Wikileaks on The Wire

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Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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34 Responses

  1. Avatar Michael Drew
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    says:

    Wow. I wish I’d written this. Bravo.Report

  2. Avatar E.C. Gach
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    says:

    “Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the Wikileaks model is that it admits of shockingly little editorial discretion. The result is that its utility is drastically reduced for any purpose other than making it more difficult for the State to conduct its core functions. It is not terribly useful for putting an end to specific injustices committed by the State, particularly because it relies heavily on traditional media to analyze, disseminate and sort the information in the leaks.”

    By working in tandem with outlets like the NY Times and the Guardian, why do you think “editorial discretion” wasn’t achieved? Since both a Times and Wikileaks published similar material on the whole, why would your critique of Wikileaks not also hold for the Times?

    And as Sanger have noted, one of the beneficial things to come out of these leaks is that things the American MSM has suspected for a while, for instance that many Middle East countries fear a nuclear Iran, are not public record and can’t be denied.

    This frees up journalists working in outlets in those countries, for instance Saudi Arabia, to write more about these issues, since the cat is already out of the bag.

    In other words the most profound effects of the leaked cables will probably be allowing new topics to be more openly discussed in these other countries, rather than any direct benefit to the U.S. public.Report

  3. Avatar Trumwill
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    says:

    This is absolutely the best post on Wikileaks I have read.Report

  4. Avatar tom van dyke
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    says:

    ” It’s a serious situation I find myself in, the bad guys want to slice my head off on YouTube with a rusty blade, and the good guys want to lock me up in an orange jumpsuit … along with the bad guys.”th3 j35t3rReport

  5. Avatar Tony Comstock
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    says:

    Very good, but wrong show. Try again with Deadwood.Report

  6. Avatar Mike Farmer
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    says:

    Excellent — Omar is my favortite philosopherReport

  7. Avatar James K
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    says:

    Oddly enough, when I first read about the Wikileaks dump the first Omar quote jumped to mind pretty quickly.

    I agree with your general sentiment for a couple of reasons:
    1) In The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan made what I thought was a pretty convincing case that deception is a fundamental part of democratic politics. Basically voters want certain policies and certain outcomes, but the policies they want won’t lead to the outcomes they want. So a politician either has to A) tell voters they won’t implement the desired policies (in which case they won’t get in), B) give voters the desired policies at the expense of the desired outcomes (they get voted out), or C) tell voter’s they’ll implement the desired polices but actually implement as few of them as possible. I know this model to be true in economics, and I suspect it may be true in diplomacy as well. Deception requires secrecy, so yes you need to be able to hide some things from the public. The tricky part is working out what the government should be able to hide.

    2) There’s a huge difference between information and data. Information is data given context, by providing structure and filtering out irrelevant details. Raw data is useless to people without the specialist skills needed to interpret it. To switch TV shows for a moment, in Yes Minister when Sir Humphrey wanted to keep hacker in the dark, he’d give him as few papers as possible. When Hacker complained, Humphrey would respond by giving Hacker as many papers as possible. With so much raw data at his disposal, Hacker couldn’t figure out what was going on. By releasing all the cables without offering context, Wikileaks didn’t inform the public, they just data dumped. Now perhaps Wikileaks was counting on the MSM to the the interpretation work for them, but I thought the idea behind Wikileaks was that the MSM couldn’t be relied on for this work.Report

  8. Avatar Christopher Carr
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    “The attacks on Visa, et al, seem misguided under any ethos. Certainly, the discriminatory treatment towards Wikileaks by these private entities is confusing. The comparison Jason mentioned this morning with the KKK is instructive. Why permit payments to a universally-despised and unquestionably abhorrent subversive entity while prohibiting them to another (admittedly subversive) entity which possesses fairly widespread support (albeit with widespread opposition as well)? I assume it’s safe to say that this isn’t an ideological statement by these corporations so much as it is a response to pressure from the State. Going after the corporations themselves thus can do little to change the corporations’ position, even as it inconveniences and harms the innumerable customers of these corporations.”

    Having a visa or mastercard account is now a requirement for foreigners to enter the United States for any reason. One could make the argument that this represents an authoritarian cartel. The credit card companies have blood on their hands and are fair targets.Report

  9. I’ve reached pretty much all the same conclusions that you have so far Mark. No real harm done but we need to have some kind of reasonable code of ethics for when something really juicy does fall into their laps.

    I also like the conspiracy theory that the govt engineered the whole thing. It actually makes a lot of sense. Gets their criticisms of foreign countries/leaders out there without making them complicit. Wikileaks may just be the patsy in the scheme.Report

  10. Avatar Shannon's Mouse
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    says:

    A few points:

    I have trouble with the claim that nothing was exposed in Cablegate. Just off the top of my head:

    – The extent to which the US diplomatic missions in Spain and Germany labored to ensure that the Americans responsible for kidnapping and torturing Khalid El-Masri would not be brought to justice in those countries.

