We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-first in the series.
In many respects, Julian Assange represents little more than the latest iteration of the classic “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” paradox. As the latest document dump from WikiLeaks drips into the public arena, polarized foot soldiers have materialized from out of nowhere to do battle in what is being marketed as a war for America’s future. On one side, critics of WikiLeaks make Assange out to be a cartoonish super-villain intent on destroying the United States, while on the other, defenders of the organization argue that Assange heroically rips the mask from the face of power, exposing the horrors of hegemony.
But focusing on the WikiLeaks figurehead achieves nothing from what I can tell aside from feeding Assange’s seemingly inexhaustible appetite for attention, and providing a platform for conservative blowhards like Long Island congressman Peter King to score stupidly cheap points in what has evolved into a full-scale Republican siege on Barack Obama’s White House. And while these debates have succeeded in fueling a political environment that has increasingly taken on the feel of a Hollywood spy thriller, they have simultaneously excused Americans from having to thoughtfully consider the state of our nation during a period of multiple crises. Instead, we are being encouraged to retreat behind the battlements of grossly oversimplified ideological stances and told to watch the show.
Beyond the sensationalism, however, serious issues about American political life do exist at the heart of the WikiLeaks scandal. Among them can be found critical questions concerning the role and ethics of secrecy in an open democracy.
On the issue of state secrets, the driving narratives of debate can be roughly plotted along a spectrum: the leftmost point argues that the leaked cables expose the improprieties of empire and therefore all classified information should be brought to light by whatever means possible; the opposite point on the right asserts that government action in the name of the national interest should necessarily be hidden and protected; and then there’s the center, which shrugs the whole thing off by noting that there’s really nothing much in the cables — aside from petty gossip — that merits all this fuss.
All three miss the point. To begin with, it’s simply not the case that the business of American governance necessitates secrecy in order to be effective. The Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) belies this myth. To be sure, our democratic laws recognize that certain information — that which constitutes a clear and present danger to the most sensitive national interests or threatens individual privacy, civil, and human rights, for example — should not be issued into the public domain. And for this reason, claims that all information should be entirely free and unregulated ought to be handled with caution, deriving as they do from an outlook that demands the privileges of transparency without accepting the responsibilities that attend it.
Still, the argument that government wrongdoing, when shielded by the cloak of secrecy, constitutes a flagrant abuse of administrative power enjoys the powerful wind of democratic principles at its back. Not only that, but like Glenn Greenwald, I’d push it a bit further and argue that the second-hand gossip and banality that fills the vast majority of leaked cables thus far is precisely at issue in this discussion, insofar as it also represents the misuse of government secrecy powers. If the various categories of confidentiality that the State Department uses to classify different levels of sensitive information are to have any meaning at all, they must be rigorously respected and adhered to. Otherwise, civil servants risk undermining good-faith claims — whether right or wrong — to government secrecy in truly extraordinary situations that may warrant it. The WikiLeaks cables demonstrate that they do not, and that even harmless information is highly restricted, which is deeply troubling.
Beyond these considerations, however, the WikiLeaks phenomenon has also defrocked the media of its claim to guardianship over the public good. The argument can be made — and it should — that tools such as the FoIA offer institutional channels through which the public can responsibly access exactly the sorts of documents WikiLeaks has brought to light. The trouble with this argument, of course, is that the media — which has traditionally possessed the resources to maximize these tools to greatest profit — has shirked its responsibility as a mechanism by which the public can hold its government to account. As the media terrain itself rapidly shifts, and economic incentives follow, fewer and fewer resources are devoted to the deep investigative reporting that has helped police government behavior in the past but — with the exception of a notable few holdouts — has largely vanished today.
In many respects, the disappearance of investigative reporting is as much a product of what journalists themselves see as their public function as it is of technological shifts or the public’s waning interest in any morsel of information that exceeds 140 characters. The new model of political reporting has come to privilege the armchair over shoe leather as its primary accoutrement, as exemplified by the attitude of media elites such as The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait, who asks “What’s so bad about sitting around?” To be certain, Chait is right that “You can learn a lot sitting behind a desk, mining the papers for interesting factual nuggets, reading political commentary from every perspective, poring through books and reports, and using the Nexis database to compile enormous stacks of newspaper stories.”
