Is Wikileaks open government?
Aeschylus wrote nearly 2,500 years ago that in war, “truth is the first casualty.” His words are no doubt known to another wise man, whose strategic “maneuvers within a changing information environment” would not be an utterly foreign concept to the Greeks in the Peloponnesian War. Aeschylus and Thucydides would no doubt wonder at the capacity of the Information Age to spread truth and disinformation alike. In November 2010, it’s clear that legitimate concerns about national security must be balanced with the spirit of open government expressed by the Obama administration.
The issues created between Wikileaks and open government policies are substantial. As Samantha Power made clear in her interview on open government and transparency: “There are two factors that are always brought to bear in discussions in open government, as President Obama has made clear from the day he issued his memorandum. One is privacy, one is security.”
As the State Department made clear in its open letter to Wikileaks, the position of the United States government is that the planned release of thousands of diplomatic cables by that organization today will place military operations, diplomatic relationships and the lives of many individuals at risk.
As this post went live, the Wikileaks website is undergoing a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, though the organization’s Twitter account is far from silenced. A tweet earlier on Sunday morning noted that “El Pais, Le Monde, Speigel, Guardian & NYT will publish many US embassy cables tonight, even if WikiLeaks goes down.”
In fact, Wikileaks’ newest leak, through the early release of Der Spiegel, had long since leaked onto Twitter by midday. Adrien Chen’s assessment at Gawker? “At least from the German point of view there are no earth-shattering revelations, just a lot of candid talk about world leaders.”
The New York Times offered a similar assessment in its own report on Wikileaks, Cables Shine Light Into Secret Diplomatic Channels: “an unprecedented look at backroom bargaining by embassies around the world, brutally candid views of foreign leaders and frank assessments of nuclear and terrorist threats.”
The Lede is liveblogged reaction to Wikileaks at NYTimes.com, including the statement to Fareed Zakaria by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, that “the leak would put the lives of some people at risk.”
The Lede added some context for that statement:
Despite that dire warning, Robert Gates, the defense secretary, told Congress in October that a Pentagon review “to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by the disclosure,” of the war logs by WikiLeaks.
The Guardian put today’s release into context, reporting that the embassy cable leaks sparks a global diplomatic crisis. Among other disclosures, the Guardian reported that the cables showed “Arab leaders are privately urging an air strike on Iran and that US officials have been instructed to spy on the UN’s leadership … a major shift in relations between China and North Korea, Pakistan’s growing instability and details of clandestine US efforts to combat al-Qaida in Yemen.” The Guardian’s new interactive of diplomatic cables is one of the best places online to browse the documents.
Is the “radical transparency” that Wikileaks both advocates for – and effectively forces – by posting classified government information “open government?” The war logs from Afghanistan are likely the biggest military intelligence leak ever. At this point in 2010, it’s clear that Wikileaks represents a watershed in the difficult challenge to information control that the Internet represents for every government.
On the one hand, Open Government Directive issued by the Obama administration on December 8, 2009 explicitly rejects releasing information that would threaten national security. Open government expert Steven Aftergood was crystal clear in June on that count: Wikileaks fails the due diligence review.
On the other hand, Wikileaks is making the diplomatic and military record of the U.S. government more open to its citizens and world, albeit using a methodology on its own site that does not appear to allow for the redaction of information that could be damaging to the national security interests of the United States or its allies. “For me Wikileaks is open govt,” tweeted Dominic Campbell. “True [open government] is not determined and controlled by govts, but redistributes power to the people to decide.”
The New York Times editorial board explored some of these tensions in a note to readers on its decision to publish Wikileaks.
The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match… The Times has taken care to exclude, in its articles and in supplementary material, in print and online, information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security. The Times’s redactions were shared with other news organizations and communicated to WikiLeaks, in the hope that they would similarly edit the documents they planned to post online.
…the more important reason to publish these articles is that the cables tell the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money. They shed light on the motivations — and, in some cases, duplicity — of allies on the receiving end of American courtship and foreign aid. They illuminate the diplomacy surrounding two current wars and several countries, like Pakistan and Yemen, where American military involvement is growing. As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.
It seems that the Times and Guardian decided to make redactions from the diplomatic cables before publication. It’s not clear how that will compare to what will be posted on Wikileaks.org alongside the War Logs and Afghan Diaries.
Open government, radical transparency and the Internet
More transparency from the military, Congress and the White House regarding the progress of wars is important, desirable and perhaps inevitable. Accountability to civilian leadership and the electorate is a bedrock principle in a representative democracy, not least because of the vast amounts of spending that has been outlaid since 9/11 in the shadow government that Dana Priest reported out in Top Secret America in the Washington Post.
Wikileaks and the Internet together add the concept of asymmetric journalism to the modern media lexicon. File asymmetric journalism next to the more traditional accountability journalism that Priest practices or the database journalism of the new media crew online at the Sunlight Foundation and similar organizations are pioneering.
As Tim O’Reilly tweeted, “wikileaks *challenges* [open government government 2.0] philosophy. Challenges are good if we rise to them.” No question about the former point. Governments that invest in the capacity to maneuver in new media environment might well fare better in the information warfare the 21st century battlefield includes.
Open government is a mindset, but goes beyond new media literacy or harnessing new technologies. The fundamental elements of open government, as least as proposed by the architects of that policy in Washington now, do not include releasing diplomatic cables regarding espionage or private assessments of of world leaders. Those priorities or guidelines will not always be followed by the governed, as Wikileaks amply demonstrates.
Increasingly, citizens are turning to the Internet for data, policy and services. Alongside the efforts of government webmasters at .gov websites, citizens will find the rich stew of social media, media conglomerates or mashups that use government and private data. That mix includes sites like Wikileaks, its chosen media partners, the recently launched WLCentral.org or new models for accountability like IPaidABribe.com.
That reality reinforces that fact that information literacy is a paramount concern for citizens in the digital age. As danah boyd has eloquently pointed out, transparency is not enough. The new media environment makes such literacy more essential than ever, particularly in the context of the “first stateless news organization” Jay Rosen has described. There’s a new kind of alliance behind the War Logs, as David Carr wrote in the New York Times.
There’s also a critical reality: in a time of war, some information can and will have to remain classified for years if those fighting them are to have any realistic chances of winning. Asymmetries of information between combatants are, after all, essential to winning maneuvers on the battlefields of the 21st century. Governments appear to be playing catchup given the changed media environment, supercharged by the power of the Internet, broadband and smartphones. This year, we’ve seen a tipping point in the relationship of government, media and techology.
Comparing the Wikileaks War Logs to the Pentagon Papers is inevitable — and not exactly valid, as ProPublica reported. It would be difficult for the military to win battles, much less wars, without control over situational awareness, operational information or effective counterintelligence.
Given the importance of the ENIGMA machine or intercepts of Japanese intel in WWII, or damage caused by subsequent counterintelligence leaks from the FBI and elsewhere, working to limit intelligence leaks that damage ongoing ops will continue to be vitally important to the military for as long as we have one. Rethinking the definitions for secrecy by default will also require hard work. As the disclosures from the most recent release continue to reverberate around the globe, the only certainty is that thousands of State Department and Defense Department workers are going to have an extra headache this winter.