    – The government of Nigeria appears to be a wholly owned subsidiary of Shell Oil, with Pfizer taking a minority stake.

    There’s a second category of stuff that provides rock solid confirmation of things that sophisticated observers of foreign policy already surmised but which governments like to pretend isn’t the case — stuff like Arab elites eagerly wanting to expend American blood and treasure fighting Iran.

    These revelations are most definitely a net positive for decent people everywhere. There’s the final category of stuff that amounts to embarrassing gossip that doesn’t really inform the public but has the potential to make the State Department’s job harder. It’s collateral damage, no doubt. Thems the breaks.

    Re: MasterCard… I’ve got problems with them being portrayed as some sort of “private” victim here. They’re operating in cahoots with the government because they’re afraid of losing their privileged position in our system of state capitalism. They’re fair game.Report

  11. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    I’m also reminded of Stringer Bell’s “Is you taking notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy?”Report

  12. Avatar Scott G
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    says:

    You’re thinking might be less muddled if you relied on a clearer picture of what is actually going. I’m not sure what “scattershot” approach you’re writing about. As E. C. Gach commented, WikiLeaks is working in tandem with the NYT, El Pais, Le Monde, Der Speigel, and the Guardian. These newspapers define global editorial professionalism. (The European ones more so than the torture-apologizing NYT.) Indeed, the Guardian and Le Monde have published editorials supporting WikiLeaks and condemning American responses.

    Furthermore, it wasn’t a document “dump”. It has been a steady release of a percentage of documents each day. At the time of this writing, they have published 1,295 cables, less than 1% of the total. (http://213.251.145.96/cablegate.html). One cannot justifiably round this number to mean a “dump” or “1000’s”.

    As Shannon’s Mouse points out, just in these 1,295 cables, among other things we have already learned that the U.S. government has pressured Germany and Spain to not pursue torture-related prosecutions against American agents. Whatever else that may surface from these documents, that alone surely gives them some seat at the “importance” table. We knew Afghanistan was failing; we didn’t know our government was pressuring our allies to not prosecute our war crimes.

    Finally, “anarchy or diplomacy” is a false choice and not the issue at hand. The issue, regardless of Assange’s personal beliefs or motivations for his actions, is whether diplomacy is acting in good faith on behalf of the interests of the citizens of the United States, which our government is elected and appointed to represent. As we have learned with the case above, it does not in some very important ways. The diplomatic corps may be professional and require secrecy to accomplish their jobs. What we have learned is that our government, in secrecy from us, directs them for purposes that can be illegal and unethical.

    The informal code is an interesting suggestion. I believe we have WikiLeaks because news reporters have abrogated their traditional watchdog role. Assange is the middleman between the leaker and the general public, or newspapers now. Traditionally and in our accepted whistleblower process, the leaker would go to a reporter, who would review the material, determine if it’s legit, perhaps research the background and motivation of the leaker, then publish the relevant material in an editorialized fashion. But, what leaker in his or her right might would go to a reporter who has water gun fights with the VP at his mansion or cocktails at McCain’s ranch or a big gala dinner where everyone laughs and slaps each other on the back? The rise of WikiLeaks implies that reporters lost the trust of whistleblowers, who have now turned to someone who does not follow our accepted whistleblower norms but does act in ways to respect and retain their trust. Before we worry about what code of ethics WikiLeaks is practicing or should, perhaps we need to focus on getting our reporters and government back to upholding theirs.Report

  13. Avatar Heidegger
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    says:

    al Jazeera? You’d find more balance reading Workers World Daily.
    All the Arab countries just love these leaks–especially the parts where Israel and the United States will do all the heavy lifting regarding Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Yeah, I remember that picture of the young Palestinian boy, Muhammad al-Durrah, supposedly shot and killed by the IDF. It turned out to be a complete hoax. The forensic evidence showed it would not have been impossible for him to have been shot to death by the IDF, yet Al Jazeera, went on, and on, and on, stoking the fires of the mobs and causing untoward death and destruction. They wanted a martyr and they were going to get one one way or another.Report

  14. Avatar Rufus F.
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    says:

    “If one is not an anarchist, and thus accepts the need for diplomacy, exposing so many communications of that sort undermines the ability of diplomats to do their jobs with any kind of candor. Government officials will likely become more, rather than less, secretive, even as no wrongdoing has been exposed from a non-anarchist perspective.”

    Glad you wrote this. I was considering writing a post, but this allows me to make a comment instead. I’ve spent the last two weeks fully immersed in secret correspondence from diplomats and consuls, and the last three years studying the same. Luckily for me, all of these people are long dead and the French government is okay with me reading their secret correspondence.

