a British PM – there is no intention to change in a fundamental way the semi-detached attitude towards Europe characteristic of British governments. Nor will we cease to be loyal allies of the US in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Rather, I think it is a case of a genuine reassessment of Britain’s power in the world and a willingness to abandon at least some of the illusions of grandeur that for so long have survived the end of empire and the loss of real great-power status. David Cameron may actually be the first British leader to have a genuinely post-imperial attitude towards the world, someone who is comfortable to be the Prime Minister of an middle-power and who doesn’t need to have his or his country’s self-esteem boosted by American approval.  In a rather confused, half-assed way, the recent Defence Review reflected this position; it was confused because clearly the Defence Secretary is unreconstructed, but the effective scrapping over time of the new aircraft carriers, and the delay in replacing Trident can, I think, be seen in this light.

But what of the Tory Party?  This is where the Telegraph’s handling of Wikileaks is interesting.  It clearly suggests a scepticism about Britain’s relations with the US, but does it indicate acceptance of a new, lesser but more realistic, understanding of Britain’s place in the world?  We will find out over the next few years.


Anonymous attacks Tunisian Government Websites

The Christian Science Monitor is reporting that the hackitivist collective [?] “Anonymous,” famous for DDOS attacks on Mastercard and Paypal after the Wikileaks Cablegate fiasco, is attacking the government of Tunisia’s website in support of the growing and increasingly violent protests there:

“But the unrest has since spread to a wide cross-section of Tunisian society, reflecting broader discontent with inequality and autocratic leaders perceived as corrupt figures who live high on the hog while blocking free expression by average Tunisians (see map showing protest locations). The pro-Wikileaks hacker group “Anonymous” has even joined the fray, launching cyber attacks on the Tunisian government.”

It is difficult to judge the impact of Anonymous so far, but it is at least an interesting show of solidarity. Although the proximate cause of the rioting is the self-immolation of a university graduate who was arrested for selling fruits and vegetables without a license, the Wikileaks documents are apparently fueling the protests (again from the Christian Science Monitor article):

“US State Department cables published by Wikileaks last month may have thrown fuel on the fire, by showing that US diplomats privately hold similar opinions of Tunisia’s leadership as many Tunisians.” 

The government crackdown includes attempts to censor social media websites which are being used to organize the protests as well as arrests of three members of the Tunisian branch of the Pirate Party:

 “A Le Monde interview with a member of the “Tunisian Pirate Party” referred to as “Sofiene” revealed a cat-and-mouse game between government censors and Internet freedom fighters and their foreign allies. Protesters are using Facebook mirror sites, proxy servers, and other means to outwit censors and get out their message, reported the French daily, an excerpt of which the Monitor translated for our non-francophone readers:

State censorship will increase, but counter-censorship is now strong. Tunisians are more and more informed, and demand information. Censorship only works if people self-censor and are afraid, or aren’t interested in the news.”

While the underlying cause of these protests remains economic (high unemployment, high food prices, and increasing integration with the sluggish European economy), the organizational form seems to be increasingly reliant on new social network technology (although at this point the protests could easily spread through other means if Internet based social networking sites were all blocked). Of course, this does not mean that the government will be toppled by the twitterati or that techno-democratization will occur in Tunisia. Having taught in a university in the Middle East when only one fax machine was allowed for the entire campus, I know that authoritarian states have a way of bringing threatening communications technologies under control and even using those technologies to facilitate surveillance and repression.

But what we are seeing is that outside actors are increasingly willing to try to help counterstrike when authoritarian states crackdown on Internet based networking technologies. In addition, Twitter, Facebook, Google, and the US government are not the only players in the game. Non-corporate/non-state networks like “Anonymous” may also become relevant actors willing to “backstop” social networking technologies (through mirror sites) and challenge the ability of repressive states to use the Internet in future dramas of global politics.


On the Wikileaks Manifesto

I hope most of you following the Wikileaks story read Aaron Bady’s essay at zunguzungu last week, in which he examines two early essays attributed to Julian Assange and provides his explanation of Assange’s broader theory. It’s a sophisticated read with at last glance 567 comments – the sort of blog post political theorists will (or should) assign to their graduate classes.

I also think Bady makes some mistakes in his interpretation of Assange’s essays – or at least glosses over some of the more disturbing implications in his zeal to paint Assange as smarter and less objectionable than might be assumed by those not familiar with his writings.

Let’s begin with what Robert Baird at 3QD argues is the central insight of Bady’s essay: “the recognition that Assange’s strategy stands at significant remove from a philosophy it might easily be confused for: the blend of technological triumphalism and anarcho-libertarian utopianism that takes ‘information wants to be free’ as its gospel and Silicon Valley as its spiritual homeland.”

In Bady’s words:

According to his essay, Julian Assange is trying to do something else. Because we all basically know that the US state — like all states — is basically doing a lot of basically shady things basically all the time, simply revealing the specific ways they are doing these shady things will not be, in and of itself, a necessarily good thing. In some cases, it may be a bad thing, and in many cases, the provisional good it may do will be limited in scope. The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about. And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,” a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets.

Baird usefully describes Bady’s argument analytically as follows:

For Assange in 2006, then, the public benefit of leaked information is not the first-order good of the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world (free information is its own reward), nor is it the second-order good of the muckrakers* (free information will lead the people to demand change). What Assange asks of leaked information is that it supply a third-order public good: he wants it to demonstrate that secrets cannot be securely held, and he wants it to do this so that the currency of all secrets will be debased. He wants governments-cum-conspiracies to be rendered paranoid by the leaks and therefore be left with little energy to pursue its externally focused aims.

