I started typing up a lengthy introduction full of anecdotes and metaphors but it makes more sense to cut directly to the chase on this one.

Wikileaks. Big controversy. Short version of my take: I fuckin' love it. Anonymous information dumps into cyberspace might be, I say with a hint of melodrama, our last, best chance to halt some fraction of the abuses of power that impact our lives.

My rationale is simple. First, the organization has barely scratched the surface of its capacity for taking down white-collar criminals.

To this point nearly all of the attention has been focused on diplomatic and governmental documents. But just try to tell me you're not salivating at the thought of seeing a "megaleak" document dump on a "major U.S. bank" in the near future. Americans are so comfortable believing (and sacrificing to advance the interests of) their political, social, and economic elites that, with an assist from the corporate media, nearly any story can be swept under the rug unless the public is bashed over the head with evidence so voluminous and incontrovertible that our justice system is embarrassed into taking action.

Second, the Cold War, and particularly the American misadventure in Vietnam, irrevocably altered the paradigm for government secrecy. "Classified" documents are supposed to be, according to the government's own definition, information which would damage national security if released. Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret are merely ways of categorizing the extent to which the release of information would damage national security. Somewhere along the line, however, "national security" became synonymous with "stuff that embarrasses the government." What were the Pentagon Papers, after all, except evidence that the military and government were lying on a massive scale – to Congress, the public, and themselves – about American involvement and the conditions on the ground in Vietnam? Information proving that our elected and unelected leaders are lying to us is not, on that basis alone, a matter of national security. They are a matter of political security. Maintaining state secrets has become an expedient way of protecting the government, not the nation.

Nuclear codes are a matter of national security. This crap isn't. The "secrets" betrayed by this diplomatic cable dump range from the gossipy ("Prime Minister so-and-so has too much plastic surgery and a drinking problem!") to the "Are you kidding? Everyone already knows that!" variety. The Russian mafia is intertwined with the government? My word! That is simply shocking. The effect of the most recent information dump is not, as Obama and Hillary have so idiotically warned, that "lives will be lost.

" This isn't blowing the cover of any double agents in the Kremlin. This is just making the government look stupid.
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If you think "We don't want to be embarrassed" is a sufficient reason for the government to withhold information about its activities from the public, you have a very curious understanding of how this country is supposed to work.

Yes, the state will continue to punish people who leak classified material, and I understand why. The law is the law, after all. But I'm also glad that the information gets out, and if someone finds that information he or she has every right to disseminate it and make the public aware of what is done in its name. Again, these are not "state secrets." They are government secrets, and eliminating that distinction only serves the rhetorical purposes of Palinites who want to see Wikileaks personnel hunted down like terrorists.

Imagine if Wikileaks had been able to engineer a massive, coordinated information dump in 2002 laying bare all of the information revealing the lies used to prop up the case for war in Iraq. The system of classifying information exists for a valid purpose, but who among us is comfortable with the power to define what we can and cannot know about the activities of government belonging solely to the government itself?

"People will die if these secrets are revealed!" is not only a bald-faced lie in most instances but also the argument of last resort among people who believe that state power should be absolute and unaccountable. Even if the statement is true, it is a poor argument for blindly accepting the government or corporate judgment on what information we are allowed to see. Why are we so susceptible to the argument that revealing secrets costs lives yet blind to the fact that keeping secrets costs even more? Ask Iraq or Vietnam whether secrecy or an absence thereof carries the greater human cost.

And so in an era in which people get their real news from a comedian and their comedy from the real news, a non-state actor like Wikileaks represents our best hope for a more democratic state.


  • That closer killed me… Well written.

    I'm completely in agreement. There's nothing that's actually putting people in jeopardy, it's just airing dirty laundry on a government level. This should've been done years ago.

    I just hope it doesn't get swept under the rug when the next controversy/crisis swallows America's ADD-driven attention span.

  • well I gotta say you certainly aren't an authoritarian type. Seriously, I'm completely in agreement with Wisak above, adding on this matter, you absolutely speak for me.

  • I agree with what you wrote, but there are consequences to put on the scale to balance the benefits you talk about. Especially with the latest Wikileaks dump, since some of the benefits don't apply to the airing of dirty laundry.

    One consequence is how the bureaucracies involved will change to deal with the current dump. One of the reasons the dump was able to happen is that a post-9/11 effort to share intelligence resulted in many more people getting access to the information. A likely reaction is to once again restrict that access to a smaller number of people. That means less information not only for things like law enforcement and terrorist prevention, but for constructive progressive ends as well. The more people that know what's going on, the harder it is to push faulty or unreliable data to push for military action, for example. The fewer people know what's going on, the easier it is for abuses to be covered up.

