Thoughts on Wikileaks and the need for secrets

Sunday 5 December 2010
CATEGORY: history / politics

Our default position should be that truth and openness is good for societies. Only in very special circumstances should the public be denied information.

This is why, in the past, when newspapers received these kinds of leaks that Wikileaks are now recieving, more often than not they published them. And democratic governments in the West had no choice but to except the newspaper’s right to do this. Or else they would face the wrath of public opinion.

Newspapers normally made this judgement on what they perceive to be in the public interest. So when a crime has been committed it is almost always deemed to be in the public interest to expose this. Where the public had been willfully mislead as in the case of the Vietnamese War era Pentagon Papers, the papers were rightly published.

So far, when reading the latest batch of leaks from Wikileaks the case for the public interest is not always that clear.

While it seems to me to be quite clear in the case of the revelations about the Saudi’s asking the US to bomb Iran that the public does have a right to know. Especially with the constant threat of war and the misleading that lead up to the Iraqi conflict is taken into account.

It is less clear to me why its in the public interest to know that the mayor of Beijing had a dinner conversation with the American ambassador about the difficulties of governing the city, and where it was discussed whether he will stay in the city or be moved to another post by the Communist party. This only serves to satisfy western voyeurism. It certainly does not help Chinese citizens.

But a much harder example would be a case like the secret South African talks.

Did secrecy help kill apartheid?

From 1985 South Africa’s National Intelligence were working behind the scenes (Great Radio 4 interview behind that link) to seek out and meet with the ANC, to explore the possibility of a negotiated settlement.

At the same time Thabo Mbeki had come under the impression that the armed struggle was not achieving much and other avenues had to be explored. A precious possibility for a tete-a-tete was suddenly there to grasp.

And so it came that some in the Nationalists and a few in the ANC started an intricate dance – to find possible steps for peace – that very few knew about.

The tango was top secret, and if those that were involved were to be believed, there were elements in both the ANC and inside and to the right of the government, as well as the military that would have wanted to scupper any contact between the sides.

And besides – the level of rhetoric against each other at the time would have made a revelation of talks unpalatable to the public it was thought. Especially to the white electorate, which had swung towards more conservative groupings in the previous election.

These secret meetings continued for some time. And at a point the British got involved and helped arrange secret meetings in the UK.

Eventually PW met Mandela in secret in 1989, Barnard the head of National Intelligence famously tying Mandela’s shoe laces just before the meet.

Now there is no way of telling exactly what would happened if the white voting public knew about these meetings. Or if Thabo would have handed the ammunition to Hani and Slovo to unseat him in the ANC if they knew about it right at the beginning.

But my guess is it would have set the negotiation process back at best, if not endangering it.

If Wikileaks found cables in which it became apparent that Benjamin Netanyanu’s government were having secret talks with Hamas, should Wikileaks or a newspaper publish this? Especially if it though that the information would perhaps scupper it all?

Clay Shirkey explains why he thinks full transparency can scupper negotiations:

…human systems can’t stand pure transparency. For negotiation to work, people’s stated positions have to change, but change is seen, almost universally, as weakness. People trying to come to consensus must be able to privately voice opinions they would publicly abjure, and may later abandon. Wikileaks plainly damages those abilities.

A few other consequences of these events that has me worried (or just thinking).

DDOS and the end of freedom?

It is now patently clear that it is quite easy to mount a DDOS attack and be untraceable.

And as this article points out, none but the most well resourced hosts will be able to repel these. This has serious consequences, which will probably lead to organisations having two choices. Being vulnerable to attack or submitting to the control of theses large super hosts. Suddenly the internet does not seem so free, so unfettered.

Mr Ego

Julian Assange seems like an arrogant egotistical chap, with a very strong ideological bent. I gathered as much after I read the Live interview with him at the Guardian. This does not inspire much confidence in him. As this blog post points out he would do better if he tried to take more of the public with him and used the power of social media in a more democratic fashion.

The ideologue

Julian Assange has a very western-lefty (think Chomsky) view of authoritarianism – which is in my opinion fails to draw the distinction between real authoritarianism and excess state control. In an earlier essay, as this excellent blog post points out, he describes the US as a kind of authoritarian state.

Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.

The problem then for this conspiracy is how do you keep things secret but still communicate to various arms of the state, so the conspiracy can function?