Here are my reactions. First of all both Bady and Baird, who seem in agreement about Assange’s “clearly articulated vision” and offer a very helpful analytical typology to situate his ethics in relation to others like Mark Z, both discount the inconsistencies with which he has articulated that vision. If Assange truly fit the “third-order” mold when he wrote those essays, his thinking today seems to draw on all three discourses to fit his audience and the moment. He has said third-order types of things, but he has also said on the Wikileaks site  “transparency creates a better society for all people” and that “all information should be free” (ala Zuckerberg); he has argued at times that his goal is reform, not revolution; and as Baird acknowledges in a footnote, Assange’s Time interview reflected the second-order position.

If he has a consistent position, I’m not sure even Assange knows what it is. And considering that he is using the nuclear threat of releasing his entire archive (presumably irrespective of any harm minimization tactics the organization would otherwise claim to employ) as a bargaining chip to deal with his legal troubles, I have a hard time agreeing with Bady’s claim that Assange always emphasizes ethics.

But let’s suspend disbelief for a moment about whether Assange’s 2006 essays provide a useful road-map to his current position or political behavior, and simply examine his writings. What surprises me most is that Bady, and to some extent Baird, seem to accept many of Assange’s central claims. Here are several I find very troubling – even moreso if they indeed tell us something about his current agenda.

1) Assange Discounts the Importance of Secrecy For Good Governors, and Overstates the Impact of Leaks on Bad Governors.

In a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

I have already spoken to the value of discretion in good governance here, a set of points which I think weighs against Assange’s assertion that if you care about discretion, you must have something to hide.

But even if this weren’t true – even if eliminating the ability for the state to think discreetly were definitely a public good – there is another problem with Assange’s worldview: he believes that leaks will serve this goal.

“We can deceive or blind a conspiracy by distorting or restricting the information available to it… if an authoritarian conspiracy that can not think efficiently, can not act to preserve itself against the opponents it induces…”

“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.”

I am actually unconvinced, for what digital leaks do is encourage the state to avoid leaving a digital paper-trail, not to stop communicating entirely. Links can mean many things besides leakable documents. And what we know from studying genuinely authoritarian states is that they can think quite easily and behave quite murderously without a paper trail of any sort. This is in fact what makes it so difficult to prosecute the crime of genocide.

Therefore, I would imagine, in fact, that massive leaks actually do the reverse: make it impossible for those organs of government most willing to document their activities, within certain boundaries of discretion, to function. The true conspiracies to commit atrocious acts will simply go offline. Transparency of the type that would meet Assange’s goals would require a massive reverse panopticon inflicted upon civil servants that could capture their non-written activities and speech acts as well. This doesn’t strike me as a libertarian ideology – any more than the notion that those who value privacy must be hiding something and deserve what they get.

2) Assange’s Uses the Terms “Authoritarian” and “Conspiracy” in a Sweeping and Circular Way. Relatedly, Assange seems not to understand or even acknowledge the difference between authoritarian governments and democratic governments: for him, authoritarian is less a descriptive term and more a pejorative – one in terms identical to those of any powerful agent:

Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self-realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.

Note the circular reasoning. I guess my husband and are conspiring as “successful authoritarian powers” when we meet privately to discuss our differences on parenting strategies, because we know that airing those differences in the open will encourage resistance.

If you suppose that I am using the parenting analogy to blithely make a point, consider the examples of “conspiracies” that Assange himself uses in his papers: the Democratic and the Republican parties.

Now, Assange does define “conspiracy” as making “secret plans to commit a harmful act; working together to bring about a particular result, typically to someone’s detriment.” (In the second of his two essays, nearly identical to the original, he expands on the paragraph cited above with a modifier “working to the detriment of a population,” which suggests he realizes that it is only bad secrecy that is conspiratorial.)

But he does not define what to what kind of harm or detriment he refers, assuming (I gather) that to his readers it will be obvious. The consequence of this however is that just about anything and everything – families, firms, NGOs he doesn’t like, or entire political parties for example – could be labeled a conspiracy. He is also unable to distinguish the conspiratorial elements of large political groupings like parties or states from those elements attempting to bring about a positive result.

In short there is nothing in his essay that discusses the scope conditions for targeting a particular actor: presumably the fact that they are operating secretly and to someone’s dissatisfaction is enough to prove they are both authoritarian and conspiratorial.

This means Assange can tell us what a conspiracy looks like, but unfortunately he can tell us nothing about how to know something is not a conspiracy. It’s ironic that he uses the image of nails to describe conspiracies (see below), given what we know about people with hammers. Assange’s reasoning leaves anything dangerously open to justification, since anyone he doesn’t like can be a conspirator, and the aim is apparently to exterminate all conspirators:

If all conspirators are assassinated or all the links between them are destroyed, then a conspiracy no longer exists.

This is a far cry from the clearly-articulated ethical vision Bady claims. Rather it smacks of the same sort of circular, paranoid double-speak usedby the Bush administration in the war on terror.

3) Assange’s Supposedly Brilliant “Theory” of Conspiracies is Simply a Rudimentary Theory of Networks, in Which Any Network Counts As A Conspiracy. Fascinatingly enough, Assange draws on counter-terror language and models in developing his theory against the state:

“We extend this understanding of terrorist organizations and turn it on the likes of its paymasters, transforming it into a knife to dissect the conspiracies used to maintain authoritarian power structures.” [Read: all power structures]

Now, if you’ve have a basic course in social network analysis, you will recognize his model of “connected graphs” – which he articulates using a metaphor of nails in a board connected by string – as nothing more than a description of any network – a set of links among nodes.

“[Connected graphs] are easy to visualize. First take some nails (‘conspirators’) and hammer them into a board at random. Then take twine (‘communication’) and loop it from nail to nail without breaking. Call the twine connecting two nails a link… Information flows from conspirator to conspirator.”

