A comment on Wikileaks

Larry Sanger
November 29, 2010

Over the weekend, I wrote a series of Tweets inspired by Wikileaks' then-upcoming release of U.S. diplomatic communiqués.  This caused quite an uproar, with people insulting me vociferously and demanding that I explain myself.  (A few people were supportive, and thanks to them.)  I am not going to write a whole essay in defense of my views; I don't have the time either to write one or to deal with the inevitable aftermath of such an essay.  Actually, I wish I didn't have to do even the following, because I'm busy with various new educational projects, and I have no desire to make myself into a political pundit.  But I suppose at this point it is my duty to post at least the following; I think I'm in a position where I could do some good, so I had better, if I want to follow my own advice.

Rather than write a long essay, I will put down just a few paragraphs explaining my views a little better.  This is obviously not, nor is it intended to be, a complete defense of the position I'll briefly describe.  That I leave to the policy wonks.

Here are the "offending" Tweets (from Nov. 25-26):

I'll go ahead and say the obvious: Wikileaks is an enemy of the U.S.—and not just the government. Deal with them accordingly.

How does Wikileaks repeatedly get massive troves of classified material?

Did a person or group in the U.S. govt have access to ALL these docs & leak them to Wikileaks? If so, that person or group is traitorous.

@ Speaking as Wikipedia's co-founder, I consider you enemies of the U.S.—not just the government, but the people.

@ What you've been doing to us is breathtakingly irresponsible & can't be excused with pieties of free speech and openness.

First, let me say that my main complaint is against releasing secret diplomatic communiqués, not against Wikileaks' other work, which is less important for purposes of this discussion.  Also, when I said I was "speaking as Wikipedia's co-founder," I was distinguishing wikis generally from Wikileaks, which is not a wiki.  I was and am not speaking for Wikipedia, but only for myself.  To those who said that they'd stop contributing to Wikipedia, you might not know that I left Wikipedia a little over a year after I got it started, and have since founded a competitor.  I'm no longer even the editor-in-chief of this competitor; I'm now working on brand new things.

My argument is quite simple and commonsensical.  It goes something like this. (A policy wonk would be able to explain this better than I could, but I'm in the hot seat so I'll have a go.) Diplomatic communiqués are secret precisely because they contain information that it would be dangerous, or stupid, to make public. They disclose names and quotations that, for reasons either obvious or quite impossible for us to know, might get people killed. They also contain reports of actions that might lead to serious repercussions. They might even pinpoint locations of secret installations that might come under attack. They recount discussions of important plans and personalities—information that, if known to the wrong people, might lead to various military excursions, including war.

Does that sound acceptable to you?  Let's put it this way.  Wikileaks' actions, by releasing so much consequential, incendiary information, could easily lead to the deaths of people all around the world, and not just Americans. It could destabilize foreign relations that it benefits no one to have destabilized. It could—probably will not, but given that these are secret diplomatic communiqués in a very complex world, could—lead to war.

I find it incomprehensible that Wikileaks and its defenders are not given pause by such obvious considerations. I find it sad that so many people are not able to grasp such arguments intuitively.  Perhaps they ignore them, or perhaps they only pretend that such considerations do not exist.

Now, let's talk about three common fallacies about Wikileaks' latest disastrous actions. Again, this is going to have to be brief.

Fallacy: we can already see (less than 24 hours after release) that the leaks have no damaging information, and the information in the first leaks (about Iraq and Afghanistan) did not lead to any deaths. Well—not yet they didn't, not as far as we know.  But there is a big difference between the Iraq and Afghanistan leaks and the latest leak.  Since the latest leak contains huge numbers of secret diplomatic communiqués, they do, of course, concern intelligence.  Wikileaks' defenders seem not to realize the cumulative nature of intelligence.  Intelligence-gathering is like detective work.  In a detective story, often it is one tidbit of information that sheds light on a case and blows it wide open.  Similarly, a communiqué that looks to the uninformed to be completely innocuous might turn out to be exactly the tidbit needed for enemies of the U.S.—and others—to inflict death and serious destruction.  It amazes me that otherwise intelligent people, including journalists, think that they can make such judgments, let alone promote their obviously amateur judgments online.  This does not speak well for the judgment of the New York Times' editors.  To their credit, others, such as the Washington Post, would not make deals with Wikileaks.