But Chait’s larger point is discouraging. “Part of the problem is that journalism terminology glorifies “shoe-leather reporting,” whereby you pound the pavement so often you wear out the soles of your shoes. I’m not saying that every news story could be reported without leaving one’s desk. (Bernstein: “Woodward, look! I found a clip from 1971 in which President Nixon tells the Omaha World-Herald he plans to order his goons to break into Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Hotel!” Woodward: “I’ll cancel that meeting with Deep Throat.”) I’m simply saying that, sometimes, laziness can be the better part of valor.”
I’m not so sure, simply because it seems to have developed into a newsroom pathology. Ironically, the WikiLeaks documents have done almost nothing to shock reporters back into action, but instead have reinforced their very reluctance to leave the news desk, chained as they are to their chairs in expectation of the next batch of cables. Indeed, most of the “reporting” on the Wikileaks document dump has come to constitute a sort of Cliff’s Notes guide to the embassy cables rather than serious reportage or analysis.
And this is precisely it. The lion’s share of disdain swirling around the WikiLeaks scandal has been directed at the government and Julian Assange. But amidst this comic book-worthy showdown, the media has largely given itself a free pass, which in many respects strikes me as the crux of the matter. If powerful media outlets were doing a better job at monitoring government action at home and abroad, there would likely be no WikiLeaks (or at least not the WikiLeaks that we’ve grown to love/hate), nor would governments enjoy carte blanche to get in the lazy habit of classifying everything they do as confidential or using the shield of “state secrets” to obscure government malfeasance.
So it makes sense that as the unparalleled tradition of American investigative reporting gives way to the relentless waves of new information pouring into the American psyche with each new tweet, WikiLeaks has appeared on the scene to fill the gap. Whether Assange and company see themselves as heirs to this tradition is doubtful. As the Vancouver Sun, in an excellent analysis of blogger Aaron Bady’s work on Assange’s political philosophy, notes, the WikiLeaks leader “is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms,” but instead is seeking to disrupt modes by which government secrecy operates in order to change the very nature of governance itself.
Still, it seems as if WikiLeaks itself has come under the power of a strangely market-driven demand for democratic transparency in the absence of healthy media and in the face of increasingly secret government behavior. Despite the hacker ethic supposedly driving the WikiLeaks phenomenon — that all information must flow unfettered into the public domain — there is evidence that WikiLeakers are making efforts at vetting the flow of information to meet classic reporting standards that avoid violating the harm principle outlined in the FoIA. Indeed, as a recent piece in the Washington Post points out,
Well before publishing the cables, [Assange] wrote a letter to the U.S. government, delivered to our ambassador in London, inviting suggestions for redactions. The State Department refused. Assange then wrote another letter to State, reiterating that “WikiLeaks has absolutely no desire to put individual persons at significant risk of harm, nor do we wish to harm the national security of the United States.”
In that second letter, Assange stated that the department’s refusal to discuss redactions “leads me to conclude that the supposed risks are entirely fanciful.” He then indicated that WikiLeaks was undertaking redactions on its own.
This sort of thing strikes me as both encouraging and to be encouraged.
And it’s for this reason that the government’s ham-fisted response to the WikiLeaks phenomenon is so shocking. Of course the political establishment is licking its wounds at having had its sense of entitlement to secrecy stripped away with each new batch of cables leaked to the public. I don’t find this surprising in the least. The astonishing part to my mind is that the government, confronted with an American public that has grown increasingly distrustful of it by the year, continues to adhere to the very practices that further pull the carpet of positive public opinion out from beneath its own feet. In an age in which political power clearly resides with those seeking to pull the curtains away to dispel the gloom of secrecy, political elites in the United States would prefer to keep us all in the dark.