November 26, 2020

Wikileaks #cablegate

It seems everyone in the blogosphere has an opinion of Wikileaks latest release of classified U.S. State Department cables. Adding one more voice to the mix, I come to this as someone who has spent the past four years going through the tedious process of getting these kinds of U.S. cables declassified through the legal route – the Freedom of Information Act.

When you begin, the process itself is utterly overwhelming. But once you do a few requests, you get the hang of the system and it becomes manageable. Especially so if you have, like I’ve had, the help of people who work this declassification process fulltime. And when you are trying to get similar sorts of paperwork out of other bodies that have no workable formal system – the UN for example – – you start to develop a solid appreciation for the fact that the U.S. does at least have an established pathway through which you can make declassification requests.

Is the process frustrating? Yes. Firstly it’s excruciatingly slow: There are documents I requested in 2006 that didn’t come through until 2010 (in some cases by the time they came through the information “declassified” in them had been fully available in the public realm for years) and I expect I’ll still be receiving documents long after Fighting for Darfur has gone out of print. Secondly it’s over-cautious (charitably phrased). Often names that have been redacted are names that you can identify from the rest of the cable’s context, and in many such cases I have found that the redactions cover information that I already had from interviews. Parenthetically, the FOIA system needs someone with an environmental conscience to overhaul it – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been sent a “declassified” document with a few words on the first page followed by as many as ten blank pages, with the bottom of the final page left to state redundantly “END.”

But would I trade those frustrations for Wikileaks-style data dumps? For now at least, no. I say “for now” because I’m open to the possibility that I could turn out to have a hypocritical position on this: Of the 611 U.S. cables released so far by Wikileaks, only 18 reference Sudan, all are comments in passing, and none tell me anything I didn’t already know. If in their next release there’s a stack of Sudan cables with details I’ve been trying, and failing, to get at regarding the true value of U.S.-Sudan counter-terrorism cooperation, I fear I may find myself revisiting my current position.

That possibility aside, here is my basic problem with #cablegate: I want diplomacy to work. And I think that on balance, diplomacy does better when diplomats (of any country) posted in say, Sudan, are free to write their assessments back to their capitals without worrying they will appear across the internet the next day. And – perhaps more importantly – – when people inside Sudan feel safe to pass diplomats sensitive information without the same concern. In short, there is value in being able to trust that some information will not be readily available in the public sphere. Now the cover of diplomacy can certainly take secrecy too far and those inside the system can forget that diplomacy is not a virtue in and of itself. But openness (contrary Julian Assange’s beliefs) is also not a virtue in and of itself.

Conscious of sounding like one of my old law professors, there are competing interests that need to be balanced. And FOIA, frustrating as it is, at least makes some effort to go through that weighing process. Do I always agree with the declassification decisions made? Of course not. But I don’t think the mass kind of data dump Wikileaks has just done is the solution.

Wikileaks might get me some documents I haven’t been able to get through FOIA. But the price paid for those documents is a chilling affect on information flows throughout the entirety of the state system. Moreover, it is not as though the choice is a binary one between overly cautious FOIA and overly open Wikileaks.  There is already an informal system of leaks that doesn’t do a bad job of pushing discrete pieces of sensitive information into the public sphere for the purpose of challenging government on specific policies – and it does so without the mass chilling costs that this latest Wikileaks release risks bringing.

Comments

  1. “Of the 611 U.S. cables released so far by Wikileaks, only 18 reference Sudan, all are comments in passing, and none tell me anything I didn’t already know.”

    That’s often true when you are reading cables about your field of specialization. However, it is quite different having access to information by painstaking accumulation of evidence from different documents, or interviews, and having access to an official document that sets out the view of a diplomat from a specific position in time and space. Reading cables regarding my own country, I am quite shocked by the lack of finesse in the analysis. This tells me something I didn’t know about how the US analysts are given information about my own country.

    “I think that on balance, diplomacy does better when diplomats are free to write their assessments back to their capitals without worrying they will appear across the internet the next day.”

    I agree. The leak is not wikileaks’ responsibility, though. Perhaps the US shouldn’t have hundreds of thousands of people able to access and copy all the data. The issue now is what happens when the information is in the hands of a media organization: should it refrain from publishing? On what grounds?

