WikiLeaks Hurts the Good Guys, Too

6 12 2010

Let me paint you a picture.

You are a dissident in a country with a violently oppressive regime.  For years you have been fighting for your own rights and those of your people, but you have been doing it secretly since otherwise, you know you and your family would be killed.

Wanting advice, protection, or support, you take the risk of reaching out for help.  Despite its faults, the United States is still the country that you are likely to go to, believing that at the very least, you will not be turned over to your own government, and that they might even help you in your democracy-building efforts.  You have a secret conversation with a U.S. diplomat, who promises to check with the home office to find out what they can do for you.  You return home and breathe a sigh of relief that you don’t seem to have been followed after the meeting.

The next morning you get on your computer to check the news.  In the first link, you see your name on a cable sent from the embassy in your country to the State Department in the U.S. – the follow-up to your meeting.  Then you hear a knock on your door…

WikiLeaks Benefits Oppressive Regimes

This sounds like something out of a bad Tom Clancy novel, but there are people all over the world who are alone and vulnerable and who take great risks to try to make change happen in their own countries.  These secret meetings really do take place, and the only reason the individuals are willing to take the risks to ask for help is that they believe they will be protected.  Governments that terrorize their own citizens will now have access to whole lists of names of people that will suddenly “disappear” in the middle of the night.

WikiLeaks is not “Freedom of Information”

I am a big fan of the Freedom of Information Act.  When you have a specific wrong you are trying to right, I believe you should be able (and required) to make a case for why you need access to specific confidential information, just as our government should be required to show a specific need for gathering information about us.

WikiLeaks is a sledgehammer.  It comes from the idea that nothing the government does should ever be confidential.  But what about the scenario I created above?  What about information relating to covert operations against al-Quaida that could put people’s lives at risk and could prevent agents from stopping the next attack?

Some people believe that since the government works for us, we should have access to all of their communications.  How would you feel if that applied to your workplace?  Haven’t you ever written an e-mail at work that you would really rather your boss didn’t see?  Something that was harmless but a little embarrassing?  Or something related to you trying to make real, positive change happen in your company?

You Don’t Have to Support WikiLeaks to be a Liberal

I am sure I am losing some of my lefty street-cred with this post.  I still believe our government does a lot of bad things (although not as many as we did under the last administration).  I am virulently opposed to the Patriot Act or anything that gives the government access to information about citizens without just cause, and I believe that concerned citizens should be able to gain access to government records IF they have a good reason for it, or if there is an investigation of government officials happening.

However, WikiLeaks hits too broadly at freedom of information.  It hurts too many good people in its efforts to attack the government.  It also allows anybody with a decent scanner to fake “leaked documents” and target anybody they don’t like.

I really couldn’t care less about the documents that highlight insults between one government leader and another.  The people running countries are all grown-ups with thick skin, and they know how the game is played.  Hearing that Hillary Clinton thinks you are a weenie isn’t going to change the global dynamic much.  There are a lot of people that really could get hurt or even killed by this, though.  Even here in Uganda, which is a fairly open society, people do “go missing,” unexplained “accidents” happen, and a few car trunks have been graced by people who oppose the government.

WikiLeaks will make these people – little people who need help – afraid to seek out that help.  When I was growing up during the tail end of the Cold War, there was a whole slate of movies dedicated to the Americans helping Russians to defect.  I believe that is still one of the higher aspects of who we try to be, or who we wish we were – the country that oppressed people can go to for help.

WikiLeaks sends a strong message that those people are on their own.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

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15 responses

11 12 2010
Tweets that mention WikiLeaks Hurts the Good Guys, Too « Wild Thoughts from Uganda -- Topsy.com

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stii and Scott Baldauf, Tendai Sean Joe. Tendai Sean Joe said: INTERESTING READ : WikiLeaks Hurts the Good Guys, Too http://tinyurl.com/3xp4qzv cc @melusilb […]

10 12 2010
Okay, NOW I’m a Fan of WikiLeaks… « Wild Thoughts from Uganda

[…] she entered politics.  Ugh.  Sorry.). For now, though, despite my sentiments in my earlier post WikiLeaks Hurts the Good Guys, Too, I am less than proud of the way our country is dealing with the leak of all this information.  […]

8 12 2010
tumwijuke

You’ve crossed over to the bad side …

9 12 2010
Mark Jordahl

I suppose so.