Wikileaks is therefor an attempt to short circuit the secret channels of communication of these states and organisations.

Assange goes on to say:

“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”

Now that is where his reasoning falls down in my opinion. It is precisely in democracies where leaks are most prevalent. It is precisely from democracies that Wikileaks have gotten its most leaks. Are democracies the most unjust then? There might be many reasons for this abundance of leaks from democracies, but that they are most unjust is not one of them.

The fact that many proper authoritarian states are developing countries and information is harder to leak for reasons of lack of infrastructure could be one reason we see more leaks in democracies.

But another reason might be this – some authoritarian regimes don’t hide their unjustness. They are quite open about their unjustness. China has not tried to hide the fact that the nobel prize winner has been locked up for campaigning for democracy. Neither does it apologise for or tried to hide the hundreds of executions each year.

Yet it has been highly sensitive to allegations of corruption, executing top party officials and businessmen alike that are caught. The Government has even set up an anti-corruption line. Some call China a Developmental Authoritarian state because of this.

Does Assagne then distinguish between these power obsessed Developmental Autocracies and the excessively horrible Predatory States?

Remember almost all Predatory States are de facto authoritarian.

And what about a distinction between Predatory States and Democracies?

Surely a state that is purposely dysfunctional so as to feed off its population for the benefit of an elite (the definition of a predatory state), is a different proposition to the government of Germany and even China?

Mr Assagne’s theories is a little unsubtle, and not nuanced enough for the complexities of this world it would seem. They are the product of I suspect a rather naive & cosseted politics.

More ideologues

Lastly, many in the tech industry have drunk on the cool aid that the internet is a place outside of our world. For them the net somehow escapes normal social rules and politics. Ideologies are dangerous because it causes us not to know what we know, as Zizek puts it.

Richard Barbrook described elements of this ideology – a weird mix of lefty counter culture and right wing economic utopianism, wrapped up in technological metafors he calls The Californian Ideology.

This way of thinking is so wide spread that you see many knee jerk & unthinking defending of Wikileaks from techies. One of the high priests of this kind of thinking, John Perry Barlow, his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace was circulated this week:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.

My short answer to all that is that Mr Barlow had too much LSD and read too little Marx when he wrote this.

The Border War

I’d like to end my thoughts with another anecdote in praise of openess.

South Africa and Cuba were in semi-secretive talks about the war in Angola for a couple of years. When a number of South African troops died around the time of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, the government could not longer hide the extent of the conflict. Die Kerkbode – the newsletter of the main Afrikaner church expressed it doubts about war for the first time. A few days later a deal to end the war was done. I’m not suggesting that public opinion was the only factor that focussed the minds of the Nationalists. But it certainly played a large part.

No related posts.

5 Responses

  1. Cobus says:

    Thank you for an extensive exploration and pointing out some of the problems.

    Obviously we’d have to recognize that no one would have worried about a leak concerning the Beijing major if it did not come together with a leak about Saudi Arabia. So although examples might be found where the intellectual community might have consensus that it would have been better if it remained unsaid, there was enough covered up to warrant a very costly leak (no one would have taken the pains that is currently experienced for Western voyeurism).

    As for South Africa, I wonder where we would have been if someone told all those soldiers what the propaganda was that they were fed, and what really was behind the arguments for the border war. Or what if we had leaks on everything done by the police, wouldn’t the public have pressured the government much earlier? Secrecy might have been important for the discussions between the government and ANC, but only because of all the other secrets already held. If everything was opened up, including the reality on the financial figures reminding us about the unsustainability of apartheid, we might have moved much more quickly.

  2. I think you are right that infrastructure is a limiting factor for whistleblowing in authoritarian societies, but so is the culture of fear, and also the language barrier. These however are being eroded, perhaps faster in China than elsewhere because of the rapid rise in wealth and access to digital communications. There are frequent reports of new levels of accountability arising from exposure of corruption and abuse.

  3. Hector says:

    Thanks for writing your thoughts down. Additional I read just today an refreshing article by Suzanne Moore “”, which might be from interest for you.

  4. Kameraad Mhambi says:

    Thanks for the link Hector.

    I paste it again.

  5. An alternative opinion would be that if transparency were in place from the beginning, apartheid could not have happened. At least in the form it took.

    the corruption inherent in government secrecy leads to more dishonest and criminal acts than the one or two wonderful outcomes.