Too Soon to Tell if WikiLeaks is Friend or Foe
In the wake of the November 28 leak of 250,000 diplomatic cables it seems that every blogger out there knows for sure that WikiLeaks spokesperson Julian Assange is either a hero of our time, like some informational Robin Hood stealing secrets from the powerful to give to the uninformed, or he’s a media terrorist, risking the security of our country for the sake of a good stunt.
The value or danger of the cables isn’t what matters here. Too many criticisms are based on the content of specific documents. They’re arguments about which documents are important for people to read and which are either petty or irresponsible to expose. The big point critics are missing is that the content of the leaks isn’t nearly as important as the potential of an organization like WikiLeaks to keep politicians and diplomats on their toes by exposing what they say when they think nobody is listening, and maybe even have a serious impact on the way our government conducts itself.
WikiLeaks is shedding light on government secrets and holding the powers that be accountable on a larger scale than ever before. That’s what matters.
There’s clearly an argument for some things being done quietly. In a New York Times opinion piece, Paul W. Schroeder compared the leaks to “the work of irresponsible amateurs using dynamite to expand a tunnel that also contains, say, a city’s electrical lines,” arguing that some secrecy is essential to any successful negotiation, from divorce to international treaties. He claimed that transparent democracy is an impossible dream and that, “On the contrary, leaks like this simply make those in power retreat further into the shadows to defend themselves and their positions.”
Some are frantic over potential security risks. According to NPR, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went as far as to say, “This disclosure is not just an attack on America — it’s an attack on the international community.” She accused WikiLeaks of endangering the lives of soldiers and “sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations.” Her language is harsh and reactionary, but her accusations are not completely without grounds.
But even if we could agree that some things shouldn’t be posted online for everyone to see and started editing some documents out for the sake of privacy, security or easier negotiation, where would we draw the line? WikiLeaks, whose slogan is “We open governments,” is built on the idea of complete transparency, and if they edited themselves for the sake of military safety or diplomatic privacy they would undermine their own principles. The debate should be not about specific documents but about whether or not those principles are worth the risks they pose.
Our government has been allowed to keep too many secrets for too long — as we’ve seen from previous leaks, like the “Afghan War Diaries.” It’s too soon to tell if the leaks will actually change anything, let alone whether the change will be positive, but at least they offer a new direction for politics, one that may be worth trying. Americans complain about being kept in the dark, and yet we’re scared by the prospect of a government without secrets.
Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post quoted Malcom Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” in her assessment of the most recent leak. “We need to prepare ourselves,” he wrote, “for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen quickly.” If these leaks create big change, we won’t be talking about the importance of individual documents in 20 years, but rather how an upstart organization changed the faces of government and media, whether for better or worse.