Sure. And this logic also describes any group of individuals who shares any information at all. In other words, just as authoritarianism is described synonymously with all power relations  in these essays, “conspiracy” is described synonymously with all social relations.

This notion that opaque connectedness is by definition conspiratorial is dangerous. It could be applied to members of Human Rights Watch as easily as to the State Department. It could be applied to professors who wanted to preserve freedom of discretion among their “friends” on Facebook and limit their connections to students. It could apply to families, who keep most of their dirty laundry private.*

It would certainly apply to Wikileaks itself, an organization that does not disclose its sources nor its methods nor its method nor its location nor its financial records – though this may soon change.

If Wikileaks as an organization meets Assange’s own criteria for being an authoritarian conspiracy, does that mean this is the best terminology with which to understand the organization? Not necessarily, because we don’t have to accept Assange’s description of those terms.

But I’ll tell you what does give me pause in reading these essays (aside from his terrible spelling and grammar): Assange’s blindingly circular thinking, his readiness to engage in guilt by association and demonize all civil servants as members of a conspiracy, his unwillingness to define his terms in a manner that would allow him to refute his own argument, and his radically transformative political views – he wishes to completely overturn the existing system, not simply reform it.

These – along with a righteous belief in his own power to change the world – are traits he shares, incidentally, with many of the worst dictators of the 20th century as well as a number of cult leaders.

Now does this mean everything he’s doing is wrong? Not at all, as I’ve previously said. But what is missing from Assange’s essays, from the Wikileaks mission statement, and from his public statements is a clear set of ethical guidelines to answer the question the Bady claims is the most important:

The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about.

Whereas Bady gives Assange high marks for doing precisely that, I see no evidence in his essays of such thinking. (Baird makes a similar point.) I see a dangerously generalizable yet flawed causal argument based on network structure, but no ethical judgments about consequences even if the causal argument were fully accurate.

I cannot do better in articulating this point than a fellow named Matt in a comment on the 3QD post:

What if, by trying to disrupt a system that unquestionably produces a certain amount of badness, I actually strengthen the resolve of the bad actors? Or allow a still worse system to flourish in the chaos caused by destruction of the first one?

What if I knew for a fact I wasn’t in possession of all the facts I needed to make that kind of analysis in the first place?

This is why a few volunteer, self-appointed regents-in-exile are not better than the devils we know, no matter how sophisticated their philosophical underpinnings. Accepting at face value this pretty charitable analysis of Assange’s motives, he’s as unaccountable and opaque as any of the “conspiracies” he’s tilting at.

Why should I trust him just because he’s convinced he’s figured out a winning plan? The absolute lack of any evidence of doubt or humility is terrifying in and of itself.

I will continue to call for consideration of these broader ethical questions.

*Would the world be safer without such opacity? If families, for example, had a panopticon observing and documenting their behavior, they might scream at each other less, commit adultery less frequently, and battery and incest might all but disappear. Would this be a better world? Maybe. A less authoritarian world? It’s not – at all – clear to me that that follows.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]


Wikileaks “Document Dumps” vs. Government Secrecy Dumps

The Wikileaks releases are political dynamite not just because of the specific issues they discuss.  Also, and more importantly, they challenge a dominant mode of foreign policymaking in the U.S. and many other countries:  government secrecy dumps—routinely stamping vast amounts of information “top secret,” thereby placing it beyond the eyes of all us “untrustworthy” citizens.  For this reason alone, the Wikileaks releases are important—and important for us to continue discussing on this blog.

To take a minor issue first, pooh-poohing the releases as “nothing new” is misplaced.  This is obvious from the facts that the releases have dominated headlines worldwide for days, that authoritarian governments have tried to keep their publics from seeing any of them, and that democracies like our own seem to be trying to do the same.  (Recently, for instance, I could not access Wikileaks from its U.S. site, although it was easy enough to do so from a European one.)  At a minimum, we are getting a detailed look at diplomats’ interpretations of events and relationships that most of us knew about only in broadest stroke.  That is very worthwhile—and in any case, there is in fact lots that really is new too.

What about the alleged harm to America’s security and diplomacy that the Wikileaks releases will supposedly cause?  I am doubtful about this assertion, as I’ve written before.  This is not just because even government officials–with the most interest in claiming harms–have admitted that there have not been any (even while darkly intimating that they are coming).  It is primarily because I believe far too much of our foreign policy–as well as too much of our domestic policy–is now conducted behind veils of secrecy that make it difficult if not impossible for citizens to know what is being done in our names.

Sure, it may be true that more information does not necessarily lead to better decisions or outcomes.  But less information, strategically released by one side to an issue (the government), is far worse.  A basic fact about organizations is that they work to expand their powers and to protect themselves, fervently covering up their own uncertainties, embarrassments, mistakes, and corruption.  This is of course true of governments too.  In an admittedly small way, Wikileaks challenges that tendency—and provides information that citizens, and hopefully at least some of their elected leaders, can use to upend it.  In that regard, kudos to Rep. Ron Paul for being one of the few politicians, Democrat or Republican, to make that point publicly!

In light of the huge and concrete harms that have actually occurred in significant part because of government secrecy, Wikileaks’ releases offer a helpful alternative, with so far only abstract and possible harms.  If recent decades of U.S. foreign policy teach us anything, it is that the government and the military sometimes tell the truth–but also sometimes color the facts for their own purposes—sometimes make stupid mistakes–and sometimes lie to the American populace.  Those errors and lies cost huge amounts in money and lives.  The Tonkin Gulf incident, the build-up to the Iraq War, continuing incidents in Afghanistan—these are only the more egregious and costly cases of numerous others in recent decades.

