Monday, December 06, 2010

Like Jay Rosen I'm disappointed with Julian Assange's answer to the question asked on The Guardian's site :


I am a former British diplomat. In the course of my former duties I helped to coordinate multilateral action against a brutal regime in the Balkans, impose sanctions on a renegade state threatening ethnic cleansing, and negotiate a debt relief programme for an impoverished nation. None of this would have been possible without the security and secrecy of diplomatic correspondence, and the protection of that correspondence from publication under the laws of the UK and many other liberal and democratic states. An embassy which cannot securely offer advice or pass messages back to London is an embassy which cannot operate. Diplomacy cannot operate without discretion and the protection of sources. This applies to the UK and the UN as much as the US.

In publishing this massive volume of correspondence, Wikileaks is not highlighting specific cases of wrongdoing but undermining the entire process of diplomacy. If you can publish US cables then you can publish UK telegrams and UN emails.

My question to you is: why should we not hold you personally responsible when next an international crisis goes unresolved because diplomats cannot function.

However, I think there can be "morally serious" responses to the question.

To start, although this is a fight about ideals, it's also embedded in a historical moment and certain actions and beliefs may be appropriate to the time and situation. In particular, the US and UK governments (among others) are known, over the last ten years, to have conspired in secret to mislead their own populations to favour starting unjustified wars, have been known to hand their own citizens over to barbaric regimes to be tortured, and have been known to pressurize other countries to co-operate with this. By the known character of the institutions we are dealing with, we would be naive and irresponsible to trust them when they claim that their secrecy is necessary and warranted to help them to do good..

While we may very well see the argument that diplomacy requires secrecy in the abstract, at this point in time, the burden of proof is very much on JAnthony to show that the secrecy he wants is both required to achieve what good he claims to have achieved and will not be abused further.

For example, why should we accept that secrecy was necessary to "impose sanctions on a renegade state threatening ethnic cleansing"? Isn't this something that can plausibly be co-ordinated in public? Countries point at the intention to ethnically cleanse and, in joint outrage, agree to impose sanctions?

Perhaps this seems naive, and likely is, but only if we accept that, in fact, the sanctions are not motivated by moral outrage but through a certain amount of horse-trading between countries. In which case, we are now in a far murkier situation. Were concessions and deals offered to the parties involved? Did the good of the sanctions agreed really justify the concessions and incentives? What exactly was offered? Arms sales? Preferential trade-deals? Back-handers? What country are we talking about at this point? Without details of the negotiations, how can we judge? And why should we allow this to take place if we can't have an informed opinion?

The idea that secrecy is necessary to co-ordinate good actions only makes sense against a backdrop of cynical assumptions that national governments are irredeemably bad and must be bribed to behave properly. One very good argument in favour of wikileaks is that it strikes against such a cynicism. The world will be a far better place if national governments only join together to fight wars or impose sanctions or sign trade-agreements when each government genuinely and transparently believes these things to be in the interest of its own people, and not because it is receiving bribes, or foreign support for its faction in an internal conflict, or because the industries represented by the richest lobbyists want a big trade deal.

Similarly JAnthony's debt relief. Why on earth do this in secret? To hide what you're doing from the IMF? From international capital? ;-) The box of questions opened by revealing the assumptions of diplomats is justification itself.

When JAnthony gets to his actual question, we see similar presumption : "why should we not hold you personally responsible when next an international crisis goes unresolved because diplomats cannot function." Well, should we hold JAnthony personally responsible (as a non-leaker) when diplomats DID function and the results were international crises such as the Iraq war? Less rhetorically, what are some actual examples of international crises that have been successfully avoided by functional diplomacy in the last 10 years?

Just to re-emphasize. I am explicitly not (at this point) making an anarchist argument that nation states and national governments should not exist. Or that they do not sometimes deserve secrecy (which is tantamount to the same thing). What I am arguing, is that, the particular governments that we do have, and the particular web of international alliances and deals they've built, have forfeited our trust and do not deserve the benefit of the doubt as to whether they should be allowed to operate in secret. Ie. they should not exist in their current form.

These institutions may, indeed, be reformed into something which regains our trust and deserves our support, but two things seem likely :

a) simply replacing one party of government by another (Labour by Conservative, Republican by Democrat) does not achieve this; and

b) wikileaks is currently the most powerful weapon we have to push such reforms through.

A second sort of question arises when we consider whether wikileaks actually wants to destroy all secrecy. Wikileaks does have a history of "redacting" information that they believe would harm innocent individuals. (Though the inevitable "open-source insurgency" of imitators may not.) Assange's contention is that "bad" organizations and conspiracies will suffer higher leakage than good ones. A secretive pact to oust a colleague is more likely to be leaked than a plot for a surprise birthday party. A plan to cut baby milk with poison more likely to sting the conscience of an employee than the design of next year's product.

In this, Assange demonstrates an optimistic view of human nature, on the side of every liberal and emancipatory impulse in history that hopes the people will make wise and good use of new freedoms and powers. And his critics reveal an equally pessimistic one : the assumption that freedoms and powers will be abused if leviathan does not keep them in chains.

To repeat, the important point when assessing Assange's morality is that he isn't saying that there should be no secrets but that whistle-blowers inside institutions can be trusted to tell good from bad and to do the right thing.

Is there a moral difference between doing something yourself, and giving humans the freedom to do it? I guess you have to ask God for the definitive answer to that one. ;-)

Have any of wikileaks's own judgements been wanting? So far, nothing that I've seen seems to me to be unequivocally wrong. But I've only seen a fraction of the material. (As have the critics.)

This leads us to the third moral issue : we have no other criteria to assess this than some kind of utilitarianism. No one can say that there was no malice or self-regard involved in leaking the documents or in publishing and publicising them. No-one can promise that no harm can come of them. All we can say is that, on balance, the good outweighs the bad.

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