Fallacy: the United States is an "empire" and needs to be reined in. Exposing the inner workings of this government's foreign policy is a good thing. It's not a bad thing that the leaks damage U.S. interests, because U.S. interests are contrary to the interests of a lot of the rest of the world.  This argument is made by two different groups of people who are best addressed separately.

On the one hand, people on the radical left are of course deeply opposed to the American system of government. I am not one of these people—though occasionally, as an open-minded philosopher, I have considered some such people as my personal friends. Anyway, these people naturally regard the U.S. government, the main defender of this much-hated system, as enemy #1 in world politics.  I don't.  Obviously, radical leftists will be among Wikileaks' most vociferous supporters in the latest leaks, precisely because they want the U.S. undermined.  As a patriotic, loyal American citizen, I do not want my country undermined, and I'm not ashamed to say so.  Taking this openly pro-U.S. stance as I do, radical leftists cannot be expected to treat me nicely.  Fortunately, I couldn't care less about what they think, when they use playground insults and attempt to bait me into stupid exchanges of sentiments.  I'm not about to enter an exchange with such people about the merits of the American system and hence the defensibility of undermining it.

On the other hand, there are plenty of liberals, libertarians, and social democrats who support Wikileaks. My views are closer to theirs.  I agree with them that, as a rough generality, leakage of government documents is a good thing for open government, free speech, and democracy.  This is why, when Wikileaks first appeared, I was cautiously supportive.  But it is perfectly consistent for liberals, libertarians, and social democrats—and conservatives too, of course—to draw the distinction between positive leaks that improve government and irresponsible leaks that do nothing but cause all sorts of harm and pointless chaos.  If you are an anarchist, you might celebrate all leaks, but most of us aren't anarchists and are capable of making intelligent distinctions between good and bad leaks.

Let me put this another way.  There are a lot of things that the U.S. State Department does that democracy-loving people across the political landscape can agree are positive, or at least supportable.  But some of those things have to be done in secret.  That is the nature of diplomacy, espionage, and foreign policy in the real world, which is a dangerous, complex world.  To leak three million communiqués potentially undermines everything positive that the U.S. can do in the world.  Come on, folks—can't you see that?  It should be obvious, and it's very disappointing that it isn't more so to liberals.  Unless you count yourself as one of the aforementioned radical leftists, who want to see the U.S. lose, period, then you cannot support Wikileaks' action.  It is completely unsupportable.

Fallacy: Wikileaks is a force for openness and transparency.  Openness is good.  (Oh, how can a founder of Wikipedia fail to realize this?  The horror!)  There are some people who think that all of government should be conducted "in the open," always.  Such people remind me of my radical libertarian friends: their theories sound nice, beautiful even, but they quite stubbornly refuse to take seriously the reasons for the things they criticize.  The fact is that some, only some, of democratic government has always been conducted without public exposure.  In this brief comment, I cannot elaborate the reasons for occasional government secrecy, but I'll give you a hint: it has to do with privacy, public safety, and national defense.  I disagree with those people who want government to be so "open"—open far beyond anything any government has ever experienced, open far beyond anything widely thought to be required—that they are perfectly willing to undermine privacy, public safety, and national defense in order to secure that openness.  Such people are ideologues, and they are fun for other ideologues to argue with, and occasionally for philosophers too, but they can be safely ignored by more sane, grounded people and those with little time on their hands for philosophy.

Finally, Julian Assange is no hero.  He is a twit.  He should not be made into a liberal icon.  He gives hackers a bad name.  He and his organization are indeed enemies of the U.S. government and the people represented by that government; they should be stopped, and they richly deserve to be punished for this latest leak.  And that goes double for the person or people in the U.S. government who leaked the documents in the first place.  None of these people deserve your support any longer.

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