In other words, the current regime of government secrecy dumps has not worked.  In that circumstance, I am open to trying a regime of substantially greater transparency–and think it would likely result in better decisionmaking.  Unsurprisingly, our politicians are unwilling to take such an approach.  They benefit too much from the lack of accountability it permits.  On the contrary, in recent years, they have vastly enlarged Top Secret America and hugely expanded their surveillance of ordinary Americans, all in the name of “security.”

In that circumstance, we are left with the press–some of which has remained skeptical and objective, but much of which has adopted cozy relationships with power—and has often cheer-leaded government policy and even secrecy.  That leaves us with various NGOs that try to improve government transparency, like the National Security Archive and Wikileaks.

The Wikileaks releases contain information that I as a U.S. citizen have a right to know.  After all, this is the government I support through my tax dollars and vote for in elections.   The cables document the extent to which current policies have failed, in ways that the government seldom admits to its own people.  To take just two examples: our “allies” in the Middle East failing to stop funding for terrorists, as today’s New York Times reports; and the despair of ground-level American officials about the epidemic corruption in our ally, Afghanistan.

Why should I have to wait for some government bureaucrat to perhaps declassify these materials decades from now—or possibly never?  Why is it wrong for me to know in detail about the ways in which my tax dollars and my government are operating?  Why should we not have more complete and accurate information, allowing us to check claims of government officials, before we spend trillions of dollars and take hundreds of thousands of lives in our wars?

The argument that we should wait 10 or 20 or 50 years so that serious academics can give us a full explanation of today’s events elevates scholarship over policy.  It also naively assumes we can trust our officials to release an objective account of events, even decades later.  I seriously doubt that.  

Of course, there is a need for secrecy in some cases.  The classic one:  troop movements in the midst of a war—or delicate diplomatic negotiations in real time.  The interesting thing, however, is the extent to which government officials strategically use leaks themselves to advance their positions in many situations.  Exhibit A:  the buildup to the Iraq War.  And again, those who should provide some check on the politicians, instead often act as mouthpieces for government positions.  Exhibit B:  Judith Miller of the New York Times.

The argument that most Americans don’t pay attention to foreign policy issues may be true.  But so what?  Even if true, and only a small foreign policy elite in government, academia, and the media pays attention most of the time, I think it is worthwhile to have Wikileaks-style material available, if only for them—so that they can more easily awaken the American public to the folly of so many of our policies.  More generally, if we had less secrecy about the trillions of dollars being wasted in places like Iraq and Afghanistan vs. the actual risks posed to us there, many more Americans might become interested—and disgusted enough to mobilize against our security policy rat-hole.

As for the claim that Wikileaks is engaging in a deplorable “document dump,” the reality is that this release is being done slowly, in coordination with major media around the globe.  And Wikileaks has improved its ways of doing so, in particular redacting names.  I’m all in favor of targeted releases of information on specific instances of hidden criminality or waste, of course.  But the reality is that there is a wealth of other matters that governments do that are not “criminal” or “corrupt”–but that citizens should know about to gain a fuller picture of what their politicians, bureaucrats, and soldiers are doing in our names and with our money.  In that respect, even if Wikileaks were simply “dumping” large numbers of documents, this would pale by comparison to the government’s security dumps.

Some have written that they fear these releases will simply drive more governmental communications into oral form, resulting in worse decisionmaking and less information in real time.  This is of course speculative—so let me add my own speculation.  The instinct to “cover your ass” is one of the most common in any organization.  I am confident that, up and down the chain of command, government functionaries will be reluctant to take questionable actions without written authorization, if for no other reason than CYA.  

The “torture memorandums” in the Bush administration offer a prime example.  One reason for their preparation and approval at the highest levels was to reassure government officials who would actually do the dirty work that they would not be prosecuted.  Without such written support, the possibility of prosecution would probably have deterred many from taking such dubious actions.

Will foreign officials be more reluctant to speak to American diplomats off the record—or, worse yet, stop inviting them to their cocktail parties and weddings?   Again, I doubt it.  Those officials invariably have ulterior motives for speaking or socializing with a superpower.   To think that they will cut us off in the future is shortsighted.  To think that they have always been candid with our diplomats in the past is naïve.  To continue with the secrecy that has enveloped these kinds of contacts in the past is perverse.   

If anything, we need more openness to avoid the costly missteps that crafty foreign leaders have manipulated us into in the past, due in part to our own misjudgment and credulity.  The possibility of disclosures could in fact make our diplomats think twice about what they are seeing and being told overseas.  If anything, we need more of that, given the gullibility and group-think of military and governmental officialdom.  Exhibit C:  Iraqi National Congress leader, Ahmed Chalabi; Exhibit D: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the “Taliban leader” with whom we “negotiated” this year, to the tune of untold American dollars—before discovering him to be a fraud.

Will the State Department instruct employees to be less blunt in their assessments of democratic  leaders, for fear of offending their tender sensibilities, if the info ever came out?  Please.  These are all adults engaged in politics, not children in a pre-school class.  Democratic leaders are used to being called names by their own countrymen.  If they don’t have thick skins, they have no business being in their offices.

As for hurting the feelings of various despots around the world, some of them admittedly “our” despots, I say, Good.  In any case, someone like Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, or anyone savvy enough to get the world’s only superpower to do his bidding, is not going to be fooled into thinking that a diplomat’s smile and handshake represent his real feelings.  Nor is he going to be shocked to find himself described in frank terms to American officials.

All that said, I have little doubt that “patriotic” government officials are already scrambling to come up with new ways to secure their vast secrecy dumps from (horrors!) the American people.  Joe Lieberman is already demonstrating the bluntest and most questionable ways in which our “public servants” are doing that.  But I am doubtful that the secrecy regime can be much more severe than it is today—and hopeful that the Internet, combined with the occasional conscience-stricken government official, will keep things at least as open as they are now.

