Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Problem with Wikileaks

WikiLeaks has lost its way. Its raison d’être was a noble undertaking to expose corruption and abuse of power by governments and big business so that they might mend their ways. Releasing more than 250,000 US government documents, including thousands of emails providing routine assessments of foreign governments and its leaders, has thrust Mr Julian Assange and his website, however, into the realm of tabloid journalism, with two attendant characteristics: irresponsibility,  with no regard for the fallout and feigned justification emboldened by self-righteousness.

There is a place for the leaking of government or corporate documents when issues of critical national importance are involved; when, for example, a government is lying to the people or a company is selling a drug they know to be deadly and package it as something healthy. The best known example of this was the 1971 leaking of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, which showed US President Lyndon Johnson had not only repeatedly lied to the US public but also to Congress about American involvement in Vietnam.

There may well be some vital document in this massive dataset that reveals a “big lie” but what we have seen thus far does nothing but tinge increasingly tenuous relations between states. It may well be that Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi had already sensed how the US may view him; perhaps the UK government  knew President Obama’s administration was less enthused than they were about the two countries’ “special relationship”; no doubt China has long known of US anxiety over China’s economic power and control over US debt. To have an unspoken acknowledgement between diplomats is one thing; to have that revealed for the world to see can only cause embarrassment and, necessarily, provoke a response. At a time when greater, not less, global collaboration is required to fix any number of problems—poverty, fossil fuel emissions, nuclear proliferation, rogue states and rogue groups—the sorts of leaks we have seen coming from WikiLeaks can only fester distrust and thereby diminish our global capacity for rapid progress on these fronts.

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton downplayed the significance of the embarrassing email releases but there is no doubt effort now needs to be expended to ensure relations are not weakened. Clearly no relationship the US has with any country is going to be destroyed over this, alone.

Bermuda’s media—and no doubt segments of the public—are eagerly awaiting any further details on the “deal” which saw the Uighurs brought to Bermuda from Guantánamo Bay last year. There are 68 references to Bermuda in the documents held by WikiLeaks. On this front, I suspect those looking for anything other than the conspiracy of silence engaged in by former Premier Brown and the US government will be disappointed. There will be nothing to contradict the position already expressed publicly by Premier Brown: there was no quid pro quo other than the further goodwill gained; there was no cost to the local taxpayer; and no personal gain for the Premier.  

WikiLeaks started out as part of a system of guarantees working to ensure good governance for powerful entities—as CNN’s Anderson Cooper puts it, “Keeping the honest.” Unbridled power has a corrosive, corrupting consequence; a system of checks and balances can control excesses and prevent bad decisions from being made. Mr Assange’s 21st century system of checks has played an important role of helping to roll back some of this excess. His latest contribution in the information dissemination trade, though, represents a fundamental departure from this system. His irresponsible actions have incurred the wrath of diplomats worldwide by dropping their honest assessments into the public domain for no reason other than he had the ability to do so. There is no higher objective, no contested terrain requiring clarity and no enemy to be defeated. Unfortunately, this once highly respected website has evolved into a tell-tale, telling tales like a loose tongue lush. It may very well cost WikiLeaks its very existence. 

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