I believe WikiLeaks made a mistake in releasing the diplomatic cables the way they did. But the combined US response has been positively frightening.
I can imagine Assange’s position a few weeks ago, before the diplomatic cables went live. Assange was in charge of an up-and-coming website that had broken several important news stories. He was making waves in the media world, and making a name for his organization. It was a good place to be.
Then he was offered the mother of all secrets. One day he opened an email offering him a breach so big, it would have to be noticed at the highest level. He knew that releasing the diplomatic cables was going to blow WikiLeaks right out into the open. It was going to make headlines around the world and make Assange a household name.
I can see the temptation. But I think it was the wrong decision.
WikiLeaks has built its media reputation and its reservoir of goodwill through good deeds. The organization is rooted firmly in the values of liberal democracy and civil society. People who care about freedom of the press and an open media naturally welcome something like WikiLeaks.
They’ve done plenty of good exposing hidden wrongdoing in the past.
But here’s the rub. The current WikiLeaks story is different. In the case of the diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks is mostly not exposing hidden wrongdoing. It’s exposing hidden right-doing, which dies when it’s in the open.
Not everything that happens behind closed doors is intrinsically bad. Diplomacy is secret for a good reason. Sometimes negotiations have to happen in private so they can be frank. Sometimes people only cooperate in secret because open collaboration would be dangerous to them.
Secrecy is intrinsic to high-level relationships between countries, just like it is to relationships between people. That’s why we have things like lawyer-client, doctor-patient, and spousal privilege, for instance.
That’s why I think that releasing the diplomatic cables was a mistake. In cases where diplomats are genuinely working for the good of their country, there’s no wrongdoing there to expose, even if the diplomats are doing so in secret. “Exposing” the secrets of diplomacy might be doing more harm than good – and crucially, it might damage WikiLeaks’ ability to do good in the long run. Clay Shirky has written an astute analysis on this point.
I can see why Assange decided to release these documents, but it might have been the wrong decision for WikiLeaks, and for democracy and openness around the world.
A Chilling Response
What’s even more damaging is the nature of the US response. I found this passage in this morning’s Guardian chilling:
Asked about the New York Times’s role in publishing the leaked cables, Lieberman told Fox news the newspaper “has committed at least an act of bad citizenship. Whether they have committed a crime I think bears very intensive inquiry”.
Let’s be clear here. The New York Times, and even WikiLeaks itself, hasn’t leaked anything. Private Bradley Manning leaked the diplomatic cables. What the NYT and WikiLeaks are doing is publishing leaked information, which is something different.
Here we have an influential US politician implying that a newspaper might be guilty of a crime, for publishing information embarrassing to the government. This is not something I would have expected to hear in the land of the free, where the First Amendment to the constitution protects freedom of expression. Matthew Ingram wrote more on this in an excellent post on GigaOM. He writes:
More than anything else, WikiLeaks is a publisher — a new kind of publisher, but a publisher nonetheless — and that makes this a freedom of the press issue. Like it or not, WikiLeaks is fundamentally a journalistic entity, and as such it deserves our protection.
This, I think, is why so many people (including myself) felt so conflicted about the WikiLeaks story at first. WikiLeaks is doing a sort of work that’s very important in a pluralist democratic society. Exposing hidden wrongdoing is one of the purposes of a free press and the lubricant of representative democracy. This is about enabling an egalitarian society where the strong do not oppress the weak. That deserves to be protected.
But now that organization has gone and done something bad. In releasing the diplomatic cables they haven’t exposed wrongdoing, they’ve endangered good work that must necessarily be kept secret.
I am a supporter of WikiLeaks in general. But I think releasing the cables this way will do more harm than good.