What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Wikileaks and freedom of information, wiki-wiki

I am watching the latest wikifreaks saga unfold from the sidelines. I don't really have the time these days to delve into all that's come out myself. I need the information wiki-wiki (which is apparently a Hawaiian term for quick). I only care to read what journalists selectively mention in their reports on what were revelations to them. But I do have some fundamental observations that can perhaps inform the debate over Wikileaks.
1. I am a member of the attentive public, but my behaviour disproves the theory (in as much as there is anything like that) behind Wikileaks. I am consuming filtered reports about what fell in Julian Assange's lap. I am fed a censored version of everything. Intentionally or unintentionally, the people doing the filtering keep things secret from me.
2. Wikileaks seems to have the idea that a government, when it keeps secrets, is merely this ugly, intrusive presence in our lives: an unwanted stranger in our midst that uses asymmetrical information as a resource for its autonomous operations, to its own good. This is wrong. There are other reasons to keep secrets, too. Julian Assange just can't add up one and one to arrive at two. States keep secrets because others keep secrets, too. Social actors of all kinds. Individuals, legal persons, loose networks and hierarchichal organisations, and... and other states. And yes, you, reading this, you also keep secrets. Your friends do as well.
3. States providing security through keeping secrets against other states keeping secrets is a deeply troubling tautology if you are a well-to-do intellectual with no concern for others' safety and security. Willing to get lost in sophisticated arguments in obscure locations purely for the spiritual inspiration this causes. I am not saying the above tautology should not be concerning at all. That would be ridiculously naive. State actors (individuals, organisations, networks on behalf of states) sometimes do really nasty things really only serving their own good, and that is bad. That Julian Assange believes it is the United States' federal government that is most a source of worry when it comes to that, seems to be clear from his behaviour. Whether he is right in thinking this (if he is really thinking this), is up to you to judge. But in making the decision to see the world through Assange's eyes, you cannot in a moral sense continue to cooperate with a government that is supposedly the source of your moral worries. (In practice, of course I am aware that individuals usually tolerate a lot of cognitive dissonance, especially when they are not really sure about what they think, feel, and say. That is, most of the time.)
4. If, on the other hand, you do not want to work against state(s) Julian Assange does not happen to like, the smallest contribution you can make to these apparently, then, benign powers' smooth operation is accepting the idea that some things are going to be kept secret. Far less than what would be the norm in non-democratic countries for example. But still there are going to be secrets. You don't have to join the army and take on hostile strangers in distant lands, and you don't need to personally help capture criminals. You don't need to go on diplomatic assignment for years to a country you would have never visited otherwise, either. You just have to accept that the government keeps some secrets since you don't think (as we have agreed) that the government keeps secrets only against you and against all that you hold dear.
5. The revelation that someone thinks that Medvedev, to Vladimir Putin, is what Robin is to Batman is probably not kept secret, as long as it is a secret, against you. It is kept secret for the sake of decency.
6. When a government does not really operate autonomously but is aided by a willing informer, such as Afghan informers who give information about insurgents in Afghanistan, the identity of the informer is kept secret from you not really against you, right? It is a matter of honour as well as instrumental rationality.
7. If decency or practical rationality does not matter to you (forgive me for addressing an imaginary reader here), why don't you punch the person sitting next to you in the face right now? Alternatively, why don't you hug the person next to you, if that is what you would rather do? Let me suggest two options. Maybe because you are an anarchist, and you would hate it if I would be telling you what to do. Alternatively, maybe it is because you have just fooled yourself into thinking something about yourself that is not really true, and you are not really an anarchist. Perhaps you are just a mortal being trying to make sense of a world full of contradictions. Up to you to judge what is more probable.
8. If decency or practical rationality does matter to you but you think Wikileaks only harms people as collateral damage, what is the basis of your moral condemnation of air strikes killing civilians? What is Wikileaks' basis for morally condemning air strikes killing civilians? How do they want to help create a better world, the possibility of which they claim to believe in if they don't bother to take much precaution before off-loading on target?
9. In the end, the irony is that to the average man or woman on the street who is too busy dealing with everyday problems to go through the Wikileaks files, or even the newspaper and television reports for that matter, the presence of Wikileaks may be somewhat reassuring. We are safe from the government, they can no longer keep secrets, is what they might think. Thus Wikileaks may as well be a legitimising force in favour of governments, even with all the practical complications and problematic implications, from time to time, of the unwanted leaks.


Zest said...

Interesting analysis. But like you argued that even individuals keep secrets so governments are also entitled to keep secrets. But individual’s secrets most relate to their personal matters while governments secrets are mostly about social matters. Secondly, honest and good individuals don’t have to keep many secrets. Lastly, if governments are entitled to keep secrets then what will happen to the generally accepted principles of transparency and accountability? Are you implying that the governments should be transparent and accountable in their domestic policies but not in their foreign policies? Is this not a dichotomy that democratic governments are representative and responsive for their domestic policies to their electorate but when it comes to their foreign policy then they have a carte blanche and even a minor whistleblower like WikiLeaks is also not tolerated?

Péter Marton said...

Thanks for the comment. I wrote a longish reply, but some of it is going to remain a secret forever now, as the internets tricked me into losing it somehow. I will try to reconstruct as much of it as possible, but inevitably in briefer form.

So individuals are not "honest" when they keep secrets. They may be good-willing, but not honest then.

Also, a secret is never a personal matter. A secret by definition is produced out of the relationship between two or more people. And it may do a world of harm to the concerned other(s). Or good. Or a mix of good and bad. It depends.

States keep secrets. Wikileaks I don't think is a minor whistleblower, but regardless of their hard trying governments do and will keep secrets. Not only in foreign policy, but in the field of every public policy also.

There can be no complete transparency. But you wouldn't really want to have full transparency or "comprehensive real-time transparency" even if it would be possible because it is simply not in your interest. You do want to have a government that is capable of planning changes to economic regulations, tax laws etc without communicating first to every potential rent-seeker along with the general public. You do want to have law enforcement that is able to act (gather evidence, share information and lay in ambush) against people embezzling money, collecting bribes, engaging in price-fixing by cartels, forging documents, smuggling narcotics, conspiring to kill others et cetera.

The guarantee in a democracy is never full transparency. It is that secrets usually come with rules. Regarding how many have access to them by level of security clearance and regarding how long they can remain a secret.

But no, you will never be able to look into every single e-mail that was ever sent. And certainly Wikileaks won't be able to dump on the internet important corridor discussions that will never exist in a written-down form...

Péter Marton said...

Blogger is doing weird things. I received the text of a comment through the e-mail notification system, but when I came here to respond, the comment was nowhere to be found. In any case, before we somehow sort out the technical issues of continuing the discussion (or, rather, they get sorted out by themselves I hope), I will react to one point made in the comment in question.

It is regarding this statement: "anything that shifts this balance of power between States and citizens in the favor of the latter is more than welcome." My problem with this is that I have a vivid imagination, and I am really not comfortable when hearing "anything" in this sort of context. It does make a huge difference what it is that is done to shift the balance in any direction. Wikileaks usually does not pay much attention to this.

As the commenter in question said (I am not naming you out of concern that you might have wanted to remove the comment yourself), "good will" is something that is in the eye of the beholder. In general, the goodness of both keeping and revealing secrets is in the eye of the beholder.