Wikileaks and Sovereignty

So Wikileaks has now released all of its cables, without any redactions. I can’t add much to what Joshua Foust has written, but I do think that the larger context of WikiLeaks–and why it failed, is extremely important for everyone to understand. You can’t quite understand WikiLeaks without understanding how people increasingly look at sovereignty. As my friend and co-blogger Dan Trombly has written, intellectual trends favor the idea that third parties have a right–and moral obligation–to intervene against states that fail to meet a liberal (small-l liberalism in the international relations sense) standard of behavior. There’s been a parallel intellectual revolution in cyberspace that has proclaimed-in broad outline–that cyberspace is independent from national borders and politics and that information should be free. Evgeny Morozov has covered this territory fairly well.

I continue to believe that WikiLeaks was a product of Julian Assange’s own idea of himself as a super-empowered individual out to destroy or at least severely retard the progress of the American national security state–if Assange’s own published writings  were any guide. It is likely that WikiLeaks itself will be remembered by the digerati as a worthwhile or useful experiment ruined by the volatile personality of a single frontman. This is a dangerous notion that will ensure that CableGate will return again, in a different from. The intellectual primordial soup from which WikiLeaks arose is deeply poisonous, and must be seen as such to avoid a repetition of this mess.

WikiLeaks represents the idea that states have no inherent authority to hold onto vital national secrets. Because information is fundamentally boundless and unlimited by the “oldthink” of national borders and politics, state control over proprietary information is irrelevant. WikiLeaks and other radical transparency advocates believe that they–an unelected, transnational elite–can pick and choose which states are good and bad and whose secrets deserve exposure. And if information deserves to be free–and the only people who would keep it from being so are those with something to hide–then it is fine for non-state networks to arrogate themselves the right to receive and expose state secrets.

Of the course, the common rejoinder to this is that governments need to be more accountable and have too many secrets. But governments are accountable to their people–not NGOs. It is an imperfect system, and in many places such accountability is completely nonexistent. But the alternative is the overturning the international system as we know it. There are legitimate fears about balancing security vs. privacy, but those concerned with privacy from the state have even more to fear from a future of “sousveillance” in which the state is replaced by NGOs that believe that they–not the CIA or White House–have the right to decide which secrets deserve to be kept.

While WikiLeaks is often positioned as a champion of digital democracy, it is actually wholly anti-democratic. It transfers power and security from national governments and their publics to unelected international activist organizations and bureaucrats. While this may seem like a harsh interpretation, there is no check on the likes of Julian Assange. Governments–even autocratic ones–still must contend on a day-to-day basis with the people. Even China had to face a reckoning after the Wenzhou train crash. WikiLeaks and other radical transparency organizations mean to replace one group of elites–which at least nominally can be called to court–with another who are accountable only to their own consciences.

There is an acute danger in floating the norm that the state authority to control internal information can be revoked by outsiders that is often not appreciated when the targets are autocratic, wholly dictatorial, or otherwise unpopular governments. The costs should be visible now to everyone–and quite a few El Jefes across the world must be chuckling.

And, as we’ve seen over the last few days, WikiLeaks shows that private organizations with little understanding of the importance of proprietary information (or an ideological bias in favor of discrediting certain governments, organizations, or persons) are simply not good stewards of national security secrets. The tragicomic food fight between media organizations and WikiLeaks over redactions and sources and methods and who was to blame for what drives home this point. The only saving grace in the whole mess is that the information in question is not particularly damaging in the long run–although foreigners whose names are listed in the cables may disagree. WikiLeaks, as I’ve argued with Crispin Burke, doesn’t change policy. But it does have a disruptive power that cannot be denied.

Merely pointing out that the “techno-utopian” view of the world lacks logic, however, will not diminish the power of organizations and individuals that hold these views. WikiLeaks and other related groups are harbinger of the future. The attitudes they represent are heavily embedded (go to a Digg or Reddit thread if you want examples) and will be the source of much friction in the international system for decades to come. The technology itself cannot be wished away either, and the operational concepts that John Robb and others have analyzed are now widespread.

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