    Another consequence is how individuals will change their behavior in reaction to the dump. Individuals who don't want to see their frank comments splashed on the front pages will stop making them through channels that are able to be leaked. This not only has a detrimental effect for future leakers, but for historians and academics as well. Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns and Money is shitting his pants over the likely hit his field will take as a result of raw data being denied to researchers. Additionally, this will play into the concern outlined above: more secret communication means more inefficient communication means fewer people know about it.

    You may respond that it's simply the cost of doing business; things can't be leaked without causing a reaction by those who made the leaked statements, and its better to have the leaked material and try to deal with the reactions than not have the leaks in the first place. That may be true, but two pre-emptive responses. There are other ways to

  • Sorry, hit the button too soon.

    Two pre-emptive responses. First, massive leaks like Wikileaks dumps makes it harder not only for leakers to acquire raw information, but for secondary actors like investigative journalists to function. Sy Hersh might not be able to cultivate new sources, because those who would have confided in him don't know about the information due to post-Wikileaks restrictions of the information. Are we willing to possibly hurt journalists in order to cheer Wikileaks?

    Secondly, Wikileaks is not the only model for leaking. For example, Wikileaks could comb through their massive amounts of information and only leak those that would have the most political impact. This would minimize the bureaucratic response against massive amounts of info being leaked, and minimize the consequences. However, this goes against Wikileaks operating procedure: releasing massive amounts of information in order to make it harder for the organizations its leaking against to function. If we want Wikileaks, we get massive dumps and the consequences I've outlined.

    Like I said, I completely agree with you about the benefits of Wikileaks. But cheering them on without looking at the costs could put us on a road we'd rather not go down.

  • So, question for the masses: How much does it matter that Peter King (R-NY) says he wants Wikileaks classified as a foreign terrorist group? On the one hand, it's another round of 'Republican house rep says something blustery and ridiculous, news at 11.' On the other, he's going to be chair of the House's Homeland Security committee, so he's not just a random congressman mouthing off to a reporter.

    I don't know if wikileaks has published anything that's genuinely a bad idea to publicize, and I wouldn't be surprised if some genuinely damaging info on undeserving people slips through with all the good stuff. IIRC, last go-round Wikileaks tried to edit out things like Afghani translator's names, but they missed some, putting those people at risk. But holy crap–officially designating them as terrorists because you don't like that they keep embarrassing the US is 18 kinds of Not OK.

  • Th funny thing is that during my brief encounter with the banking world, the emails I received on a daily basis were so unbelievable shocking in their reckless disregard for standard business practices and of even attempting to momic morality that the rest of this shit looks like a note passed between junior high schoolers.

    I would absolutely love to see some Goldman Sachs memos leaked to the media. Of course, they wouldn't get any actual media attention because they are the real government but I digress.

    I fear that the biggest fault we have in this country is our utter lack of shame. I no longer matters how you earned your money but simply that you have it. If you get caught, oh well! I'll pay a pittanc and do a reality show to recoup my losses!

    The diplomatic core's comment ammount to nothing more than water cooler gossip. The real dirt lies in the bisiness sector. If you want to find some truly Machiavelian shit, look no further.

  • I wholly agree with the author here. Wikilinks is incredible, Julian Assange, tho', is seeming like he's gonna go down as a martyr (for not pulling out when a condom broke… what a champ). Fuck the Swedes anyway.

  • Warmbowski–that's not a safe. That's where he sleeps.

    More or less on topic, I've seen people try to set up an equivalency with the Valerie Plame leak. Liberals got mad about that. So you see, since "both sides do it," it's just partisan fluff. Which, you know, completely obscures the fact that Libby, Cheney, and the rest were trying to harm the government's ability to monitor dangerous activity to get back at someone's husband, and they broke the law in doing so. Wikileaks isn't part of the US government (duh) and isn't doing anything to advance one party's political agenda. They're making information available that really should never have been labeled secret in the first goddamn place.

  • If wikileaks successfully releases dirt on a major bank it will only confirm suspicions, but the reaction of investors could be destructive. BTW, seems Interpol has turned up the heat when they found out banks were next.

  • If Americans were truly affected by the notion of "endangering lives," the world would be a quite different place. As it happens, that is obviously not the case (e.g.. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Palestine, and on and on).

