Dalrymple on the Totalitarianism of Wikileaks

At City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple puts his finger  exactly on something I’ve been groping to express about Wikileaks: 

It is not, of course, that revelations of secrets are always unwelcome or ethically unjustified. It is not a new insight that power is likely to be abused and can only be held in check by a countervailing power, often that of public exposure. But WikiLeaks goes far beyond the need to expose wrongdoing, or supposed wrongdoing: it is unwittingly doing the work of totalitarianism.

The idea behind WikiLeaks is that life should be an open book, that everything that is said and done should be immediately revealed to everybody, that there should be no secret agreements, deeds, or conversations. In the fanatically puritanical view of WikiLeaks, no one and no organization should have anything to hide. It is scarcely worth arguing against such a childish view of life.

The actual effect of WikiLeaks is likely to be profound and precisely the opposite of what it supposedly sets out to achieve. Far from making for a more open world, it could make for a much more closed one. Secrecy, or rather the possibility of secrecy, is not the enemy but the precondition of frankness. WikiLeaks will sow distrust and fear, indeed paranoia; people will be increasingly unwilling to express themselves openly in case what they say is taken down by their interlocutor and used in evidence against them, not necessarily by the interlocutor himself. This could happen not in the official sphere alone, but also in the private sphere, which it works to destroy. 

As I put it to a friend who was enthusing about the great service these leaks provided to transparency, “Do you feel that way about your bank information and your PIN code?”

The hypocrisy and double-standard of journalists, in particular, who fail to understand why the government must sometimes protect its sources of information is mind-blowing. Journalists, of all people, should understand this better than anyone else. Many sources would lose their jobs, their reputations, their liberty or their lives for talking to journalists on the record. If the people who spoke to us didn’t think we could keep their names out of the story, they would never open their mouths again. Would that make the world more transparent? 

The only way you could argue that this logic doesn’t also apply to the US government is by assuming that all journalists only have good intentions and do only good things–all the time–and the US government only has bad intentions and does only bad things–all the time. This appears to be the justification offered by the Guardian, but I suppose that’s to be expected. 

  1. Patrick in Albuquerque

    Well yeah, but I sure enjoyed the back story about our German ambassador this morning. Biggest Dem giver, Goldman Sachs exec, $6M estate.

  2. sierra

    Another hypocricy: As I ask my friends, “did you not long ago vote for a guy who insisted that diplomacy must be allowed to work?”

  3. Claire Berlinski
    C

    There are a lot of stories we’re all enjoying, Patrick. As with the news that Turkey has sent firefighting planes to Israel, there’s often a bright spot or two in a terrible event. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating those. 

  4. Inanç Arslaner

    To answer the question you asked to your friend, yes, I absolutely feel the same way about my bank info and pin numbers. If I am not able to do a good job keeping them secret, people should know what they are.

    However, I do agree that Wikileaks’ actions were based on a utopic idea. It’s not very possible to achieve what they believe in through leaking of secret documents.

  5. Sisyphus

    This is also a wakeup call for the secrets industry. Enabling one person to leak hundreds of thousands of documents did not happen overnight and should never have happened at all. This is not a one off vulnerability, and it is not that the security officers do not by and large get it. Paper-think commanders tish-tosh the system and ignore the arguments for change in a very dynamic technology environment. 

    Soon they will have a nice, new, fat health empire to retire into, to shape, to mold as they see fit. What can be done with diplomatic messages can be done with the federal health records that are being hoovered up. (Obama’s first health care bill, $600B for a federally managed universal medical database where all of your health data is artfully protected. Ref: the Clinton FBI file scandal.) Another fine program for zeroing to good effect.

    Clearly we should find other new and clever ways for the federal government to perfect our lives. 

  6. Claire Berlinski
    C

    Inanç, Sisyphus, your points are extremely good: If Assange was able to do this, just imagine what the Chinese could do. And probably have done. There’s a massive security flaw here and a lot of people should be fired for it. To some extent, we owe Assange thanks for making this so obvious. 