Who knows?  Unlikely as it seems, the disclosures and the debate might prompt more Americans to question our secrecy dumps.  That might even move some brave politicians to change current policies toward real transparency.


Mega-Leaks: Right Idea, Wrong Strategy

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.


Will transparency take a hit?

I really like the posts from Vikash and from Chris and at the risk of a bit of overkill on the topic (and upsetting Bill’s stomach further), I’ll add one more angle. This is from my monthly column at Current Intelligence:

…aside from a small cadre of foreign policy scholars, a few foreign national intelligence services, and Jon Stewart, I’m not sure who benefits from this release. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s stated intent for the disclosure was to reveal “the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors – and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what’s going on behind the scenes.”

…First, to the dismay of many of us who teach American foreign policy, we have plenty of data demonstrating that overwhelming majorities of the American public are not interested in foreign policy in general – let alone what happens “behind the scenes.”

… and… second, even if the country was interested in knowing what’s going on behind the scenes, it turns out that we already have a pretty good system of disclosure and transparency. We don’t need WikiLeaks to know what’s going on.

For elaboration on these points and why I think Wikileaks may end up harming the cause of transparency, you can read the rest of the column here. All right, I’ve said enough. I’ll take a break from the topic for a while.


Why Wikileaks Matters

The initial release of a mere 291 out of 251,287 diplomatic cables has generated a predictable buzz on the blogosphere and established media outlets. Pundits have quickly maneuvered into standard structural roles in relation to the content of the leaked documents: the ho-hum nothing-to-see-here-move-it-along dismisser, the passionate defender, the morally outraged diplomat, etc. What seems to be missing is an analysis of this phenomenon as a form of global politics.

In order to understand why Wikileaks is significant, it is important to realize that the organization is not particularly concerned about specific current issues like the war in Afghanistan or Iraq, much less the tense standoff in Korea. Hence the content of the diplomatic cables or military reports is only instrumental. Assange diagnoses a broader “problem” with complex organizations than current events — namely authoritarian tendencies and hypocrisy — and formulates a (Rooseveltian?) strategy for attacking them. The most intelligent analysis of Assange’s thinking is offered in a blog post by Zunguzungu (I would recommend reading that article before proceeding with this one). Briefly stated: The circulation of relatively unsecured diplomatic cables or field reports is the way in which the state as a complex organization is able to think. The aim of Wikileaks is precisely to force the state to tighten the circulation of information as a mechanism to retard the operation of the (authoritarian or nominally liberal) state. The US and all other states are likely to react in precisely the way that Assange’s organization hopes they will. So the goal is not just about the US although the US is a powerful instrument to effect the type of “regime change” that Assange champions.

The ability of a tiny organization which is only four years old to gain such leverage against the entire system of states is impressive (although not unprecedented in an age of global militancy). That the overwhelming majority of states will fall into the trap set for them is also a sign shrewd analysis and strategic brilliance regardless of how one assesses the potential moral and political implications of the leaked documents. Since it is already known that the next target is the finance industry, the potential to continue challenging the international order is in no way a spent force.

What is most stunning is that the actual techniques used are not highly sophisticated. Many of us possess sufficient technical knowledge to create similar websites and repeat the phenomenon if we want to.  And it is quite likely that even if Assange and his organization are taken off-line, others copycat individuals/ organizations will emerge. (In fact, in the “private sphere” the battle for forced transparency is already being carried out by social networking sites on a daily basis). The critical element is actually not the technology but the willingness and confidence of individuals to leak/post documents. If organizations tighten their information sharing to the point that it is no longer possible to leak documents, then Assange would reason that he has succeeded in retarding the targeted organization’s ability to think.

The ideology that motivates Assange is remarkably similar to Faisal Devji’s explication of the motivation of contemporary global militants in his book The Terrorist in Search of Humanity. Assange does not criticize states and corporations from an external and coherent alternate ideology. Rather, he seeks to hold these organizations to their own rhetoric or to expose their authoritarian tendencies and degrade their ability to function. There is something remarkably naive in this outlook but it needs to be taken seriously nonetheless.

A related issue is that Wikileaks itself evades definition and categorization.  What is Wikileaks? Is it essentially an individual or a collective of anarchists and whistle-blowers? A website or a journalistic organization? Is it a criminal conspiracy?  Is it a source or a conduit?  Where is Wikileaks? Perhaps it should not be a surprise to see new actors emerge on the global stage which defy easy classification and location precisely so that they can more effectively challenge the existing international order.

I doubt that Wikileaks will achieve the ultimate “regime change” it seeks — anymore than global militants will institute a new caliphate. However, Wikileaks does herald another mode of challenging existing structures of governance which will likely become an enduring feature of global politics.


American Foreign Policy research and Wikileaks

There may not be a whole lot of diplomatic shockers in Sunday’s release, but this really has the potential to be a game changer for American foreign policy research over the next several years. I’m still not convinced we’ll actually see the full set of 250,000+ documents, but if we do, it will be big.

Most of American foreign policy scholarship evolves in subsequent waves over the course of 30 years or so. The first wave usually relies on press accounts, initial interviews with decision makers and other participants, and the quick turn-around journalistic books — on Iraq for example, we relied heavily on the books from Bob Woodward, Dana Priest, George Packer, Steve Coll, Seymour Hersch, etc…. All things being equal we are able to develop a pretty coherent factual basis in this initial wave.