    Americans are, however, quite addicted to messianic melodrama; ergo, it is fairly easy to mobilize the pitchfork crowd to string up those who would dare to expose our gossip and gaffes (quite a compendious volume if Wikileaks dumps are to be considered the "tip of an iceberg), by striking the "respect for human life chord." Not so surprising is the fact that many Americans subscribe devotedly to that old biblical canard: "an eye for an eye," etc. Clearly, it makes perfect sense to some of our fellow citizens that the way to protect the lives of some is to eliminate others. Sophomoric but there you have it . . .

    In the short time that I have been visiting here, I have been quite impressed by the author's routinely incisive and articulate analyses as well as the level of dialogue amongst readers. Insofar as I enjoy the company of likeminded people, I intend to continue my daily visits.

    Bless you, sane people . . .

  • Elder Futhark says:

    1) Nothing there that someone with an appropriately cynical mindset didn't already know or suspect.
    2) Actually, my opinion of our State Department has bumped up a few notches. Some of these anecdotes and observations are quite entertaining, astute, and insightful.
    3) It's nice to live in the future, when clever hacks make it all the way to the public. (Futurewise, of course, I'm thinking John Brunner, with a dash of Neal Stephenson).
    4) Keep 'em coming Wikileaks. I think I already know the bank. In fact, it's a particular variety of vampire squid sucking on the face of humanity.
    5) We need more transparency, an if this avenue is the only road open, so be it. Without transparency, we will not make it into the 22nd century anyhing less than a oligarchical termite mound of a welfare planet – doomed to go extinct in just this one gravity well.

  • "The purpose of the Official Secrets Act isn't to protect secrets! It's to protect officials!"

    – Sir Humphrey Appleby, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Administrative Affairs, "Yes, Minister" (BBC)

  • We are all starving for solid data, for source information, and for journalism that reports with neither fear nor favor (nor an excess of opinion) — but we might still ask ourselves a few questions before smooching all over Wikileaks.

    Do you really think the only reason to punish people who leak classified info is because "the law is the law"? Do you think that is an empty law that serves no purpose? If you do think there could be solid reasons to maintain data security, examine those reasons with an eye to the worst case scenario, and how and why you would manage that information responsibly.

    If Wikileaks does drop material that gets people killed, or jeopardizes a worthwhile effort, or screws a needed ally, etc., will you still love them? Loss of life is not the only possible negative outcome and not the only reason some information should remain private (or secret, or confidential, or classified.)

    When a supra-national entity has control over our information, may we reasonably expect them to behave responsibly or in our best interests?

    What recourse would we have against them should they screw up? I believe in the principle of journalistic freedom for all people, not only Americans, but there is a difference between liberty and license.

    Also, just because I'm curious, how do you think data are classified? I suspect that some info-gatherers are graded to some extent on the number of reports they write, rather than the quality of high-grade Super Seekrit material within them. (Conversely, if you want to hide a needle in a haystack, first you build the haystack.)

    It may be appropriate and less costly (in time and energy) to grade all reports from certain levels as restricted rather than sift through every item filed for that high-grade material, leaving the information unclassified until after every iota has been reviewed by all possible departments with an interest. It's raining data-soup out there, and many hands must sieve it.

    Of course I want to expose corruption, and I want fear of exposure (if nothing else) to trammel the corrupt; but there is important info that is neither filler nor corruption, and I'd like that still to be protected somehow.

  • Having just finished Matt Taibbi's Griftopia, I'm definitely salivating at the prospects of a leak from a major investment bank. I wish it were going to be Goldman Sachs, because their revered status of "the best of the best" would be the perfect place to bring the financial house of cards crashing down, but rumors are that it is Bank of America.

    To the point of the diplomatic cables, apparently one of the most common response Hillary has gotten when calling to apologize is, "It's ok, you should see what we say about YOU." Now those are leaks I'd like to see for pure entertainment value. I'm sure the characterizations of Hildog are priceless.

  • Sorry, still don't see the argument for these releases (or at least as Ben suggests, for the model of these release). Since as you state, it doesn't provide any real new information and largely confirms what any semi-conscious follower of events already knows; all it does is embarrass a number of officials who made statements under the pretense of confidentiality. It is for this reason that attempts to draw parallels between Wikileaks and the Pentagon Papers (as well as the hypothetical effect of an information dump in 2002) is hollow and false. While, the Pentagon Papers were crucial in exposing a secret war, the next "important" revelation from these documents will be the first.
    I suppose this dump can still be celebrated as a coup for transparency, but I am not sure that the costs associated with all of the bureaucratic backtracking and the possibility that diplomats will be less honest in their written statements is worth my knowing that some officials refer to Putin as the "alpha dog."

