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Indiscriminate leak

Discrimination is a virtue in war. More than that, it is the law of war. The Afghan War leaks violate this principle.

This post is part of a conversation I had with friends and colleagues from the Fletcher School about the nature of the Afghan war leaks, specifically occasioned by their comments and a New Yorker article on Julian Assange from June of this year. In particular, Kate Brodock, Mark Belinsky of 4Hours, Emily Jacobi of Glean and Gleam, Patrick Meier of iRevolutionMary Joyce, and Josh Goldstein of In an African Minute have insightful comments, mostly not (yet) available on their blogs. (All of which by the way are great. Sign up for RSS feeds.) Drew Conway at Zero Intelligence Agents has neat statistical graphics on the leaks data. Others who don’t have blogs, I won’t name here without their permission. My comments on email I wrote in haste, so I have cleaned them up a bit here. For factual summaries of the leak itself, you can find a multitude of blog posts and media.

According to the New Yorker’s portrait of Assange, he is an iconoclast possessed of immense talents and an abiding cynicism about the motives and methods of government. His organization Wikileaks wamts to forever ensure citizens’ access to information, specifically information that corporations and governments might find damaging and wish to hide. In this case, by accepting and posting the contents of the Afghan war leak, Wikileaks has helped a soldier release classified information, in this case a small mountain of it. Assange believes the government’s control over information amounts to a form of oppression. He intends to break that oppression and hold them to account of the facts–preferably all of the facts, all of the time. Friends of mine pointed out that Wikileaks was instrumental in exposing Kenyan corruption; and that both the media and “our 20th century institutions” are inadequate to the task of keeping citizens informed about the war. Access to the stream of raw information will let citizens make informed decisions.

More access to the raw information is undoubtedly good for journalists. The media’s distance from the Pentagon and the White House has repeatedly been called into question. And, no one has a monopoly on the war narrative. Points well taken. On the other hand, some of the worst mistakes from the Bush-Cheney era were founded on cherry-picked facts rather than seasoned, contextual analysis. More raw information need not lead to better analysis or better decisions. It is not clear to me that the Afghan war leaks will improve America’s conduct in the war. And I question anyone’s ability, even the “experts” my friends advocated, to vet disclosures of this magnitude. The consequences of disclosure are very hard to predict, and more so when details are scattered through tens of thousands of documents.

[Assange] had come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution. As a student of Kafka, Koestler, and Solzhenitsyn, he believed that truth, creativity, love, and compassion are corrupted by institutional hierarchies, and by “patronage networks”—one of his favorite expressions—that contort the human spirit. He sketched out a manifesto of sorts, titled “Conspiracy as Governance,” which sought to apply graph theory to politics. Assange wrote that illegitimate governance was by definition conspiratorial—the product of functionaries in “collaborative secrecy, working to the detriment of a population.” He argued that, when a regime’s lines of internal communication are disrupted, the information flow among conspirators must dwindle, and that, as the flow approaches zero, the conspiracy dissolves. Leaks were an instrument of information warfare. [from the New Yorker]

Graph theory or no graph theory, Assange’s intent here is to wage war on the Obama Administration, by attacking the American public’s political will to continue the fight. He is specifically opposed to the policy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with disregard for the law he attempts to bring about a change to the Administration’s stated policy. Let’s grant him that the information is too cold to be acutely dangerous in a tactical sense, although that’s another argument worth having.

The purported source of the leaks is facing prosecution. If there is a federal crime involved and Assange’s Wikileaks assisted in that crime, then even if the crime is morally justified, it would appear he and Wikileaks also face civil and criminal liability.

Are laws on the classification of information just? They are overly broad and subject to little oversight, but they are created with a multitude of purposes. National security as a rationale is favored because it refers to a lot of things that by definition can’t be brought under public scrutiny. It is, as so many have pointed out, a way of shutting the door on open debate.

But the purposes of confidentiality are many. Your financial and health records, your private correspondence, and the sanctity of your personal affairs are protected under federal law. The Constitution does not seek to justify this protection. It simply states it as an absolute, a standard against which other laws are to be judged. In practice, a web of laws, federal regulations, and professional codes govern standards of confidentiality and disclosure for business and for individuals. Attorneys, financial professionals, corporate R&D, and health care apply vastly different protections to  information due to the complex consequences of inadvertent disclosure.

Imagine if your small business was targeted, or if Google were targeted, or if Lockheed Martin were targeted by a similar disclosure of thousands of internal reports and communications not intended for public release. The damage to shareholders and management would be immense, partly because of the sheer irresponsibility of the leak per se, and then again from regulatory penalties, civil liability, and ruined corporate strategy. Malicious disclosure in business and government goes by the same name: espionage. In private life it can end marriages, friendships, and careers. The fact that the adversary here is The Man does not change the character of this leak.

It is bad for State and Defense to live in fear that every honest assessment of the day’s events might one day be leaked to the world at large by a well-intentioned, conscientious junior employee. Diplomats cannot naively air the same views in public that they hold in private, nor run around telling our allies what we really think of them day in and day out. That is a recipe for poisoning partnerships. With due respect to journalists, everyone knows the Pentagon lies about the war in Afghanistan. There were good reasons the Pentagon’s Vietnam briefings were called the Five O’clock Follies.

This disclosure is a watershed event. It drives home the ease with which any individual can compromise the boundary between internal and public information. Actions of this type can undermine American strategy in the war. Political decisions about partnerships have tactical consequences, witness the importance of Turkish air bases in 2003.

In order to applaud Wikileaks for its role in this disclosure, I believe you have to hold two opinions. First, that the injustice of the Afghan war is so immense that citizens have a responsibility to bring about its immediate end, through civil disobedience or comparable means. Second, that Wikileaks is well qualified to assess the potential harm that might be inflicted as a result of the disclosures. You have to make up your own minds about the ethics of the Afghan war. On the second question, though, I invite you to think carefully through the wisdom of giving unaccountable, private organizations the power to disclose stolen, sensitive information based solely on their judgment that the benefit outweighs the harm. Can you reconcile the indiscriminate, voluminous, and quotidien nature of the leak with a story about plucky and righteous individuals bending unjust government to their will? To me, the leak betrays haste, youth and passion. I cannot buy into Assange’s vision of a world without confidentiality or privacy.

I don’t buy the Robin Hood argument here, and I don’t see this as a Tank Man moment.

About Ben Mazzotta

Ben Mazzotta is a postdoc at the Center for Emerging Market Enterprises (CEME). His study of the Cost of Cash is part of CEME's research into inclusive growth.


4 thoughts on “Indiscriminate leak

  1. Ben, I think your last paragraph is right on the mark.

    I would add one small detail where you say the “laws on the classification of information … are overly broad and subject to little oversight.” When you classify a document, you have to identify yourself (at least at State Dept – it’s not the same everywhere,) specify which of several reasons justifies the classification, and give a declassification date. Obama’s recent directives provide more guidance. I would though be interested to hear, from you or anyone, how these laws could be tightened so that they’re used appropriately, perhaps with a system of oversight.

    (p.s. I stumbled across your blog from my “Fletcher School” google alert.)

    Posted by Patrick Elliot | July 31, 2010, 11:09 am


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