The second and third waves — usually 5 – 20 years from the event/crisis — rely on those initial sources and subsequent secondary sources plus participant memoirs, more extensive interviews from a broader range of participants, field research, and an initial set of declassified materials through FOIA. These waves tend to branch into two streams – one that reinforces the initial conventional wisdom and a revisionist stream that re-examines alternative explanations, relies more heavily on counterfactuals, and exposes gaps or contradictions in the initial (conventional) explanations.

The fourth and subsequent waves — 20 and 30 years after an event or crisis — come after the release of archived materials. This usually begins with the initial declassification of documents through the Office of Historian at the State Department – the Foreign Relations of the United States Series (FRUS). Subsequent scholarship comes from the ensuing, declassification processes at the National Archives and various presidential libraries.

In short, by the time we see the raw,internal documents, we have a pretty good understanding of the context to determine the relative significance and importance of the classified materials to help us understand gaps in knowledge.

With Wikileaks we may be able to leapfrog the traditional 30 years process. On balance, I think this will contribute positively to scholarship on American foreign policy, but I do have a few concerns and warnings based on the initial press reporting and early blogging responses to the materials:

1. Sexy does not necessarily mean significant. The newspapers yesterday focused on the “raw” nature of the diplomatic discussions. Candid discussions are interesting to read, but not particularly enlightening in terms of the overall conduct of, and decision making in, American foreign policy. Such discussions are pretty standard stuff for anyone who has spent time in the archives or digging through FRUS. To the extent they are informative, they add a level of color about attitudes, but not necessarily much about substance of policy or strategy.

2. Don’t get seduced by classification. The documents released range from unclassified to Secret NOFORN. The tendency may be give more weight to more highly classified documents. As a former intelligence analyst and now a scholar, my sense is that unclassified documents and press accounts often add as much, if not more, to US government assessments and policy considerations than do many of the most highly classified documents. The classification – especially at the Secret level – is a reflection of the sources and methods used to collect the information or the specific sensitivity of an issue discussed. It is not a comment on the validity or significance of the substance.

3. Context still matters. It will be easy to jump to conclusions and cherry pick these cables. These are only a partial representation of U.S. policy deliberations. We can glean questions of interest to the US government from many of these cables, but to understand the dynamics of policymaking and deliberations requires more information. The FRUS series and the archives give us a much broader range on internal documentation ranging from CIA reporting, NSC deliberations, presidential memcons, etc…. This batch of Wikileaks documents are only a small representation of the overall internal documentary record. We’ll still have to wait 30 years or so for those documents.

4. Not all State Dept. cables are equal. I see at least three broad types of cables released so far: a) backgrounders and country analysis; b) memorandum of conversations between senior USG officials (SecDef Gates, Gen Petraeus, Adm. Mullins, and various assistant secretaries and ambassadors, etc…) and senior host government officials; and c) Congressional delegation conversations (CODELs):

a) The backgrounders and country analysis are not all equal. Some cables are written by seasoned political officers who offer candid and insightful judgment, but others are written by officers with only limited understanding of the country, the language, and US policy. Some cables are written by Ambassadors who are political appointees and may be highly ideological (e.g. see Eric Edelman’s cables from US Embassy Ankara) and some are written as part of on-going analytical feuds between the Embassy and the political appointees or the intelligence community back in Washington. In short, some are accurate representations of information that will be transmitted to the highest levels, many are not. Discerning the significance, the internal biases, and the quality of these cables requires more than a casual read.

b) The Memcons between senior administration officials and foreign officials. These can be the most valuable because they tend to demonstrate the range and prioritization of issues as well as the formal diplomatic positions. But many of these are already represented well in press accounts and may not shed all that much light on various subjects.

c) CODEL reporting tends to be a mixed bag and the relative importance of the discussions depends heavily on the interlocutors, the country in question, and the issues under discussion. Foreign government officials often see members of Congress as a different audience than administration officials and often shift their positions – sometimes as a calculated strategy to play Congress off the administration, other times it is simply to be polite or go through the motions of appearing to be interested in random members of Congress.

These documents reveal enormous amounts of information. But, quality scholarship will require commitment to traditional efforts – culling through the range of other primary sources, conducting interviews and field research, and more archival research. These documents are a great resource and, if used with a broader appreciation of process, sources, and context will almost certainly dramatically improve our understanding of American foreign policy of the past decade.


“Diplomatic Shockers”

Wow. Iran’s neighbors are threatened by its rise! Many governments think Pakistan may not be able to secure its nuclear arsenal! The US attempts to use its leverage with its allies to achieve its political objectives! China has engaged in a cyber-campaign against Google and other American companies! Yemen approves of US’ targeted killings on its soil (but claims otherwise to quell domestic opposition)! Also, governments routinely spy on United Nations officials!

Who knew all this stuff, eh? Thank the stars for Wikileaks.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

P.S. Want to know what I did learn from this that I wouldn’t have assumed? The US State Department talks among itself far more about human rights than it does about terrorism.


An Interesting Pattern in the Wikileaks Data

I have recently read a book entitled Inventing Collateral Damage in which the authors argue, among other things, that that concept of collateral damage was created for and in fact serves the purpose of allowing military officials to shrug off or gloss over the civilians they are indifferently killing in high-tech wars.

I found this rather interesting argument poorly substantiated in the book for reasons I will outline at greater length in a forthcoming essay, but this got me to thinking about how you would substantiate or disconfirm such a hypothesis, which would be an example of what scholars of international relations refer to as a “permissive effect” of a norm.