  • The Man, The Myth says:

    Hi smart people. I'm a big picture person – what this speaks to for me is what data and secrets mean these days. Remember in old spy movies how people would take elaborate efforts to hide some paper so only an ally could find it? That type of espionage will never happen again. These days we are overwhelmed with information every day with google and wikipedia and all the other data sources everywhere. Want to know what the annual precipitation and gdp of Paraguy is? You can find it in 10 seconds. The government handles all this data by putting "top secret" or some such adjective every time Hillary Clinton takes a crap and just live with terabyte after terabyte of data they may never use (think of the expense of keeping all those servers…).

    My point is – as everyone has said – this information is only marked secret because it is slightly embarrassing. The government should simply give up to the information super world and tell State Department officials to write Wikipedia articles in their evenings.

    It would be cool to see the memos sent from Great Britain's embassy back to London in 2002.

  • I know this is a tangent, but no mention of the warrant put out for Assange's arrest by Interpol, on sex charges. Anyone else feel this is a tad fishy, coming out just a day after the latest leak?

  • To be fair, people die everyday. Check the obits. Causation can be slippery to prove.

    Seriously, you're right about this not being treasonable. I had this referred to as "vandalism" and I think that's about right. Assange is an anarcisst, lovingly admiring himself by the burning light of outraged pundits, but at some point, you're right. Openness may be our only hope.

    I would just like to see WikiLeaks:China or WikiLeaks:Boehner.

    More thoughts:

  • I wonder if high-level civilian leadership–like Obama and Clinton–take the "lives will be lost" position because they themselves are afraid of the spooks. Not that they will be killed or whatever, but that the spooks will hide or shade information in ways that endanger civilian control of foreign affairs.

  • Monkey Business says:

    I'm gonna throw out a hypothetical here: let's say that Wikileaks next dump, with is apparently 5GB of data from the hard drive of an executive at Bank of America, contains particularly scandalous information. I'm talking about concrete examples of widespread fraud and reckless financial abuse.

    What next?

    Do you think that Eric Holder will be forced to prosecute? Will the government actually break up a Big Bank? Will the other Big Banks rise up in protest?

    Personally, I see a bunch of rabblerabblerabble for about a week, and then back to business as usual.

  • I'd rather have someone other than Wikileaks working to shed some light on things, and rattling the status quo – but until then, they'll have to do. And before we lay any deaths at WL's door, let's remember that every day lives are being lost directly as a result of the way our government does business – enabled and emboldened by their control and manipulation of information.

  • I share Monkey's cynicism. Remember the Downing Street memo? Why didn't that bring down the Bush administration singlehandedly, force Rummy and all the others to resign, etc, etc.? By the next news cycle it had been virtually forgotten; in fact I can't remember a single hawk being confronted about it over the MSM.

    Even I and my essentially non-political friend saw through Dubya's WMD ploy pre-invasion, standing as we were out in sub-zero cold two blocks from the UN (Bloomberg wouldn't let us any closer) to protest it, back when. But we must have been geniuses, to see what most congressmen couldn't at the time.

    In other words, I think Wikileaks can perform a valuable service, but I have doubts about our head-in-the-sand populace, given little help by the corporate-controlled media and their obliging pundits (think: Friedman) and puppet/legislators, actually doing anything with the information.

    A few ephemeral newsmen and bloggers might yell and holler, but they can't penetrate the fortress that is network/CNN/Fox/Sirius and whatever the official line happens to be. After the break, a news story about puppies…

  • From some of the above comments I have gathered that the cost-benefit calculation goes something like this:

    Benefits (we get to snicker at the funny things that our diplomats say)

    Costs (some people, like Afghan informers, may be killed)

    = Net Gain (Some of the personalities involved in government find themselves in an awkward position and the American "brand" is [temporarily] somewhat vandalized [which is cool and speaks to our inner 13 year old distrust of authority]. It is okay if some people are brought in front of a Taliban Qazi and executed as a result of this information because after all other people around the world also die. Besides you can't smear egg on the faces of American government officials without breaking a few eggs first.)

    Do I have that right?

  • To Ben's point, which, sorry, but I think is fucking stupid:

    Just imagine all the information we could leak if we never leaked anything!

    And Ben, I'm not attacking you as a person, honestly, but that was a pretty dumb line of reasoning right there. Your whole comment was all concern trolling. Every bad outcome you describe would happen no matter how the information came out. What you describe aren't consequences that should impact the outing of information. The alternative one might imagine, where anonymous officials give out information to special reporter friends, is just toxic (and I admire Sy Hersch and don't include him in that).

    And here's the remedy (this is not my own idea, I stole it): Run your business, whatever that is, in a way that a) nobody feels the need to leak information and b) even if somebody does feel the need, so what? It's like the proverbial taking down of pants that companies have to do in ISO audits. Shit like that (and this) keeps you honest.

