Global Education

Wikileaks: Heroism

By Ben Tolkin
Published: December 2010

WikiLeaks has made international headlines again, with its most recent release of hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables.
Cyber attacks have taken down most WikiLeaks websites. Counter attacks by internet protestors are taking down Amazon and Mastercard. WikiLeaks’s Bond villain-esque editor, Julian Assange, was recently arrested in Britain for sex crimes. Anarchists are cackling in the street as the established global order is torn apart.
Well, not that last one. But from much of the rhetoric tossed about in the last few weeks from politicians like Mike Huckabee, who urged for Assange’s execution, you’d think WikiLeaks was bent on destroying the US government. But if we look past the reactions and to the facts, it becomes clear that WikiLeaks’ effect on the United States is positive, both to our democracy and to our safety.
The first thing to get out of the way is that the documents released usually tended to confirm what those paying attention already suspected. Media figures who express shock that Saudi Arabia would urge the US to attack Iran evidently haven’t been paying attention for the last 30 years.
We supported dictatorships in Central Asia to help us in the War in Afghanistan!? Wow! We haven’t done something that crazy since we supported dictatorships in Southeast Asia and Korea and South America and Indonesia and the Middle East!
The only thing surprising about, say, news that Hilary Clinton ordered spying missions on key UN leaders is that we weren’t running missions earlier. We have a whole agency devoted to espionage; I assume their budget is going somewhere. Every world leader knows exactly how diplomacy is conducted.
It’s messy and complicated and a lot of the time, the US ends up spying on people or intimidating governments or getting friendly with dictators. To paraphrase Defense Secretary Robert Gates, other nations don’t deal with the United States because they like or trust us.
They deal with us because at best, they respect us, and at worst, they fear us. These documents are embarrassing, but hardly surprising.
That said, the release of these documents is hardly irrelevant. We live in a democracy, and as Thomas Jefferson said, information is the currency of democracy.
It is precisely the messy, complicated nature of diplomacy that is so infrequently communicated to the average American voter. If only WikiLeaks had existed in 2003! When Bush, Rumsfeld, and Powell were explaining how certain they were that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, imagine if we’d seen the actual intelligence they were basing that on!
Knowing that, for example, Turkish authorities allowed weapons to be smuggled to al Qaeda strikes me as relevant to the American people. The better informed we are about both what is happening around the world and what our government is doing, the better our democracy can function.
But there’s another positive benefit of WikiLeaks that is often overlooked. WikiLeaks is not a spying or intelligence-gathering organization, it is a publishing organization. It is a way for leaked documents to be published anonymously.
So who does the leaking? Just about anybody. “Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time, Robert Gates said.
Many recently leaked documents have been traced back to Private First Class Bradley Manning, a low-level intelligence officer who was fed up with the need to conceal his sexual orientation under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, and covertly copied upwards of 90,000 documents onto blank CDs of Lady Gaga music (evidently listening to Gaga does not count as “telling).
The arrest of the mysterious, outspoken, and strangely attractive Julian Assange will not only do nothing to stop WikiLeaks; stopping WikiLeaks would do nothing to stop leaking of documents. One of the more controversial releases was a list of areas considered by the United States as vulnerable to a devastating terrorist attack.
But envision a world without WikiLeaks releasing documents in bundles for the world to see. Any disgruntled officer could still leak the document, and just pass it covertly to an unknown power, without the knowledge of the US government.
The only thing worse than having your documents released publicly is having them released privately. What WikiLeaks shows the government is that it can not rely on secrecy to protect the American people.
Documents get leaked. The best policy is honesty, transparency, and tangible actions to make America safe.

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