Saturday, December 4, 2010

Wiki Finks

Some thoughts on WikiLeaks. Reluctant thoughts. I follow the argument where it leads, not where I want it to go. I was raised on Brazil and All the President's Men. My heart believes in dynamiting walls of secrecy. My head isn't so sure. Here's where its cold logic took me ...

First, the leaks are all very one-sided.

Funny how WikiLeaks doesn't leak Al-Qaeda's list of strategic goals behind the 9-11 attack, their manual on how to turn depressed and angry teenagers into suicide bombers, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ten-year plan to develop a nuclear weapons program. Or China's manual for putting logic bombs in the USA electrical grid, for that matter.

Julian Assange blows the whistle, but only against one team: the open, if flawed societies, that might attempt to smear his reputation. But probably won't chop him into pieces and feed him into a wood chipper.

To be fair, police states are better at keeping secrets. That's what they do. But democratic governments are WikiLeaks' target of choice.

OK. Should democratic governments have secrets in the first place? In a world of benevolent Care Bears and Teletubbies, no. In a world of corrupt, dangerous human beings fighting for the same resources and dominance over each other, that’s a big yes. All governments need secrecy and deception to function. Even the good guys.

As Sun Tzu famously said …

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

Sun Tzu was talking about war, but the principle applies to all state conflicts. (I.e., America and China fighting for economic hegemony.) Life is conflict. Politics is war by another means. And all warfare is based on deception.

This becomes impossible if some dude in Sweden is splashing your playbook across the Internet.

Imagine WikiLeaks in WWII ...

Brainboys in Bletchley Park crack Nazi sub cipher with thinking machine. To preserve secret, Churchill refuses to warn civilians of Nazi attacks.

Soldier-slapping General Patton is now in charge of a phantom army... of inflatable tanks and plywood planes. Calais is the fake target. The real invasion will happen in Normandy.

New Mexico installation packed with scientists working on death device based on Einstein's theories. A cosmic bomb? Some believe may destroy atmosphere, all life on earth.

Some state secrets are necessary. That doesn’t mean they all are.

It's in the interests of free governments to keep secrets. It's equally true that it’s in the people’s interest to find out those secrets. For every Bletchley Park, there's a government cover-up of incompetence and corruption. (The precedent for the "states secret privilege" boils down to screwing three widows out of compensation for the deaths of their husbands in a B-29 crash caused by government negligence. See United States vs Reynolds.) The hard part is finding out WHICH secrets to uncover – and of course, you can only judge that after uncovering them. (More on that later.)

But gummint functionaries aren't the only ones with secrets. Corporations have secrets; individuals do. Secrecy is another word for privacy. WikiLeaks attacks much-hated politicians -- but it's part of a larger assault against any notion of security, privacy and confidentiality for anyone anywhere.

I approve of reporters digging dirt. But I also approve of private conversations -- by politicians and everyone else.

Evidently, Julian Assange and friends do not. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, right? They assume that exposing state secrets will lead citizens to rise up in outrage and force democratic governments to clean up their act.

That's unlikely.

What's more likely?

The leaks will poison the internal flow of information.

Whistle-blowers and government sneaks have a co-evolutionary relationship. When something like WikiLeaks offloads an info-dump of secrets, government adapts. It adapts by becoming more compartmentalized, more dishonest, more evasive and equivocating, and more anal about who's allowed to say what to whom. Shedding light is a good thing, but this is a pencil flashlight with a dying battery. The cockroaches will scurry; the cockroaches with the best light-avoiding ability will have an evolutionary advantage. The result: more bullshit, more secrecy, less openness.

In today's America, most public conversations are bullshit. The John Wayne days are over. The plain-spoken American is a thing of the past. An unguarded word can destroy you now. You want to be safe? Bullshit.

If all government conversations are public, they'll be bullshit, too.

If all government conversations COULD be public, it will have the same effect.

So, if you're a diplomat in Pakistan, don't send a cable saying, "These f**ers we're playing ball with are arming the Taliban and spreading plutonium like syphilis." Don't say that. Don't speak your mind. WikiLeaks might intercept your cable. Apply bureaucratic doublespeak with a heavy trowel. "We are confident that our Pakistani allies ... blah, blah, blah."

WikiLeaks won't lead to greater government openness.

Just more government bullshit.

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