Thursday, December 16, 2010

Third-Hand Information

In the novel "The Mote in God's Eye" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, we are introduced to an alien race with three arms.  In the sequel, some people explain alternate perspectives or choices with the familiar adage, "on the other hand," but often continue with a third option, saying, "on the gripping hand, however...".  This just about sums up my feelings on WikiLeaks.

I'm a strong believer in confidentiality as well as freedom of information, at least generally.  On the one hand, I believe that those who work in sensitive areas like security or diplomacy should be able to speak openly with their colleagues, especially when that colleague has signed a non-disclosure agreement or taken an oath to respect that confidence.

On the other hand, there are whistles that need to be blown, and the people blowing them should be entitled to protection from reprisal.   Unscrupulous types cannot be allowed to abuse confidentiality in order to do something illegal, immoral, or contrary to stated policy.

On the gripping hand , however, is the murky question of motivation.  Am I wrong to feel that someone who exposes classified diplomatic communiques solely to embarrass their superiors should not be entitled to the same protection as the individual who exposes something widely regarded as a war crime?  And what if they are the same person?

The city of Berkeley, California, is considering a motion that would proclaim WikiLeaker Pfc. Bradley Manning a hero.  Berkeley is probably the most overtly and proudly liberal community in North America, and their opposition to most military ventures is a matter of public record (they recently tried to ban recruiters for the U.S. Marine Corps as "unwanted intruders"), so their support of a soldier exposing a cover-up of a Reuters photographer being shot along with 10 others by an Apache helicopter is both predictable and laudable.  But Pfc. Manning did a lot more than this; he uploaded more than 260,000 diplomatic cables and 90,000 intelligence reports on the war in Afghanistan.

Manning's rationale appears to portray someone more interested in spite than altruism; he says the leaks explain "how “how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective,”  and expresses how he wanted to change things.  However, he also writes:

“Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public.”

“Everywhere there’s a U.S. post, there’s a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed. Worldwide anarchy in CSV format. It’s beautiful and horrifying.”
To be fair, it's easy to be sympathetic to this guy; being gay could make for a brutal adolescence in rural Oklahoma, and the army's "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding sexual orientation is certainly no picnic either, but his personal situation doesn't preclude him from the consequences of his actions.  Exposing covered-up deaths with a leaked video is one thing, and even without taking WikiLeaks into consideration, he should be protected from reprisals for pursuing justice, but what was the purpose behind leaking the diplomatic material, other than creating chaos and embarrassment for his own government, as well as those of other countries?  Frustration? Idealism? Vanity?

Pfc. Manning has been quoted as saying "“Information should be free … It belongs in the public domain.”  Clearly not all of it does, but exactly where the line gets drawn is subject to much debate and discourse.  I think we can all agree that operational information that could jeopardize the lives of those in the field, whether they are soldiers or undercover police officers, is better off being held close to the vest, but even that demarcation is subjective, especially to the U.S. armed forces.

Look at it through the lens of another sci-fi concept: telepathy.  It's easy to assume that the ability to read the minds of others would be the cat's pyjamas, and in old comic books and children's stories, it often is.  But more mature perspectives talk about the horror of facing the unfiltered thoughts and emotions of others, or how there can be no privacy when your thoughts are not your own.  I know I wouldn't want my thought bubbles being read by people who ask me, "Which parent do you love more?" , or "What do you think of the boss's new plan?" or even, "Do these pants make me look fat?"  Living in a glass house while wearing the Emperor's new clothes is a bad combination for all but the most forthright and confident individuals, and besides, you can play poker with everyone's cards face-up on the table, but it isn't much of a game, is it?

WikiLeaks has released quite a bit of 'sensitive' diplomatic information over the past few weeks, and the net effect appears to be a global epidemic of noses being put out of joint.  Regardless of the validity or source of this information, what greater purpose does it serve?  Are we really better off knowing how this leader personally feels about this diplomat or that head of state?  If they made those statements in confidence, shouldn't that confidence be upheld unless there is compelling reason to do otherwise?  Don't people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace, even if they are politicians and diplomats?

 The sad truth of the matter is this: no matter what the promises are of anonymity or protection, whistleblowers need to consider the very real possibility that they may end up called to account for their actions, and that their motivations will affect how their actions are perceived.  Judgment is going to come into play at several junctures, beginning with the decision of the leaker to forward the information, and then again for the broadcaster.  With a traditional news outlet like a newspaper or television station, we might ask an editor, "what makes it newsworthy?', but in the case of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange appears to be the one making that call, and a lot of what is being released is pretty much gossip.

I am not ready to call the founder of WikiLeaks a devil; we owe him too much but I am not ready to call him a folk hero either, and the same goes for the troubled Pfc. Manning, who now faces a court martial and the possibility of up to 52 years in jail.  So, on the one hand, more information can be a good thing.  On the other hand, too much of any good thing is usually a bad thing.  And on the gripping hand, I hope the people making these decisions regarding confidential information that they have the power to disseminate, are taking their own motivations and goals into consideration.

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