Mark

8 12 2010
Assange derangement syndrome « Phil Ebersole's Blog

[…] dissidents in countries such as Uganda who have turned to the U.S. government for help.   Click on Wild Thoughts from Uganda for his […]

7 12 2010
leifutne

You make a really good point, Mark. I’m not 100% in favor of what Wikileaks is doing, either. The best piece on WikiLeaks I’ve seen yet is Clay Shirky’s blog post: http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2010/12/wikileaks-and-the-long-haul/

7 12 2010
Mark Jordahl

Thanks for the link, Leif. It will be interesting to see what the long-term consequences of this will be.

Mark

8 12 2010
leifutne

Shirky’s most important point is this: While Wikileaks is a sledgehammer, what they’ve done is, on its face, entirely legal. Yet the US government’s response — intimidating US and foreign companies and foreign governments to take the site down; prohibiting US military and diplomatic personnel they can’t read the site — is totally disproportionate and outside the law.

Remember, Wikileaks isn’t the source of the leaks. It’s a media outlet that received leaked info from (a) government source(s). Publishing such received info is considered protected speech, in the US anyway, at least since the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers.

That’s not to say that your hypothetical scenario above isn’t a valid concern. If something Wikileaks publishes leads to the arrest, torture, and killing of dissidents, Assange may well have blood on his hands. (Note that they have so far only released about 1,000 of the 250k cables.)

As Shirky sums up nicely, the US’s extralegal response helps the bad guys, too: “The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us ‘You went after Wikileaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.'”

8 12 2010
Mark Jordahl

Hey Leif,

I completely agree that the reaction of the government has been a bit childish and ridiculous. We can’t deny that the information is out there now, so why stick our heads in the sand?

I just read a great post that includes the statement “The purpose of a classified information system is to deny information to enemies of the United States, even at the price of keeping ourselves ignorant. The Obama administration turns this on its head. Its policy is to keep Americans ignorant of things our enemies already know.” [http://philebersole.wordpress.com/2010/12/07/assange-derangement-syndrome/#comment-1342]

Dangerous.

And you are also very right to point out the fact that this is just one more chink in our “moral authority” armor, which is getting alarmingly thin.

Mark

6 12 2010
Cheryl F

While I favor transparency in government, business, religion, and social actions and probably almost anything else you can think of, transparency can bring problems. In the current situation, I agree with you – a sledgehammer used for no real specific purpose that I can see other than that he could do it. Yes, political leaders know that most of them don’t love each other and probably don’t really care. Politics is a business in many ways (often dirty, often for the elite at the cost of the many, serves the purposes of a few instead of all, etc. – you get my point) and businessmen know how the game is played. My question is where is a matching leak from the opposing side(s). A one-sided “sledgehammer” is not a stroke for freedom, but quite possibly a death stroke for many. If we are going to have true transparency, all the players need to be included.

7 12 2010
Mark Jordahl

Did you read Friedman’s article about that? http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/01/opinion/01friedman.html?_r=1

Well, it’s not exactly like that, but it pokes fun at what the Chinese might be saying about us.

Mark

6 12 2010
Tina Kling

I agree 100%!

I don’t want to know everything. Not because I want to live in a bubble, but because sometimes secrets benefit all of us. Nothing is ever that black and white. There are a lot of gray areas.

7 12 2010
Mark Jordahl

Yeah – I definitely think that a lot of the supporters of WikiLeaks just haven’t thought it all the way through. We all feel pretty safe in the US, but a lot of the rest of the world is a lot sketchier. Living here in Uganda definitely makes me think differently about issues like this.

Thanks for the comment, Tina. Hope you survived the snow ok!

Mark

6 12 2010
sg

Fact: Secrets are hard to keep. Cork out of the bottle. post-it-all 1-to:world. Yous school or corporate emails? Problem ? Just as much the printed book once was. Main question: what’s next: E-Power to the people. Maybe it is good thing, because together we can control what no government can (ie. the global society we need to survive) Technology is a thread, it always was.. it always was unstoppable. However we NEED tech to survive. So live with this and let’s discuss it

7 12 2010
Mark Jordahl

But who’s the “we” that “we” can entrust global security to? People around the world have very different goals which, unfortunately, often conflict. Even though I often don’t trust my own government, I’m not sure many members of al-Quaida have my interests in mind, so I don’t think I want them voting at the table on who gets to survive and who doesn’t. If there was such a thing as “we the people,” I would absolutely agree with you that it would be better to have “us” controlling things rather than our governments. However, there doesn’t seem to be a unified “us”. Does WikiLeaks move us any closer to that?

Mark

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