Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

Early Thoughts On Wikileaks

I’ve been trying to sort out my position on the latest release by Wikileaks and on the site and its concept in general since it all made headlines. I’ve looked at some of the cables revealed, as well as the many other things they have released since they came into existence. It is something fascinating and thorny to me to try to come up with a position on.

Conceptually the answer should be simple. I believe in the importance of civil liberties and that free speech should trump virtually all concerns about the content of the speech, saving exceptions of course for libel, slander, and spreading hatred or false news. That should make it rather simple for me to say that Wikileaks has done nothing wrong.

I do, however, believe that rights imply responsibility and that it is important to use them judiciously in the interests of society. This is where the problem arises with Wikileaks.

I should say that I am no real fan of Julian Assange. He strikes me as a genius but also something of an egomaniac as interested in his own status as he is in the ideals Wikileaks claims to uphold. I’m not going to say much more about him, because what matters is the site, the info, and its impacts. The reality is that whatever becomes of Assange is ultimately irrelevant. He is not Wikileaks, he is merely the most public face of it and many others stand ready to pick up where he has left off I suspect.

I understand, at some level, what it is that Julian Assange thinks he is accomplishing. Wikileaks seemed originally to be put together to shine light into dark corners, to illuminate those things that go on that most of us simply don’t know about. The first time I went to the site it was sort of a clearing house for every imaginable sort of document and inside information. The idea seemed to be to fill in what journalists have failed to do, to expose more of the world. In principle this is a good thing I think. Exposing things like Scientology is good.

Then came the Collateral Murder video, which was released to highlight the more grisly side of the war in Iraq. It was in my eyes more a tragic illustration of the fog of war and the risks that journalists take to get stories out. It is my understanding that the soldiers involved were not found to have done anything wrong in the tragic event, simply to have acted on the basis on their understanding of what was happening.

The main concern raised by opponents of the leaks recently concerning Iraq, Afghanistan, and the US diplomatic cables is a perfectly reasonable one. Sources face great risk in giving information to diplomats or military personnel because of the potential for those they provide information on to threaten them or their families. In Afghanistan, for example, ISAF relies on many HUMINT (human intelligence) sources for information on what the Taliban is up to, how their networks operate, etc. These sources are absolutely vital to the mission and deserve protection of their identities because the threat to them and their families is very real. You can be quite sure that when the Afghanistan files were leaked, the Taliban’s leadership was very quickly studying it to add to a list of collaborators to be targeted for execution as soon as possible.

Similarly, the diplomatic cable leaks have the potential of discouraging normal flows of information in the diplomatic community though I consider this risk low as most of the cables seem to contain information that is innocuous. The sort of frank off-the-cuff assessments seen about world leaders and other personalities and so on is what diplomats get paid to produce. There is some embarrassment perhaps about the raw cables being aired but realistically there isn’t much to get worked up about.

The assessment the takes the form of trying to objectively assess the benefits offered by the leaks against their consequences. The trick is that I’m not sure how to assess any tangible benefit to the leaks but plenty of consequences from some of the things released, particularly raw leaks that are potentially untrue. There was for example a document leaked about Afghanistan suggesting certain Canadian casualties were victims of friendly fire which were quickly refuted by others who were there. The releases were factually incorrect early assessments.

In the so called “Cablegate” releases there has been an effort with various media outlets to manage the leaked information and to remove some details which may cause problems like names. I don’t know how effective that effort will be because some really simple analysis might still reveal the identities of some of the sources. Intelligence types call this sort of thing “mosaic theory” – cobbling together tidbits from open sources which allows them p surmise the content of the gaps better. Particularly juice bits of intelligence may have their sources hidden but it’s not hard potentially to determine who would know the info and thus deduce the source of the leak.

As far as the leaks allegedly attributable to Bradley Manning, the Americans have some culpability. Allowing some many unfettered access to this information has proven disastrous. A pretty basic principle of information security is to keep things to those who need to know. The dispersion of all this info was a response to hoarding of info and I understand why that was done but it still seems striking that so much was available to one low level functionary.

So what to think of Wikileaks at this point, then? What have they accomplished? At this point I’m not totally sure that they have done anything particularly positive, and I see at least a potential for significant negatives. I guess I have to keep myself listed as ambivalent about the whole thing for now.

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