So since the Iraq War Logs allow a user to search the database with keywords, I figured I’d type in “collateral damage” and see for myself what sort of passages in military documents are associated with the term. It’s quite remarkable what one finds: contrary to the claim made by Rockel, Halpern and their contributors, the term is generally used to explain why US service-personnel do not fire on otherwise legitimate military targets.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]


After Wikileaks; or, the next phase of Diffused War

In Diffused War, Andrew Hoskins and I argued we’ve entered a new paradigm of warfare. The wikileaks stories seem to confirm much of this account. War is mediatized, we wrote, as the institutions of war and those affected by war take a form governed by continual media recording, display and archiving. This creates diffuse causal relations between action and effect, since mediatization can amplify or contain the cognitive and emotional response any action generates in ways not dependent on the initial action itself. Militaries, NGOs, insurgents, journalists – none can predict the outcomes of their actions or the display of their actions. US and UK military practitioners did not envisage their communications going public, but their institutions allowed those records to exist. And as my Duck colleague Charli Carpenter notes, they’ve started shredding documents. This is to counter the greater uncertainty now faced by those conducting war. While who sees what, when, and where is usually largely controlled (most people still rely on mainstream media), the potential for surprises is permanent and unavoidable, such that the worst case must always be built into decision-making.

In contrast to the splutterings of military chiefs, for my students wikileaks is already the norm. So what should we expect to see next? Where might novelty lie? Let’s take a risk and look briefly at some ideas in contemporary art, which has long dealt with mediatization and how it reconfigures human relationships and our ideas of the image and representation. Nicolas Bourriaud recently wrote that, in our ‘control+S’ culture of instant archiving of all political and social life, ‘an insistence on the “here and now” of the artistic event and a refusal to record it are a challenge to the art world’.  What is notable now is what goes unrecorded or is not made public. He discusses Brian de Palma’s 2003 Iraq war film Redacted, which pieces together soldiers’ blogs, cameraphone footage and other media from the war to produce a style of ‘organized proliferation’ that is now common in TV and movies generally. Pushed to its limit, Bourriaud suggests, ‘the degree of spatial (and imaginary) clutter is such that the slightest gap in its chain produces a visual effect’. In other words, we now expect the depiction of war to amalgamate several media recording technologies, a chain of styles, textualities and episodes edited into any single news summary or Hollywood movie. And if a gap occurs, something is wrong. If no citizen-generated content emerges, that is surprising. If footage from the helicopter gunship’s point of view is absent from the news report, and we now know such a perspective is continually recorded, then at least a few members of the audience might begin to ask why there’s no footage. 

We’d expect the next phase of military media management to employ the full range of textual styles to which audiences are now accustomed. Its a question of credibility, and studies show audiences are far more savvy than military practitioners assume. With that in mind, instead of shredding documents and looking like you’ve something to hide, perhaps a truly pre-emptive PR agent would deliberately create a full, convincing range of leaks for wikileaks such that a controlled version of the worst is already on show. It would then appear there are no surprising gaps. 


The Strategic Impact of Wikileaks

Rob Farley opines at World Press Review on the political/strategic implications of War Diarii:

Perversely, efforts to increase government transparency often have negative effect on actual secrecy policy. For example, the ability of individuals to uncover written notes from government meetings through FOIA requests or through lawsuit discovery has led to the practice of shredding notes following most meetings. Data that does not exist cannot be leaked. We can similarly expect in the future that incident reports of the type leaked to Wikileaks will become less available to potential leakers. The U.S. military collects and correlates this data in order to improve tactical effectiveness. Information about particularly effective methods, about failure, and about enemy capability spreads across units with access to the data. Because of concerns over adverse political effects, however, the military will probably collect less data, destroy more, and further limit access to what data remains.

It all sounds pretty dire, but then again Rob may just be grumpy because of this.

OK, seriously. Read the whole thing here.


Three Cheers for Wikileaks

The last few days have seen a fury of debate about Wikileaks’ latest disclosures.   To my mind, Wikileaks’ release of the Iraq and earlier Afghanistan documents is a public service—throwing critical light on the way in which America has pursued its wars at ground level.  

Some have dismissed the documents as nothing “new.”    Of course, it is true that we have had information about the wars, human rights violations, and civilian casualties in everyday stories by the media.  But much of that, among reporters “embedded” by the military, has been carefully screened.  Moreover, what has been written is also of course filtered through the eyes of journalists, with their own biases.  
I think it is extremely useful for the public to have the opportunity to see ordinary soldiers’ day-to-day experience of the wars in any number of incidents that have not in fact received attention.  This in my view makes the information “new”—and clearly worthwhile.   That is why the world’s headlines over the last few days have been full of stories about civilian casualties, torture, and the role of military contractors–based on the Wikileaks disclosures.  
As to the argument that the releases put civilians and soldiers at risk,

I of course believe those risks should be minimized.  It certainly cannot be denied that these documents could put some civilian informants in the two countries “at risk”—or more precisely at greater risk than they have already placed themselves.  And, as Charli Carpenter and others have argued previously, it does seem that Wikileaks might have done more to reduce that risk, particularly in the Afghanistan release.  But it is probably impossible to eliminate the risk of harm—other than not to have released the documents in the first place.  With regard to the actual level of risk from the Afghanistan disclosure, however, we do have some information.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, hardly someone to underestimate the peril, wrote in August that the Pentagon’s “review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by the disclosure.”   Days ago, CNN also reported that “a senior NATO official in Kabul told [the network] there has not been a single case of Afghans needing protection or to be moved because of the leak.” (h/t Vikash Yadav)

