I have had fairly ambivalent feelings about the Wikileaks drama that has been playing out in the last weeks. On the one hand, my journalistic integrity and my rights as a citizen implore the significance of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. On the other hand, I firmly believe one of our government's most important jobs is to maintain effective foreign relations and work earnestly with other nations, and some have risen concern that this would jeopardize some of those efforts. Not to mention, there is a reason sometimes I do not know everything the government is doing, some things I am better off learning about years later, especially if it means my protection and involves working towards national and (more often, please) international goals.
Starting on November 28, a collection of 250,000 government documents were disseminated via Julias Assange's website Wikileaks, 11,000 of which were labeled secret. In all actuality, though, these secret documents have not fatally wounded any governmental diplomacy or plans of action. In fact, to me it has seemed to place other countries' governments in front of a mirror, forcing them to consider things they may have been said behind closed doors about them, but never explicitly out in the open. Kind of like in middle or high school, the things teenagers say behind each other's backs are often more honest, and reflect sentiments that someone might wish they had the guts to say to your face. (Not condoning spiteful teenage behavior, rather recognizing that it occurs inevitably.) From the December 13, 2010 issue of Time magazine:
The repercussions of the WikiDump are only beginning to play out. In Korea, the nuclear-armed regime of Kim Jong Il learned that its longtime protector, China, may be turning on it and is willing to contemplate unification of the peninsula under the leadership of the South Korean government in Seoul. In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discovered through the leak that while his Arab neighbors were publicly making nice, privately they were pleading with the U.S. to launch an attack against Tehran's nuclear program. Whether that revelation weakens Iran's bargaining position or whether it will encourage Iran's leaders to hunker down and be even less cooperative in negotiations remains to be seen. What is plain is that in Iran and elsewhere, the WikiLeaks revelations could change history.
Probably the reason for my internal confusion was the very revolutionary nature of these two forces colliding. The way we think about government and citizenship, and the protection of the latter from the former, is always evolving, and unknowns are scary things. And they way that government interacts with information is fundamentally affecting our lives too. This may be the natural next step in ensuring all three components of our world are in working order. Government. Citizen. Information.
The article quotes a "former intelligence-community official" who said, "The world is moving irreversibly in the direction of openness, and those who learn to operate with fewer secrets will ultimately have the advantage over those who futiley cling to a past in which millions of secrets can be protected." If we want Chinese citizens to have access to their government, well we better have it, too. (And I don't think supporting the transparency of the government makes anyone anti-American. Period.)
Classifying too many things as "secret" is where the real problem underlying this theatrical world news began, as the Time article argues. Having a more stringent definition for the term means the ability to keep the truly important stuff from leaking, without jeopardizing governmental integrity. Because if a federal system has too many secrets, its people begin to question it, and with good reason. During the Pentagon papers case in 1971, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said just this, and Julian Assange has fully embraced the sentiment as well:
The hallmark of a truly effective internal security system would be the maximum possible disclosure, recognizing that secrecy can best be preserved only when credibility is truly maintained.
Less secrecy means, in other words, what needs to be kept under wraps can stay that way. Looking at it like this, I have fewer qualms with the whole Wikileaks thing, because I think it points to where the government must direct itself now and in the future, understanding that in the end, nothing can be guaranteed to remain secret forever, and using this fact to remain proactive in their disclosure of information. We live in an instant kind of world, but this won't be an instant transition. With the direction technology has taken in the last twenty years though, I can't imagine they've never discussed this eventual reality before. It makes us all consider seriously the responsibilities of our leaders and what we expect from them. It also makes us question our rights and where they start and end, and how much protection we can expect. All things considered, I'm OK with the Wikileaks commitment to holding leaders responsible and keeping them accountable.