    The conclusion I’ve come to is that what these people do for a living, more than anything, is whatever they can to prevent wars from happening. They really are status quo sort of men and the reason for this is that, indeed, wars cause social instability and make things hard for their nation’s businessmen abroad who might not care for having their business disrupted or being killed in the melee.

    Defense of the status quo can, of course, be very nefarious, and often is; but trying to prevent social collapse and outbreaks of violence are a bit easier to defend. And I have to point out that most of these people were able to work to shore up social stability while still pushing foreign governments very hard to defend the rights of people who appealed to them for help, regardless of nationality. In fact, they’re quite often a powerful voice for the oppressed within foreign states. Diplomacy really isn’t as given to nationalism as people think. But, of course, this is why diplomacy shouldn’t be dictated by popular sentiment at home and shouldn’t be a matter of popular politics. It’s also a pretty good argument for ‘secrecy’ and ‘cloak and dagger’ behind-the-scenes operating.

    To give just one example, I just read a ton of documents from the French consuls in Beirut in the mid 1840s trying desperately to prevent the recent feud between the Maronite Christians and Druzes from turning into a full-blown civil war. Anyone who knows the history knows that all efforts failed by the end of the decade.

    But I’m not sure that means that what they were doing trying to keep the peace was nefarious; nor that it should have been ‘transparent’. The French intelligensia at that time, and here I’m thinking of people like Lamartine, were screaming for the government to avenge the blood of the Maronites and send in the army. But the fact is that this was a local feud over redistricting (one purposefully stirred up by the Ottomans to keep the population divided, incidentally), and calling for a religious war was idiotic. Lots of people would die. Lots of people did die in fact.

    As it happens, the governments of Europe wanted a civil war too, so they could take sides and take land from the Turks in the event of a victory. But what’s really interesting is that the consuls did not work in that direction at all. Instead, they wanted to promote peace and stability and to prevent those who were under their protection from being massacred. I fail to see why their secrecy makes this nefarious, nor why there really shouldn’t be plenty of diplomacy that goes on behind closed doors. And the problem I have with blanket calls for ‘transparency’ is that there actually is a value to doing some things in private. People don’t just require secrecy because what they’re doing is corrupt.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Rufus F.
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      says:

      Rufus, as usual, makes an excellent point. In the midst of the neo-con attack on diplomacy as a sissified evasion of the real solution to all problems (i.e. the military), can we really afford to make diplomacy more difficult?Report

  15. Avatar Rufus F.
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    says:

    Mike Farmer’s code of ethics comment really is very helpful. The problem I have with many of the wikileaks defenses I’ve read elsewhere is that they hold up ‘transparency’ as a universal good and ‘secrecy’ as an indicator of malfeasance, but this doesn’t leave us any criteria to distinguish between whistleblowing and simply trying to cause harm to individuals and organizations.

    The truth is every single human organization, from your local diner to the church to Nike to the US government “maintains secrecy”, and that’s because they all have what the sociologist Irving Goffmann called a “stage” and a “backstage”. A firefighter will talk differently about the fire department to a fellow firefighter than he will to the general public, and it’s like this with every organization. So, if you leak those private conversations to the public, it’s likely that you’ll leak something that will embarass the organization, whether or not it’s actually in the public interest to know. To give a really easy example, you as the public have a right to know if your local diner has cockroaches in the kitchen, but you have no right to know if the head manager and head waitress are cheating on their spouses together, even though both leaks could equally embarass the organization.

    If you hate an organization, I suspect anything is fair game. There are certainly websites dedicated to undiscriminating take downs of anyone involved in a particular industry that they find unpalatable. So long as it ’embarasses’ the organization and “brings about much needed change” by hastening its demise. But embarassment is a terrible criteria for leaking information. A lot of the defenses I’ve read of wikileaks elsewhere argue that governments and large corporations are so corrupt in themselves that anything that could hurt them is worth leaking, which is at least honest resentment. Most of us, however, see a difference between leaking that, say, the US government is waging a secret war in Greenland, or our diplomats secretly think the Canadian Prime Minister is a moron, even though both might be scandalous.

    Conversely, I’ve heard some bloggers argue that saying something different in private company from what you would say to the general public over the internet is, in itself, proof of corruption. But there’s something unsettlingly totalitarian about that. My community has absolutely no right to expect me to give up my privacy; nor do they have the right to argue that my demand for privacy shows that I have “something to hide”. And that’s true even if I work for the dreaded government. Now, if what I’m doing in secret is conspiring against the public interest, that’s a whole different thing. But, again, we need to define our terms, and I think this is where I agree with Mike.Report

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