    “And – perhaps more importantly – – when people inside Sudan feel safe to pass diplomats sensitive information without the same concern. In short, there is value in being able to trust that some information will not be readily available in the public sphere.”

    Protecting informants is definitely important. Once again, it does seem that wikileaks has tried to redact names, etc. Unfortunately that will never be enough, as people with real experience on the ground will be able to figure out some of the informants based on context (I guess this is true of FOIA requests too, however). The question really is would we be better served in a world without wikileaks?

  2. Thanks for that informed and measured analysis of #cablegate, Bec. I think you make a really good argument from your point of view. I would like to offer an opinion from a different point of view as someone with limited, and entirely unspecialised, knowledge of the politico-legal details of the international system. I am really interested in your basic problem with #cablegate, and so I have tried to properly form an opinion on the issue by virtue of that interest. Basically, your problem is that you want diplomacy to work and that you want informants to feel safe and, in particular, “openness (contrary Julian Assange’s beliefs) is also not a virtue in and of itself.” On principle, I totally agree with all that. It is good when diplomacy works, and it is important that people feel safe. And, that devulging or dumping or leaking secrets in itself actually doesn’t necessarily change things for the better, no doubt what “the better” even is differs from person to person.

    But when I think about the video of the U.S. Military willfully gunning down civilians which was leaked earlier in the year I can’t help but think that there is something about they particular arrangement of secrets that we have in the world, at this particular moment in history, that is absolutely not right. Thus, at the very least, we could come some way to rearrange the ebb and flow of information itself in order to make the world fairer, safer and more equitable. In this I feel that the historical bind we find ourselves in is bigger than that of the day to day particulars of diplomacy, and that really diplomats should, by the very nature of their expertise, be able to figure a work around in order to protect what really matters; namely the personal security of particular individuals. So, from my POV changing the nature of secrets in our world is the real role of wikileaks, so be it. Just as an addendum to that, I think it might actually require the massive dump of cables, seeing as though the leaked video and war logs did not command the attention of the international community in the same way as the recent leaks have done.

    That is my main point, but I have two other thoughts I may as well share.

    My knowledge of international relations, as I said, is entirely unspecialised. Thus, it is constituted by means of a blend of the information I get through the political organizations I subscribe to, as well as online news sites, podcasts and occasionally TV and print. News of what is happening on the ground comes to me second, third and forth hand. So, in the first instance, I am interested in the multiple effects that wikileaks has upon the information I receive about the world; what it draws attention to, what it changes, what it doesn’t.

    Secondly, there is a lot of cynicism about the banality of the cables—that those in the know already knew, and that those who aren’t don’t care or suspected as much anyway—but, I think this cynicism is a misguided and avoids interrogating the heart of the issue as it now stands. If the cables are so banal why was Interpol even drawn in relation to the case? Why have U.S. senators called from exemptions to the First Amendment? What are the specific security threats posed by wikileaks’ publication of the documents? Why have politicians, journalists, and the like called called for Assange to be assassinated? The international panic is itself a large part of the wikileaks saga. Perhaps larger than the content of the leaks themselves, if that is the case the banality of the leaks themselves is actually at the heart of the issue.

  3. Rebecca Hamilton says:

    Jen, thanks for the comment. I read the subsequent post on your blog: http://bicycleuser.wordpress.com/2010/12/11/secrets/ and I agree with the point you reach. The content of the cables, banal or otherwise, is not the real issue; the challenge their disclosure poses to the overall structure of the secrecy system is.
    Also, I was very much in favor of wikileaks when the U.S. military video was posted earlier this year. I haven’t had time to really analyze the shift I’ve felt in relation to #cablegate. Perhaps it’s because I could file the video in the tradition of deliberate leaks being made in order to challenge specific policies – a longstanding system of “disobedience” that I support. Such deliberate and specific leaks though do not challenge the basic structure of the state secrecy system, and my struggle with #cablegate is precisely because it does. It’s not that I think the current system is without deep flaws. But ramming a bulldozer right through the centre of it without having even so much as a proposal in mind for a viable alternative is no solution. (I don’t have a historical frame through which to view this but wouldn’t be surprised if people who do would argue that you always need a highly disruptive intervention like this to get an entrenched status quo made visible and onto the agenda for discussion – – I’m open to that possibility).

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