  7. Patrick in Albuquerque
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: There are a lot of stories we’re all enjoying, Patrick. As with the news that Turkey has sent firefighting planes to Israel, there’s often a bright spot or two in a terrible event. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating those.  · Dec 4 at 5:06am

    I agree with you and Dalrymple, but I’ll mention another worry that wikileaks has brought to the fore. In the era of thumb drives, we have a gov’t that is so stupid that it gives access to the materials to more than half a million people. There were people somewhere in the world that were smart enough to do stuxnet, so perhaps such people can figure out a way to make secure the materials such as were wilileaked. But still, how can our gov’t be figuring this out only after everybody left the barn?

    Or maybe the US is just too involved everywhere.

  8. Sisyphus

    Sorry, Patrick, make that tens of millions of people. Obviously, compartmentalization is badly broken. There are many good security officers on the job, the breakage is usually the commander who does not have and is not interested in the big picture and has a long list of other priorities. 

  9. Patrick in Albuquerque

     Sisyphus – You know about compartmentalization and need-to-know. The breakdown of each of those IMHO is a symptom of the opposite of your assertion about “the commander who does not have and is not interested in the big picture and has a long list of other priorities”. The breakdown, again IMHO, is a direct result of 9/11; ie, the concern that one hand of the gov’t didn’t know what the other hands knew. There was high incentive to break down the walls because the commander was saying “break them down”. And so they did, stupidly. In such instances, (most) gov’t employees get in line. Who among them would have the cojones to speak up about the danger of no compartmentalization!

  10. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Patrick in Albuquerque

    But still, how can our gov’t be figuring this out only after everybody left the barn?

    I hope the situation has improved, but I know that for a long time, the US government was way behind the private sector on encryption, still using a public key, for example, when the rest of the world had already done RSA.

    As I child, I witnessed the decryption of one of the government’s Big Codes. (I think it was the summer of ’07). Our science teacher had followed the news on the progress of the codebreaking, and gathered us around the computer for the Big Moment.

    Still, my gut feeling is that there’s only so much technology can do. You can have all the algorithms in the world, but if the people blab…

    I have certainly become more circumspect about who I tell what, particularly regarding anything political. I don’t fear (or, at least not much), but I can’t help feeling it’s a sensible precaution.

    And I sure hope my family’s health records never become public. That’s a lot of painful stuff that no one needs to know.

  11. Claire Berlinski
    C

    The thing is, excessive compartmentalization was justly fingered as a cause of our inability to put together the pieces before September 11. There’s no good solution to this one.  

  12. Sisyphus

     

    Patrick in Albuquerque:  Sisyphus – You know about compartmentalization and need-to-know. The breakdown of each of those IMHO is a symptom of the opposite of your assertion about “the commander who does not have and is not interested in the big picture and has a long list of other priorities”. The breakdown, again IMHO, is a direct result of 9/11; ie, the concern that one hand of the gov’t didn’t know what the other hands knew. There was high incentive to break down the walls because the commander was saying “break them down”. And so they did, stupidly. In such instances, (most) gov’t employees get in line. Who among them would have the cojones to speak up about the danger of no compartmentalization! · Dec 4 at 7:17am

    One CiC puts up foolish compartmentalization despite need to know, the next eliminates need to know (at least for some categories of material). In both cases, it most certainly is the subordinates’ job to raise alarms and make arguments. In some cases, they have statutory responsibilities. Hard to believe in the face of WikiLeaks, but there is still a lot of material being properly protected.

  13. Sisyphus

     

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: The thing is, excessive compartmentalization was justly fingered as a cause of our inability to put together the pieces before September 11. There’s no good solution to this one.   · Dec 4 at 9:05am

    But the underlying issue is appropriate compartmentalization based on need to know, not more or less. I know there was interest in technical solutions in this space under W, and that one specific line of solutions that I had visibility to was not followed up on under the current administration. Not enough data to support any conclusions in that.  

    The brokenness is endemic to the gamesmanship and territorialism of federal agency politics and, you are quite right, not easily addressed in the short term. The technical problems can be solved, the doctrinal and policy issues will take longer. Add overarching POTUS direction requiring everyone to run portside, then another POTUS giving another direction to run to starboard, and then expressions of astonishment at the resulting capsizing.

    This problem may find its way to the front burner now. 

  14. Maurilius

    Megan McArdle discussed here the fact that Assange is expressly seeking to cause more secrecy on the way to his perfect society. 

    Assange has apparently said:

    “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.

    Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”

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