Donald Douglas

Christian Caryl, Contributing Editor at Foreign Policy and Newsweek, Slams Julian Assange and WikiLeaks

Posted on January 5 2011 7:00 pm
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And Caryl’s currently a Senior Fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS). And he’s got a refreshing take on the WikiLeaks phenomenon, at New York Review, “Why WikiLeaks Changes Everything“:

Among the cables released so far are revelations that have prompted headlines around the world, but there are also dispatches on Bavarian election results and Argentine maritime law. If the aim is to strike a blow against American imperial designs—as Assange has suggested in some of his statements—I don’t see how these particular cables support it. Assange has claimed to Time magazine that he wants to “make the world more civil” by making secretive organizations like the US State Department and Department of Defense accountable for their actions; he also told Time that, as an alternative, he wants to force them “to lock down internally and to balkanize,” protecting themselves by becoming more opaque and thereby more “closed, conspiratorial and inefficient.” This is, to say the least, a patently contradictory agenda; I’m not sure how we’re supposed to make sense of it. In practical terms it seems to boil down to a policy of disclosure for disclosure’s sake. This is what the technology allows, and Assange has merely followed its lead. I don’t see coherently articulated morality, or immorality, at work here at all; what I see is an amoral, technocratic void.
As Alan Cowell has written in The New York Times, the careers of some foreign officials—and not necessarily high-level ones—have already been destroyed or threatened by these revelations.

In at least one case the person’s name had been redacted, but his identity was clear enough from the context. One is justified in asking: Will deaths occur as these and other statements are published? We do not know, and we may not hear about them if they do. But damage of various kinds is sure to result. (For his part, Assange seems remarkably unable to discuss these very real dangers; in the Time interview he claims that “this sort of nonsense about lives being put into jeopardy” is simply an excuse.) Can WikiLeaks at least tell us why this was necessary?

In the old days, journalists would have done what WikiLeaks’s print media partners, like The Guardian and Der Spiegel, are attempting to do now: make judgments about which documents to release and whether or not to redact the names mentioned in them based on the larger public interest and the risk of inflicting harm on innocent bystanders. Yet one cannot escape the feeling that the entire exercise is rendered tragicomically moot by the mountain of raw material looming, soon to be equally accessible, in the background. Khatchadourian contends that WikiLeaks is evolving into something more like a conventional journalistic organization, one that will make value judgments about what it’s doing rather than simply dumping documents into cyberspace willy-nilly. But the sheer scale of what the group does suggests that this is something of a fool’s errand. Assange says the organization has been releasing the cables at the rate of about eighty a day. (By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, that means that we have three thousand days of revelations to go as this article goes to press.)

The comparison some people have been making between the WikiLeaks document dumps and the Pentagon Papers affair back in the 1970s is illuminating precisely because it shows how little the two stories have in common. As pointed out by Max Frankel, an ex–New York Times editor who was one of those overseeing publication of the papers, the leaker in that case, Daniel Ellsberg,

was not breaching secrecy for its own sake, unlike the WikiLeakers of today; he was looking to defeat a specific government policy. Moreover, he was acutely conscious of the risks of disclosure and did not distribute documents betraying live diplomatic efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting. And it took him years to find a credible medium of distribution, which is now available at the push of a button.

I’m fully aware that Daniel Ellsberg has lent his support to Julian Assange. That’s his right. But I think he might be overlooking a few vital points.

One of the most obvious is that WikiLeaks is posting these raw documents on the Web, the most permissive information medium we have yet to invent. As a result we are now experiencing yet another jump from the ploddingly analog to the explosively digital. Just as the concept of “privacy” fades into obscurity when sixteen-year-olds can present their innermost thoughts to an audience of billions, so, too, the Internet distribution of official secrets changes the rules of the game. Once all the documents are online they will be subjected not only to the often clumsy ministrations of journalists and historians but also to the far more efficient data-mining programs and pattern- analysis software of foreign governments and private companies (the extent of which, in the case of China’s handling of Google, the cables themselves make clear). The implications for the conduct of government policy (not to mention individual lives) are monumental. I wish I could predict what they might be, but I can’t. I’m not sure anyone can.

There’s more at the link.

I noted Caryl’s credentials at the title above because he seems so unusual — and incredibly lucid. Continuing the essay he unfolds the logic of the argument, which is to say that the enormity of the latest WikiLeaks data dump is greater than any one individual or institution to manage. And the consequences — collateral damage for the information leakers, who are less interested in changing policies than they are in bringing down governments — are the untold and potentially catastrophic risks to the lives and careers of honest people carrying out their jobs in government, military institutions, humanitarian organizations, and so forth. These are questions ultimately of tremendous power, and Caryl in fact indicates his support for much of what WikiLeaks is supposedly all about — greater transparency and accountability of governments. But in the end, Julian Assange comes out looking both quite poor and insignificant in this account. And Caryl perhaps might have continued a bit more by delving into the motivations of Assange, and especially his more enthusiastic adherents on the anarcho- and neo-communist left. If there was ever an equalizing force for anti-establishment actors to take down the state sources of world hegemonic power, WikiLeaks is it. Its utility lies not so much in exposure of government duplicity, corruption, or realpolitik, but in radicalizing the radicals, and enabling their growing revolutionary program. And recall there’s an almost perfect ideological correlation betwen those who favor and those who oppose the WikiLeaks project. Even purportedly moderate leftists are gung ho on this transformationalist agenda, while either naive or in conscious denial to the nihilist destruction that’s essential to the anarcho- and neo-communist program. Caryl does yoeman’s work in getting the alternative meme out in leftist outlets like New York Review. It’s an interesting development that will hopefully gain traction.

I’ll have more later, in any case …

Cross-posted from American Power.

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