There's whistle-blowing, and then there's a stadium full of vuvuzelas. One can be ethically questionable but ultimately moral; the other is overbearing noise that initially makes us smile, but ultimately makes us all deaf.
If you’re a US government official, you probably hate WikiLeaks. It certainly would have messed with your weekend. It trumped the voluminous war logs by releasing, starting last night, hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic dispatches. One day, we’ll all agree with the Americans.
Someone I spoke to this morning – in the media, not in any government – described the situation as “apocalyptic”, and called Julian Assange, the infamous founder of WikiLeaks, an “information terrorist”. I thought the terms were overwrought, but the more I think about it, the more I agree.
Many people love what WikiLeaks does. They delight in the government and corporate secrets – a few of them sufficiently dirty to cause a scandal – for which it provides an anonymous and safe outlet. Who doesn’t like to see warmongers, corrupt bureaucrats or corporate fat cats go down?
The US, however, views the recent publication on WikiLeaks of classified dispatches from military and diplomatic sources with undisguised condemnation. And it isn’t just the potential scandal that its officials fear. After all, despite the massive volume of documents released, there has been surprisingly little material for scandal.
In the case of the war logs, we got a picture of a military operating in difficult circumstances in the most effective and humane way possible. It would be surprising if it changed anyone’s mind about the wars, even if they actually cared what happens on the ground before making a rational assessment. Essentially, the news was worthless as a whistle-blowing exercise.
Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau, the press attaché at the US Embassy in Pretoria, says she cannot comment on the veracity or content of documents leaked on a public website. However, they appear to be what she describes as “cables, telegrams, spot reports, snapshots in time, that any diplomatic mission would report back to their capital”.
She says, “Such reports would include accounts of meetings, conversations, conferences, media articles, a range of things. What they aren’t, are public documents. They do not reflect official policy. But such reports could put people at risk – dissidents, journalists, NGOs, or members of the opposition. That’s a huge concern for us.”
She adds: “The US position on freedom of information and the press should not be questioned, and we’ve made that clear in South Africa. What we are against is criminal acts, which this is if these documents are genuine, and the irresponsibility of a so-called whistle-blowing site that puts people in danger.”
The 250,000 diplomatic dispatches, the first of which were released to selected international media outlets this weekend, will be juicy. Initial coverage shows embarrassingly candid assessment of foreign leaders, for example. Check the excellent coverage of The Guardian for titillating examples.
Although their content is not yet available, some of the 1,566 documents involving the US Embassy in Pretoria have fascinating subject tags. For example, several dozen of the dispatches about South Africa involve arms control – sometimes nuclear – in the context of states such as Syria, Iran, North Korea and Russia. Full text of those cables will no doubt be of some interest to our news media in the weeks to come.
The same goes for messages involving other countries. The standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, for example, and the fears and intentions of Iran’s neighbours in the Middle East, including Israel, feature prominently in the early releases.
The leaked archive promises to be meaty stuff. The wider implications of such disclosures, however, are grave.
The “leaks” for which WikiLeaks has become infamous are not of the specific, whistle-blowing kind. They are wholesale disclosures, including many confidential and secret documents. While the organisation claims to exercise some editorial control over the releases, redacting names of people whose lives might be endangered, and omitting in this case documents classified as “top secret”, there’s not much that is sacred.
Anyway, all it will take to shed the remaining fig leaves is a competitor with fewer qualms than those to which Julian Assange professes.
It is the end of secrecy, of confidentiality and of privacy.
It’s hard to be sympathetic to governments. Even when the peaceful conduct of international relations and cooperation require the ability to communicate in confidence, governments all too often pose a threat to individual freedom and prosperity. Even committed socialists love to distrust governments.
So let’s ponder the implications for the rest of us. When your company’s secrets – profit margins, production methods, distribution deals, and marketing plans – are no longer confidential, how will you compete? When your personal medical or financial records can be disclosed at any time, will you still enjoy the notion of “free speech”?
Freedom of information is a principle by which anyone in the media, certainly, and anyone of sound mind, generally, should live. But my freedom ends where your rights begin. I’m free to move, but not on your property without your consent. I’m free to swing my arms, but not when your nose is in the way. I’m free to disclose information, but not when I’m pursuing a private vendetta by disclosing confidential details that could compromise you in the eyes of someone else.
Of course, whistle-blowing may be a valid excuse for breach of confidentiality. Some information is in the public interest. Some is evidence of corruption, fraud of other crimes. There is no doubt that such disclosures should be protected. However, that does not mean that all disclosures are equally justifiable, on ethical grounds.
When private contracts or confidential company information are no longer safe from the prying eyes of competitors or detractors, how will people respond? Now that anonymous sources can place documents in the public domain, without any evidence of their provenance, accuracy or completeness, and no knowledge of the motives and credibility of the source, how will people respond?
They will respond in the same way that I expect governments will respond: don’t commit things to paper. When you do have to communicate, use unrecorded, encrypted channels, for fear of public exposure.
Often, such precautions will be justified, because confidentiality is justified. When you’re ratting on a criminal, you’d probably not want the criminal to know. When you receive trauma counselling, you probably won’t want your psychological weaknesses to be revealed to your family, friends or employers. When you’re drawing up a strategy to outflank a competitor, you probably won’t want to alert said competitor. When you’re frankly discussing harsh realities of life, such as the risk of an insurance client or the cost-benefit ratio of a safety feature, you probably won’t want those discussions to be public. When you’re discussing the size or performance of your package with your doctor, you probably won’t want your mates down the pub to find out.
Sometimes, the secrecy will not be justified. Corporate malfeasance and government abuses will continue to happen, only their perpetrators will make sure that nobody can discover documentary proof.
The implications of this are far-reaching. It will compromise the ability of investigative agencies to share information in the fight against crime and terrorism. It will reduce the control governments have over their agents abroad, because diplomats and operatives will be more reluctant to communicate with the political bosses back home if they know their dispatches might end up online. Prepare for a rise in rogue agents and nasty conspiracies not seen since the end of the Cold War. Prepare for an increasingly violent and war-torn world, as political tensions which once were diffused with subtle statecraft and confidential agreements are compromised by a lack of privacy. The effectiveness of diplomacy will fall off a cliff.
Ironically, the disclosures made by WikiLeaks might promote access to information, but by doing so, reduce the information that is, in principle, accessible. It will ultimately be counter-productive. Far from making us all equal, the transparency of the internet will push the wielders of power further into the shadows of secrecy and subterfuge.
Whether as private individuals or public officials, WikiLeaks will come back to haunt even those who applaud it today. It will plunge us into a new dark age of Shakespearean whispers and plots. DM
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