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