    And oxus, yes, that is exactly what is going to happen with this latest dump. In fact, troops are already dying over it. You should also have added that stuff like this emboldens the terrorists.

  • Well, geemoney what I wrote is exactly what at least one member of the Taliban has stated will happen (I linked to it in an above comment). I never mentioned anything about dying troops, but about local informers.

    Perhaps this particular Talib is full of shit, perhaps not.

    But I am still waiting for the actual newsworthy piece of information from this dump- that is something that we did not already know.

  • Elder Futhark says:


    Net gain: The effect is to degrade the ability of pressure groups to manipulate the US government to their own ends. This would be groups inside and outside the US. (Assholes we buy oil from, assholes not accountable to We the People, like corporate cocksuckers, religious cocksuckers, the usual authoritarian cocksuckers, &c). By making secrecy even harder to be secret, it is harder for the powerful (the people who really, honestly don't give a fuck whether you have a miserable life or none at all) can count on the ability to lie to the public without being called on it.

  • @oxus: The problem with your version of the calculus is that it understates the benefits. This isn't just snickering at people talking trash about each other in memos and communiques. There's also the revelation in there that our government kidnapped a German citizen and shipped him off to a secret prison in Afghanistan (probably to be tortured), because his name was spelled similarly to that of someone on their terrorist hitlist. And when Germany rightly decided it was going to prosecute the shit out of the criminals that did that to an innocent man, we basically threatened them with "Think of the political ramifications of letting anyone know that we did illegal things to an innocent man in the name of our holy war".

    Now, it is probably fair to say that the majority of the American public won't care, because this nation has become an irredeemable den of complacency who's citizens allow evil to be perpetrated in their name, so long as they don't have to hear about it. But the idea is that if enough evil is exposed and beaten over their heads, they may eventually come around to holding their government accountable.

    As has been said before (can't remember if it was here or elsewhere) with the incident where we were deliberately infecting prisoners with STDs, and our government just recently got around to saying "oops, sorry about that dudes": These things, being done in our name, are things we prosecuted the Nazis for at Nuremburg. It is way past time that we started holding these criminals accountable for their actions.

  • @ geemoney:

    Maybe I wasn't clear, because I thought I pre-empted your concern. But to re-iterate:

    Some of the most recent Wikileaks dump needed to be leaked. The vast majority of it did not. Revealing mundane communication that diplomats thought would be private does not stop another Iraq War. It might be fun to know that some diplomats include the heading "The Part of Discussion Without Which No Saudi Meeting Is Ever Complete" in their cables, but it doesn't improve public discourse or democratic accountability. It does make it harder for diplomats to do their jobs. It instills fear in all levels of government that any mundane correspondence will be leaked.

    There are benefits to that fear. There are also costs. Specific costs to massive leaking of random mundane correspondence. Suppose that instead of publishing the entire 250K+ cables, Wikileaks did not reveal what it had and released only the few cables that contained newsworthy information. Do you think that the bureaucratic response would be 1/10th of what it will be now? Do you think that the individual response by government employees would be anything like the measures they will probably take in order to protect their careers against future widespread leaks? What Ed's and your comments reflect is being swept away by the benefits and not paying attention to the costs.

    I am absolutely in favor of Wikileaks, or Sy Hersh, or you getting as much government material as possible and publishing the stuff that needs to be published. I agree that establishment journalism is morally bankrupt because it does not do that. But, massive dumping of random correspondence comes with costs that considered leaking does not. Sorry. And before we unconditionally cheer Wikileaks, we need to work through whether those costs outweigh the benefits.

  • OK, so the information leaked is not of great magnitude … but this represents a breach in security. What happens when information that is truly damaging is leaked? Focus should be spent on how to keep true classified information private in the digital age.

  • The overestimation of the "average" American's peers/betters is profoundly depressing/defining. All these "officials" doing all this pop secret communicating are just people like you and me talking to other people like you and me who happen to normally speak another language. Wring your hands all you like, this is just airing dirty laundry that is the tip of an iceberg in danger of rotting from a lack of airing (c.f.,

  • There is nothing about this post I dont love completely. I only found out about this wikileaks stuff a few days ago, and my immediate reaction was much the same.

    Hell yes for potential accountability.

  • Interesting post, and as newcomer to your blog, I do like your theme. Anyway, I believe most of you are from the US but if you have access there is a John Pilger documentary airing tonight, 'The War You Don't See'.

    There will be interviews with Mr Assange himself, and with Journalists from the BBC and CBS.

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