Secrecy and the state
“If secrecy is necessary for national security and effective diplomacy, it is also inevitable that the prerogative of secrecy will be used to hide the misdeeds of the permanent state and its privileged agents. I suspect that there is no scheme of government oversight that will not eventually come under the indirect control of the generals, spies, and foreign-service officers it is meant to oversee. Organisations such as WikiLeaks, which are philosophically opposed to state secrecy and which operate as much as is possible outside the global nation-state system, may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy. Some folks ask, "Who elected Julian Assange?" The answer is nobody did, which is, ironically, why WikiLeaks is able to improve the quality of our democracy. Of course, those jealously protective of the privileges of unaccountable state power will tell us that people will die if we can read their email, but so what? Different people, maybe more people, will die if we can’t.” ~ Will Wilkinson
Can I just add that WikiLeaks vs. the United States Government is not a fair fight – we’re clear on that, right? All the possible damage Assange can do to US secrecy pales in comparison to the damage he cannot do.
I realize that governments cannot function without some degree of secrecy; perhaps this should call into question the legitimacy of the state to begin with. Then again, in the world we live in, we are stuck with government and we might as well do our best to keep it honest. Traditionally, it is the media’s role to expose the state as much as possible, to act as watchdog to those in power. Whether the media has lived up to this role is an open question. Even if it has, it would still not be a fair fight. The government has a monopoly on violence; the media has only words. We should encourage underdogs like WikiLeaks who continue to fight an uphill battle, not against the United States – this country is more than its government, after all – but against the over-reach of the state. We have ceded so much of our own privacy to our government, perhaps now we would like to return the favor.
WikiLeaks may be a small player, really, in the bigger scheme of things. But to some degree it is also a bellwether, a forecast of things to come as information and technology continue to nip at the heels of the state. Perhaps we really are approaching a time when government becomes less relevant, less necessary, where other institutions both real and virtual can begin to supplant the role of the state in our lives, subversively at first but then more openly as time passes. I don’t know. I’m not even sure what that would look like in practice. Predicting the future is not among my talents; I cannot see where frying pans leave off and fires begin. But if I am at all correct then we should also realize that when an institution is threatened it reacts accordingly. Things will get worse before they get better.