Charli’s older idea that Wikileaks should do targeted document releases of potential war crimes may have some merit–but such an approach would essentially turn Wikileaks into a human rights NGO.  Admittedly, the world could use more of them, particularly in war zones.   But I see no value in Wikileaks transforming itself into something it is not, nor do I see anything wrong with Wikileaks’ continuing the mass data releases that it specializes in, albeit with some enhanced protections that it appears to be implementing already. 
Nor do I have a problem with lack of transparency about the organization’s internal operations—or, if you will, a lack of symmetry with its efforts to illuminate government activities.  Wikileaks, as a private entity, is under no obligation to disclose its internal operations, funding, and decisionmaking, beyond that required by law of other private concerns.  As a matter of organizational strategy, I would argue for Wikileaks to tell more—because failing to do so raises legitimate questions about the group.  But I would not dismiss its activities or discount its disclosures for this reason.  Nor would I focus attention on this side issue, rather than the main one–the information’s substance.
By contrast, democratic governments do have an obligation to disclose information to their citizens, except in rare and particular circumstances.  Yet from the U.S. to South Africa, governments’ knee jerk approach, especially when officials solemnly intone the magic word “security,”  is exactly the opposite–with dire costs to citizens who are paying the bills and soldiers who are doing the dying.
In any case, all of the worry about Wikileaks possibly putting civilians and soldiers at risk must be placed in context.  The Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which the U.S. started with so little justification and so little vision, have put millions of civilians and soldiers at actual risk.  Of course, it is far worse than “risk.”  Hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqi civilians have actually died as a result of our wars, with far larger numbers gravely wounded.  Thousands of American soldiers have actually been killed, and tens of thousands have had their lives shattered by injuries.  
The wars have also put our nation as a whole at greater “risk”—although it is critical to realize that the danger to individual Americans and certainly to our “national security” remains small and easily manageable.  Certainly, it does not justify the vast and wasteful expenditures we are making in the “GWOT.”  (This does not even take into account the huge direct and indirect monetary costs of the wars—or the costs in civil liberties eroded.)
A major reason that the Bush administration was able to start these wars was lack of information.  The evidentiary “basis” for them—and certainly against them–was not fully analyzed, the rationale for them not fully debated, and the exit strategies not wisely considered.  In this, many of our key “watchdogs”—journalists, “opposition” politicians, and academics—blindly bought the Bush administration’s line on the “threat.”  More information does not of course mean that misguided politicians will avoid doing stupid things.  Nor does it stop journalists from becoming handmaidens of power. But it probably makes it more difficult for these things to happen.  
In this context, the more information we have today about these misbegotten wars, the better.  In the past, much of what we have had came from government or military sources, with a clear incentive to paint a rosy or incomplete picture.   Journalists often ignored their obligation to be skeptical of officialdom.  A vast “top security” industry has grown up in the wake of these wars, full of private contractors and government employees only too happy to keep information from the public.  Because of the Pentagon’s strategic decision not to report civilian casualties, the human costs to the Iraqi and Afghan people can be found only through third parties.  Through clever accounting practices, the government has been able to hide and postpone payment of the war’s monetary costs.  And because of our volunteer army, the human costs to Americans have been confined to a tiny minority of our population.  
In other words, these wars have been conducted with the American people—who pay their costs and in whose name they were started—very much in the dark.  The mantra from our leaders is, “Trust us.”  And the furious response to the disclosures is to attack Wikileaks and, most pathetically, Julian Assange–for his personal life. 
Wikileaks is fighting against this self-servingly secretive mindset and may help bring these wars to an end sooner.  In that, the group will help our country be stronger, more secure, and more responsible.  I applaud the disclosures! 
I also recommend Steve Walt’s blog and especially Glenn Greenwald’s recent posts which get to the heart of the story:  what Wikileaks is doing; and how it is being attacked by government officials and much of the U.S. (but not foreign) press.

“War Diaries 2.0”: Is Wikileaks Moving Down the Learning Curve?

In a number of respects the Iraq War Diaries constitute a repeat of the Afghan War Diaries – a massive data dump bringing to light few unknowns but admittedly casting those knowns in much sharper relief, an act for which Julian Assange is being hailed or harangued by those of different persuasions, for different reasons. At Lawyers, Guns and Money, I’ve pointed out a couple of things that are different this time ‘round:

Assange was previously criticized, including by me, for protecting his sources but exposing the names of vulnerable individuals named in the documents themselves. In his newest public statements, Assange has bent over backward to insist he did a more careful redaction this time. My cursory examination of some random documents suggests it may be true. (I withhold judgment until either I or someone else has looked through a larger number of them, but I do feel generally a bit less uncomfortable than I was last time he unleashed a dump like this – if only because he acknowledges the norm of limiting collateral damage by war reporters as well as war fighters.)

That said, DOD and members of military families have legitimate concerns about the security of troops on the basis of this information. This is a different concern than the one I’ve written about previously, which is the security of local civilians, but it’s also not to be taken lightly. I continue to think there is a middle ground between staying silent and dumping massive amounts of data on the public.

Assange’s newfound powers of redaction do also, of course, raise a question as to how Assange possibly managed to redact such a large number of documents, given his claim that it would require $700 million and Pentagon help to redact the AWD. I guess miracles never cease in this technological age.

My post goes on to argue:

Wikileaks’ mode of information dissemination is also quite different this time around. The Afghan War Diaries site was fairly rudimentary, a simple portal through which individuals could download the entire set of files. Warlogs.Wikileaks.org includes a search engine with a topic model, and in the absence of a search presents documents from the files seemingly at random. (I like the tool that automatically expands acronyms.)Most interestingly is the separate page where individuals can comment on bits of the logs without downloading the whole, flagging specific documents and providing commentary. Truly, “War Diaries 2.0″.

Not sure as yet how precisely the topics are generated, whether through searches or some sort of coding scheme developed in advance by Assange and team. Oh that Wikileaks were as transparent about its decision-making as it asks governments to be.

Finally, the answer to the question in the title may ultimately be based on internal dynamics within the organization itself – which are also in constant motion. An excellent source to follow on what Wikileaks is, as opposed to what it does, is here.

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