Brave New WikiWorld

WikiLeaks acts as if secrecy is inherently evil. It is not. We cannot secure liberty by ignoring the necessity of security.

Ours is an age that prizes transparency. Good governments have responded by putting more and more of what they know online. Moreoever, since the 9/11 attacks, agencies responsible for national and international security have greatly expanded information-sharing activities. At the same time, national security requires a modicum of secrecy to assure that sensitive and fully frank information continues to flow to all appropriate audiences—and only those audiences—for careful assessment.

Global online networking presents a major challenge to these security interests. Today, any information accessible by computer can be forwarded to the entire world by a single individual. Governments will have to learn how to fight back.

WikiLeaks has taken international muckraking to a whole new level.

In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg became an international sensation by leaking the so-called Pentagon Papers. But this landmark event entailed the transfer of “only” forty-three volumes of material to a reporter at the New York Times. Ellsberg, an analyst who had worked on the study of the Vietnam War, was somewhat selective about what he gave the paper. The Grey Lady, in turn, published only excerpts of those documents.

Today’s social-networking infrastructure expands exponentially the potential scale and scope of leaks. Growing in lockstep is the potential damage—up to and including the loss of life—those leaks can cause. WikiLeaks is a case in point. The website is said to possess a quarter-million classified documents allegedly leaked by a low-level military operative who had no hand in developing the material. WikiLeaks posted the data with little to no vetting for accuracy or human risk. The amount of data released, the speed at which it swirled around the world and the sheer recklessness of it all was breathtaking.

The rationale behind the leak is murky, at best. WikiLeaks original raison d’être, according to its website, lay in “exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.” But its recent core dump of documents is a transparent attempt to embarrass and weaken the United States not truly oppressive regimes such as Iran or North Korea.

Jettisoning its “oppressive regimes” rhetoric, the outfit now casts itself as a champion of “freedom of speech and expression.” Here, WikiLeaks tortures the virtue of free speech into a frontal assault on the concept of ordered liberty. By publicly “expressing” a quarter-million confidential documents, WikiLeaks willfully puts at risk the very people actually working to undermine repressive regimes. Lacking the resources and knowledge necessary to vet these documents, WikiLeaks’ anonymous “editors” possibly ensure that their disclosures will keep innocents from harm's way. Even Amnesty International has raised red flags over this cavalier disregard for human life.

Not that WikiLeaks lacks defenders. Some denizens of the Ivory Tower argue that unveiling classified material is a good thing, regardless of the casualty count. Often these arguments cite the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas who warned of the “threat to democracy and the public discourses upon which it depends coming both from the development of an oligopolistic capitalist market and from the development of the modern interventionist welfare state.” In other words, Habermas contended that to save “democracy,” it is legitimate to revitalize the public sphere by breaking the government’s monopoly on information.

Voicing a similar argument in the wake of the WikiLeaks release earned Blogger Aaron Bady a profile in the Atlantic. On Bady wrote:

Julian Assange and Wikileaks are unimportant compared to the larger issue they’re raising: our “progressive” government’s basic antipathy to democracy, human rights, and international justice. Wikileaks has done a great deal to illuminate what our government actually does. . . . I’m grateful for what Wikileaks has done, and I think the benefits of their leaking vastly outweigh whatever negative side-effects the leaks may eventually prove to have.

In short, Bady and others argue the pain of revelation is worth the gain of transparency.

But these arguments ignore something that the seventeenth and eighteenth century creators of democratic systems understood well: the importance of protecting the public sphere. Habermas himself established this point in one of his early writings, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society.

Modern founders of democracies knew they had to create institutions that protected liberty, in part by necessitating security. The political system of American Republic was constructed to provide ordered liberty, as unfettered liberty is a prescription for chaos.

Liberty itself merits no primacy above all. It is not an absolute value. And it depends upon security—both personal and national—for its exercise. As the journalist and historian Thomas Powers wrote in National Affairs: “In a liberal republic, liberty presupposes security; the point of security is liberty.” WikiLeaks and Bady act as if secrecy is inherently evil. It is not.