The Blog

Let Us Now Praise Wikileaks

WikiLeaks, whatever its flaws might be, is filling a dangerous vacuum in our information environment. For that, they deserves our thanks.
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In his post today, Glenn Greenwald acknowledged that it was reasonable to argue that WikiLeaks is an imperfect vehicle for disclosing government secrets. But, he noted, we don't get to choose between a WikiLeaks with infallible judgment and the really, existing, WikiLeaks. Either we have the actual, imperfect version, or we have a government that asserts evermore promiscuous prerogatives of secrecy, disrespect for the law -- torture, rendition, warrantless wiretaps and assassinations, etc. -- with little concern about accountability for their actions.

Given this actual choice, and not the ideal choice we don't have, here are some reasons why I am grateful for WikiLeaks:

1) In the broadest terms, as Digby wrote a few days ago, anything that reminds the powerful that they cannot act with complete impunity all the time has to be a good thing. There has been a lot of anguish about how the disclosure of diplomatic cables will make foreign service officers think twice before they candidly express their views, and that this will impede the flow of important information to our government. Maybe. But isn't it also possible that such leaks might also impede unscrupulous behavior? If you believe our diplomats are unfailingly pure of heart and unerring in judgment, then there is no upside to forcing them to think twice about their words and deeds.

But if we assume that at least some of our government agents are flawed human beings, in one way or another, the fact that they might have to think twice not only about what they say, but about what they do, doesn't strike me as a clear negative. Granted, shame and embarrassment don't come easily to those in high places. Obama's immediate predecessor is running around proudly proclaiming that he violated sworn US commitments regarding torture, for instance. So, yes, we've got a long way to go here. But given that the direction of public life has all been away from holding the powerful accountable, consider the WikiLeaks disclosure a (small) reversal of that most unwelcome trend.

2) Contrary to quite a bit of hand-wringing about the subject, sober analysis suggests that the WikiLeaks documents, while causing a good deal of embarrassment to our foreign policy apparatus, have not, it appears, caused harm to ordinary folks. And Secretary of Defense Gates has said that concerns about the disclosures were "over-wrought" in terms of their likely adverse impact on ordinary diplomatic activities. In other words, we're getting a lot of important information here, things that the public has a right and a need to know, including disclosures about malfeasance and wrong-doing by government agents, without a lot of downside except, again, to embarrass those agents and their bosses.

3) The leaks have also, one can hope, helped to expose further the lie that is the notion of a liberal US media. There's Wolf Blitzer, on supposedly liberal CNN, demanding to know how WikiLeaks can be prevented from disseminating information that any self-respecting newsman would want the public to have. And then, of course, there is the epitome of liberal media, The New York Times. For those who believe that The Times has learned its lesson about the pitfalls of an insufficiently adversarial stance in relation to those in power from its utterly disgraceful performance in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, consider this extraordinary exchange between the Times' Executive Editor Bill Keller, and Carne Ross, UK adviser to the UN from 1998-2002. After Keller acknowledged that the Times was "serially" clearing its reporting on the leaks with the White House, Ross noted wryly that perhaps "one shouldn't go to The New York Times" to read what's in the leaks. Ross went on to say that this episode "says a lot about the politics here, where left and right have lined up to condemn WikiLeaks" and added that "this whole story underlines the need for much greater transparency."

Think about how damning this is -- that a British government diplomat has to explain to the executive editor of the pre-eminent newspaper in the United States, (and, again, the pre-eminent liberal paper) the meaning of transparency, journalistic independence and the need to be presumptively skeptical of government behavior. Considered in combination with the general agitation that mainstream media types feel toward WikiLeaks (as opposed to the revelations themselves), this episode demonstrates what an outlier we've become among the established democracies in terms of our indifference to the abridgment of our own rights and the complacency with which we view the ever-expanding power and abuse thereof by our government. Ross noted that "there is a gross discrepancy between what our governments are up to in our name and what we know about it." Again, it's remarkable that we have to hear this kind of thing from a British diplomat (and this was on BBC, not American television), not from, for example, the "paper of record."

Two substantive revelations in the WikiLeaks dump merit mention as well. One concerns the politically compromised Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, who met secretly with Conservative party officials before the May British parliamentary elections to urge harsh austerity measures. This egregious example of his violation of his commitment to political independence is prompting calls for his resignation.

In an era in which the wealthy and powerful are telling the non-rich and the non-powerful that they have to suck it up and learn to live within their means (while those same elites indulge themselves in every excess imaginable), this is an especially welcome revelation (and precisely the kind of thing that our politically compromised media are increasingly incapable of uncovering).

A second, as reported by Salon, reveals that: "The Obama administration has secretly launched missile attacks on suspected terrorists in Yemen, with the Yemeni government taking responsibility and consistently lying about it. While the attacks have drawn relatively little public attention, dozens of civilians along with some suspected terrorists have reportedly been killed."

Again, this is the kind of story we should be learning about from news organizations, which might obviate the need for WikiLeaks.

We love to tout the liberating powers of technology and the information age, and yet the knee-jerk reaction from many of our news arbiters has been to heap scorn on the entity that is, at the present moment, doing the most to ensure that citizens actually have the tools -- information -- to realize the potential of the information age for human freedom. WikiLeaks, whatever its flaws might be, is filling a dangerous vacuum in our information environment, one created by the dereliction of duty by those entities whose constitutional prerogatives were designed to ensure that they would challenge, not protect, government secrecy and abuse. For that, WikiLeaks deserves our thanks.