Why Wikileaks is important

Several years ago, I read an Octavia Butler sci-fi novel about, among other topics, breeding telepaths. In Mind of my Mind, Butler imagined the delicate process of creating a race of humans with psychic powers: every time two telepaths are put into the same room to mate, they end up reading each other's thoughts and killing each other in disgust!

Such fear of this plausible consequence of transparent knowledge seems to incite the primary argument against the three1 major Wikileaks document releases this year (the Afghan War Diary, the Iraq War Logs, and now the Diplomatic Cables release): the frail equilibrium of global peace could not possibly be sustained if everyone knew what was actually being thought and said by our leaders. Of all the blogs and talking heads commenting on the recent leak, I think the gut reaction by The Economist's Matt Steinglass crystalizes this stance the best:

It's part of the nature of human communication that one doesn't always say the same thing to every audience. There are perfectly good reasons why you don't always tell the same story to your boss as you do to your spouse. There are things Washington needs to tell Riyadh to explain what it's just told Jerusalem and things Washington needs to tell Jerusalem to explain what it's just told Riyadh, and these cables shouldn't be crossed. There's nothing wrong with this. It's inevitable.

Although this assessment is designed to be relatable to those of us who intuitively agree that telling a white lie can often be useful, there is also a certain tyranny to secrecy when oppressors in power manipulate this form of tolerance for untruth and justify state secrecy in the name of "national security." I am a far, far cry from being an anti-government conspiracist, partly because I feel fortunate to live in a country where we have laws that protect our populace from our government. But many countries are still not so lucky, and there is no law or policy that can make a government more accountable for its actions than transparency. The US response, to basically admit that your government NEEDS to deceive as if it were a virtue, is at best in stark contrast with President Obama's pledge for open government, and at worst an audacious desertion of the values that have been instrumental for our freedom.

It's true: there are some occasions when I'd rather not tell my boss the truth (hypothetically of course), yet my decision to lie is exclusively for the advancement of my personal agenda. And in that sense, it certainly challenges any country's agenda when the scope of its deceit and and backroom strategy becomes a topic of worldwide conversation. But an agenda, whether it is personal or that of any particular country, is not entitled to any degree of success if external parties cannot evaluate the potential merits and drawbacks of its fulfillment.

If I tell my boss that her ideas are great, yet go home and complain that she's a moron, I might avoid getting fired. However, the company might benefit if I was honest to my boss about my feelings. Maybe my boss would hear me out and propose a better idea. Or I'd be fired, but someone would quickly replace me who is equally qualified for the job (including need-based qualifications), yet more willing to support the mission of the company. Transparency can be very inconvenient for the people who leverage their success on lies, but it can equitably balance out quite favorably for everyone else2.

Creating this type of transparency is nothing short of exactly the point of Wikileaks. Wikileaks offers, in a sense, a post-country-centric philosophy of radical honesty3 about global commerce and diplomacy. Our planet is far too interconnected to perpetuate the tedious balance of diplomacy that results from the partitioning of our population into discrete political communities. WIkileaks reminds us of the reality hiding in the daylight of today's post-internet (I should really say post-transistor) global free market. In the eyes of the world's population as a whole--and of many respected economists--no country is entitled to protectionism. As a result, there are winners and losers when some protections break down.

The winners are future generations, hopefully, who will enjoy a more unified world economy once the kinks of adopting globalization get worked out. And the losers are the countries and individuals whose prosperity rests on icicle stilts.

In footnote 3 below, I admit my own ambivalence about the merits of the Wikileaks dump. But I am confident that leaks will continue to flow out with the aid of flash drives and international servers and other technologies that assist potential leakers. Ethical qualms aside, it is in the best interest of the US government and all other governments to either a) make leaks impossible, or b) develop a diplomatic strategy that is sustainable in the event of a leak. Since I don't believe (a) is a viable option, I'm left to conclude that the best strategy for prevailing in an age when it's so difficult to keep secrets will be for countries to improve their marketability in the event that the world finds out about their back room affairs. Whatever your beliefs about the legality or morality of Wikileaks are, the inexorable advancement of global commerce will surely demand a more united, open world dialogue, and it is in everyone's best interest to willingly engage in it rather than let it sweep us up by storm.

UPDATE 12/2/2010 -
  • David Brooks' NY Times Opinion is another great example of what I describe as the "primary argument" against Wikileaks.
  • Yet another Economist blog post yesterday helped me hone in on why I have sympathies for Wikileaks. "W.W. Iowa city" writes
    The basic question is not whether we think Julian Assange is a terrorist or a hero. The basic question certainly is not whether we think exposing the chatter of the diplomatic corps helps or hinders their efforts, and whether this is a good or bad thing. To continue to focus on these questions is to miss the forest for the texture of the bark on a single elm.
UPDATE II 12/8/2010 -
  • In his delightfully verbose way, Glenn Greenwald has elucidated some of the misconceptions being propagated about WikiLeaks. Perhaps the most nefarious is the rumor that WikiLeaks indiscriminately dumped all 250,000+ cables without consideration for the potential harm it would cause. This is not true. Instead, great care was taken to carefully select documents to release in order to minimize harm caused by the leaks.
  • A friend made an excellent point that even though this is big news to the general public, given the availability of secret documents, chances are that malicious forces already have access to these types of government secrets, so the argument against Wikileaks in terms of national security is somewhat overstated.


  1. The first Wikileaks release to get major attention this year, Collateral Murder, did not spark as much controversy, perhaps due to the relative lack of notoriety of Wikileaks at the time.

  2. Other workplace thought examples: If lying to my boss will get me a raise at the expense of three other people in my office getting fired, I think the reasonable response in most cases (assuming my co-workers are good people, etc) is that I shouldn't lie to my boss, regardless of my personal agenda to do so. If I tell the truth to my boss and it results in 3 co-workers getting fired (perhaps they were bad at their job), even if the co-workers were good people, the truth may still provide a net-positive impact on the office. Perhaps new workers will be hired who are both good employees AND good people.

  3. Although I'll admit: a great way to deceive and manipulate people is to gain the reputation that you don't lie, and then lie. Furthermore, I have my own conspiracy theories that this whole leak is a UN scam to gain worldwide support for action against Iran. But assuming Wikileaks is legit, I stand by my comments.

    There is, however, a question of whether I am too comfortable equating "lie" with "secret." After all, it seems conceivable that some secrets are necessary, for example, the location of the president's "panic room" or the combination code to release nuclear weapons. In a pre-unified world where real enemies do exist, don't we still need secrets? And if the answer to this question is yes, then where do we draw the line? Ought diplomatic cables be included in this category of "necessary secrets"? I am unresolved on this issue, and I'd like to take it up after I finish final exams this semester.

    Furthermore, what do we do in cases where the majority is wrong? Cases like Prop 8 in California, where the voting majority decided to exclude gay people from the institution of marriage, are terrifying examples of times when a population can democratically chose a policy that inhibits civil liberties. There is certainly a strong case for secrecy when the ignorance of the masses makes rational, effective diplomacy impossible.
    And a final note: Wikileaks releases hundreds of thousands of documents. The political spin of these documents is left to the narrative that the media feeds to us. I don't have time to read 250,000 documents, but in order to reduce bias, I recommend reading multiple sources who cover Wikileaks. If you trust me, the Columbia Journalism Review tends to do a good job linking to multiple types of coverage about big stories like the Wikileaks dump.

Published on July 14, 2011 in Other

> > Why Wikileaks is important