Wikileaks Is A Valuable Service

An article  (“Assange Is a Jerk. So What?”) in Slate by Esther Dyson captures exactly my own feelings about the Affaire Wikileaks. The point is that while Wikileaks is offensive to government, it supplies essential transparency to government operations. It would be nice if we had a more orderly mechanism to supply that transparency, but we’ve failed to produce such a mechanism. So Wikileaks (and other such services, like Cryptome) are all we’ve got.

The problem with executive secrecy is not that it’s unnecessary — of course there should be secrets. The problem is that there is no check on the ability of a government to classify something a secret. Governments (not only the U.S.) do this promiscuously, unrestrained by any outside authority, based on their own unreviewed judgment. Naturally, this privilege is chronically abused, covering ineptitude, malice, and corruption as well as genuine security-driven secrets. In addition to which, sheer bureaucratic caution drives much silly, pointless classification. That secrecy is obviously damaging to good democratic governance. And our ability to pry away at those layers of secrecy is dwindling.

This is not in principle an uncorrectable tendency. One could imagine that, if we decided to reimpose some kind of controls over executive secrecy, legislation could establish a separate oversight agency with budget, personnel, and legal authority to demand document review and declassification from the three-letter-agencies. Such an agency, created with some independence from the Feds, and accountable to Congress, could force the executive to rethink its instinctive urge to classify everything that will bear a “Secret” stamp. This is a pipe dream, of course, given the atmosphere set by post-911 terrorism fearmongering. But it demonstrates the theoretical possibility of an orderly process by which government could be held accountable in spite of its power of secrecy classification. It’s just that we don’t have the will, or enough of a national sense the obligations of patriotic citizenship, to go to this sort of trouble.

In the U.S., Congressional oversight was supposed to help prevent the worst secrecy abuses from happening, especially after the investigations related to Nixon’s colossal abuses. But Congressional oversight has quite simply failed — members of Congress who aren’t kept in the dark are simply recruited. For example, in 2006, Congressional oversight subcommittees with responsibility for Intelligence matters felt unable to warn the public that the NSA has a systematic program of domestic warrantless wiretapping, despite this constituting an obvious danger flag for civil liberty. Again, the post-911 hysteria over terrorism has essentially authorized the securocracy to write its own ticket, untroubled by any outside scrutiny, and unaccountable to any institution that makes civil liberties a priority (the Obama White House is apparently not such an institution).

So if we’re not going to use our built-in constitutional checks-and-balances to restrain improper secrecy, and we’re not going to legislate a separate oversight agency to review classification, then all we’re left with is Wikilieaks, Cryptome, etc. It’s far from perfect, and some interests (like privacy of diplomatic correspondence) will get damaged in the process. Some people may even get hurt. But the alternative is worse.


Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: