Tom Slee on Wikileaks

by Henry on December 6, 2010

This post is uniformly excellent, but this is especially good and pithy.

The openness question is always contingent, and to phrase political questions in terms of data is sidestepping the big issue. Your answer to “what data should the government make public?” depends not so much on what you think about data, but what you think about the government. Everyone is in favour of other people’s openness.

{ 74 comments }

1

yeliabmit 12.06.10 at 2:44 am

If Wikileaks were to leak Canadian government diplomatic cables, I wouldn’t be any less supportive of the effort. I’m just as interested to know what the Canadian government is really doing, saying, and planning — as opposed to what they tell the voters.

Changing Mr. Slee’s statement slightly…

Your answer to “what data should the government make public?” depends not so much on what you think about data, but what you think about government.

…highlights an important difference for me. I am not interested in “the” government as much as I am all government.

2

engels 12.06.10 at 3:15 am

It’s hard to see how something can be uniformly excellent while one part of it is ‘especially good’.

3

John Carney 12.06.10 at 3:51 am

@ engels : “excellent” is not a superlative.

4

John Carney 12.06.10 at 3:54 am

Oops. You objected to “uniformly”, sorry. Still, in common usage, “uniformly” does allow for slight variation, being roughly synonymous with “consistently”.

5

Digestive Tract on Legs 12.06.10 at 4:11 am

Innocent governments have no reason to fear.

6

jazzbumpa 12.06.10 at 4:42 am

And it could be that goodness and excellence are orthogonal . . .

Cheers!
JzB

7

Kaveh 12.06.10 at 6:22 am

I favor openness in general because I believe that others are hiding more secrets than I am. That is not the same as being partial to others’ openness as opposed to mine. This is why I don’t see the wikileaks cable dump under the Obama administration as any worse than if the same thing happened under Bush. It’s not that the dump won’t hurt some of the things they are trying to do that I support, but that the extent to which the info that gets dumped is really shocking and changes people’s opinions about the Obama admin, its release was probably more favorable to my interests. This is actually kind of strange when you think about it, given that I don’t think most Americans share my politics, but I think they would come closer to my politics because of info released by wikileaks. I don’t think there is a potential for the reverse to happen. Climategate wasn’t nearly the kind of revelation that the Abu Ghraib photos were, and unlike the latter, much more of an isolated incident.

8

qingl78 12.06.10 at 7:50 am

People have a tendency to ascribe the default classification of documents to “classified” as some kind of nefarious thing that makes one feel good about fighting against.

Having worked in a large bureaucracy, I’m a little more sympathetic, I’m not saying it is right but I would probably ascribe this rather to an overworked state department who are afraid of losing their jobs for making a mistake.

Put yourself in a middle manager position where you have a tonne of documents that goes through your desk each month. Yes, most of the stuff is benign and you think to yourself, surely that it should be declassified but even if it weren’t a company policy and you had to take responsibility for the declassification you would probably think twice and classify it “just to be safe” because in the back of your mind, you would be thinking that you don’t want it to show up in a report from the CIA, or worse the press, saying that this was part or instrumental to something bad happening which would result in a black mark or firing or someone being killed. I mean, the probability is low but not zero.

I was listening to Glenn Greenwald on bhtv and I’m paraphrasing but he said that out of 50 documents 49 were uninteresting (i.e., should be declassified) and there was one which was interesting (i.e., should also be declassified). I mean he doesn’t say it but if you follow his reasoning, he implies that there is nothing that shouldn’t be declassified.

Perhaps this radical openness is right. I have a list of names, addresses, and credit card numbers of foreign service employees. Perhaps someone can give me Julian Assange’s phone number so that we can put these up on wikileaks. After all, the public has a right to know.

9

Martin Wisse 12.06.10 at 8:11 am

You thought that post was excellent, rather than a muddle of he said, she said, it’s complicated and the internet it changes things — or not?

10

Phil 12.06.10 at 9:08 am

I think what Tom’s saying is precisely the internet, it doesn’t change things. Once the smoke’s cleared and the slogans about information wanting to be free have died away, the questions we’re debating are still political.

11

Sam Dodsworth 12.06.10 at 10:34 am

And yet, we wouldn’t be debating these political questions if we didn’t have Wikileaks. So maybe the internet does change things after all.

12

Tim Wilkinson 12.06.10 at 12:44 pm

Or:

S [need to keep plan secret] = D [desirability of likely outcome] * P [probability of frustration if revealed]. S and D can be negative.

But like any other first-order moral-political (you might say utopian, or end-state) position, this ignores meta-political issues like democratic control (in one sense, a kind of non-ideal theory). In particular but not exhaustively, a bureaucracy which operates under routine secrecy and impunity not only facilitates but encourages bad behaviour and fosters a poisonous culture. In other words secrecy is not just something overlaid on existing policies and political structures, but feeds back into them.

It’s certainly true that the issue of secrecy is inseparable from wider political questions – but Slee seems to think this just means that approval or disapproval of secrecy is determined by partisan views about the content of the secrets in question.

qingl78 @6 gives a useful insight (thanks, q.): Put yourself in a middle manager position…even if it weren’t a company policy and you had to take responsibility for the declassification you would probably think twice and classify it “just to be safe” because in the back of your mind, you would be thinking that you don’t want it to show up in a report from the CIA, or worse the press, saying that this was part or instrumental to something bad happening which would result in a black mark or firing or someone being killed.

Regardless of foreign policy goals, the means (with associated ramifications, blowback, etc) will be different depending on what those pursuing them can get away with and the toolkit of shortcuts impunity has made their default option. If the govt, CIA, military etc know they can rely on routine coverup and thus not have to cope with too much hangout limitation, smearing of witnesses, etc., that’s not going to be good. (BTW q’s account is in contrast to the anti-conspiracy-theory myth of numerous well-informed and determined whistleblowers with unimpeachable credibility, comprehensive documentation and a ready audience).

But further, the comment indirectly illustrates the wider political issues within which openness/secrecy questions are embedded. Put yourself in a middle manager position is not a good prescription for an in-depth discussion of reform. Slee gestures at this kind of point, but doesn’t really nail it.

But the whole question of Wikileaks is a matter of non-ideal theory, so not reducible to the first order policy questions that Slee says it is determined by, nor even by matters of political organisation, unless perhaps some solutions to the democracy/delegation conundrum should emerge. In the meantime, Wikileaks is an extra-state entity, one element in an actual balance of political forces. It is not a species of open government. The ‘quis custodiet’ regress moves one step (a real step, as in step-change, though possibly still an infinitesimal one) closer to a terminus.

13

Zamfir 12.06.10 at 12:54 pm

And yet, we wouldn’t be debating these political questions if we didn’t have Wikileaks. So maybe the internet does change things after all.
I haven’t really seen an issue coming out of Wikileaks yet that wasn’t already under debate. Overaggressiveness in Iraq. China doesn’t really control North Korea. Merkel is boring. The US has nukes in Europe. It’s still useful to know what ‘insiders’ really say on these issues, though.

Tom Slee’s point here is less that the internet doesn’t change things. More that people who are normally pushing for openness in the government are not embracing Wikileaks, because Wikileaks is not helping them achieve the things they want to achieve. Which suggest that even to those people, openness itself was never really the goal.

It’s part of a more general skepticism of his, that many internet ideas that claim to give more power to the people in the end mostly give power to people who control large technology firms.

14

jim 12.06.10 at 12:56 pm

It’s important to recognize that the actual technology which enabled the three major wikileaks exposures was the usb flashdrive. Prior to large capacity flashdrives being available, no disaffected person with SIPRnet access would have been able to download such quantities of data and hand them to wikileaks. Classified computers don’t have writable optical media. All computers have usb ports and short of airport-style security at the entrance of every room with a classified computer in it, flashdrives cannot be kept away from them.

The internet merely (merely!) facilitated distribution of the data.

15

Sam Dodsworth 12.06.10 at 1:33 pm

I haven’t really seen an issue coming out of Wikileaks yet that wasn’t already under debate.

I was thinking more of the issues of how much information ought to be secret, and what difference it makes. And I think the revelation that most Very Very Serious International Diplomacy is the same mix of gossip, stupidity, and the bleeding obvious that we all deal with every day is significant in itself. The US government reaction looks more like injured dignity than anything else.

16

engels 12.06.10 at 1:50 pm

The projectile travelled at a uniform velocity throughout the time period but halfway through it was moving especially fast.

17

engels 12.06.10 at 1:52 pm

(I’ll shut up now. I promise.)

18

Thomas Womack 12.06.10 at 3:01 pm

Classified computers definitely shouldn’t have optical drives which write, but it seems clear from Bradley Manning’s own description of the exfiltration that some of them do.

And, as he says at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/01/us-leaks-bradley-manning-logs, transfer from the unclassified to the classified world was often done by writing a CDR on an unclassified machine and reading it on the classified one (if the classified one had a CD writer then doctrine would have you destroy the CDR afterwards, but it is reasonably clear that doctrine is not being thoroughly followed), which meant you had lots of CDRs floating about in any environment with both networks present, and also that a CDR is presumed to contain unclassified data which is being infiltrated. I would not be surprised if this practice has been stopped and replaced by a less convenient one after the Manning incident.

19

Anderson 12.06.10 at 3:16 pm

So, Slee thinks the leaker was a hero, and that the leaks are likely to damage U.S. foreign policy.

If he’s correct about the latter, then the U.S. is quite justified in prosecuting the leaker to the fullest extent of the law.

20

mds 12.06.10 at 3:27 pm

then the U.S. is quite justified in prosecuting the leaker to the fullest extent of the law.

So: Likely damage to US foreign policy –> the US is quite justified in prosecuting the leaker to the fullest extent of the law? Setting aside the particulars with Wikileaks, this does not necessarily follow. At the very least, wouldn’t it be relevant what the foreign policy in question is? Or does “quite justified” merely translate to “legally authorized”?

21

bianca steele 12.06.10 at 3:28 pm

I think there is a good argument that a certain kind of secrecy is corrupting (or something like that) to an organization and the people who work there whether they have clearances or not. I am either lucky enough not to have had a lot of contact with that or unlucky enough to have had some contact with it under poor circumstances: people who did not currently work under what (I think) was secrecy related but who largely had worked for BigCorp Defense Contractor in the past, and who were moreover on the downward slope for reasons I could mostly only guess at. I think for example Aaron Bady’s argument could be worth looking at in this context.

I have seen, in totally non-security circumstances, contractors and temps not informed that the building was closed due to a power outage in 85 degree temperatures and that everyone should stay home, because the admin person used a mailing list restricted to employees. I have also seen low-level managers’ mailing lists repeatedly scrubbed of contractors without their knowledge, unable to call meetings with their entire group. I have seen a fairly young and inexperienced person hang up after an unhelpful phone call saying something about “security” when there were plenty of reasons the person on the other end might not have wanted to take time to explain something to him.

The mere fact that Assange has spent a lot of time around people who have spent a lot of time in that atmosphere makes me doubt him a little.

And don’t put yourself in a middle manager position unless you are actually a middle manager. Ask someone who is.

22

Adam Kotsko 12.06.10 at 3:37 pm

The idea that Julian Assange should make every detail of himself public if he likes disclosure so much is ridiculous. Like most “hypocrisy” arguments, it ignores power differentials.

23

CJColucci 12.06.10 at 4:10 pm

Slee’s point reminds me of one I used to make when polls seemed to show a depressing level of public support for torture: I always thought the support was somewhat soft, reflecting people’s willingness to tolerate torture if their government solemnly tells them it needs to be done, rather than as a general proposition.
On the leaks in general, how much of this stuff (entertainingly snarky gossip aside) did we need the leaks to learn? Insofar as it is substantive, rather than amusing, most of it seems to be readily inferrable from publicly-available information, and clear-headed analysis of the objective interests of the parties.

24

CJColucci 12.06.10 at 4:11 pm

Slee’s point reminds me of one I used to make when polls seemed to show a depressing level of public support for torture: I always thought the support was somewhat soft, reflecting people’s willingness to tolerate torture if their government solemnly tells them it needs to be done, rather than as a general proposition.
On the leaks in general, how much of this stuff (entertainingly snarky gossip aside) did we need the leaks to learn? Insofar as it is substantive, rather than amusing, most of it seems to be readily inferrable from publicly-available information, and clear-headed analysis of the objective interests of the parties.

25

Substance McGravitas 12.06.10 at 4:25 pm

Likely damage to US foreign policy—> the US is quite justified in prosecuting the leaker to the fullest extent of the law?

That’s why Cheney and Bush are in orange jumpsuits.

On the one hand I’m with Slee in enjoying seeing US foreign policy be damaged. On the other I don’t know if trading a well-organized criminal gang for a variety of ambitious up-and-coming criminals is such a smart thing.

26

elm 12.06.10 at 4:33 pm

CJColucci @22, even if the facts revealed by these documents are 100% readily inferrable the additional evidence of these documents makes those inferences more difficult to ignore and dismiss.

Additionally, plenty of obfuscatory commentary and pseudo-analysis exists to confuse any issue and misdirect the public.

Consider the scaremongering about Nuclear weapons, mobile bio-labs, and balsa Anthraxdrones during the prelude to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The evidence pointed the opposite direction (that Iraq had minimal Nuclear, Biological, or Chemical weapon capabilities) and this was fairly well-known to anyone who cared to be informed, but the warmongers claimed to have secret evidence that showed the opposite.

If the actual evidence had been available to the public, then the public may not have supported the invasion as strongly.

The phenomenon of acquiescence to solemn government claims also rests on secrecy and concealing evidence from the public. Had the public had access to the facts of U.S. torture techniques and the actual selection criteria for torture victims then the public would not have supported it to the degree that it did.

Naturally the media is the weak link in turning evidence into a more-informed public. I don’t believe that the U.S. media wants to or is able to do that job.

27

leaky 12.06.10 at 4:38 pm

Back when I was being vetted for a collateral clearance I was telling the g-man why I didn’t get high anymore, and it was this long story about it made me stupid and it wasn’t that fun, particularly if you’re drunk to begin with, and he helped me out, pushed his eyebrows way up and said, “And it’s ILLEGAL??” and I said, oh yeah right and most especially it’s illegal. Whew. This discussion reminds me of that one. Because, virtually unnoticed among all the categorical imperatives flying around like shaving-cream pies, Article 19 is the supreme law of the land, and it guarantees not only free expression but the public’s right to know. End of story.

28

Tim Wilkinson 12.06.10 at 4:43 pm

(elm has got in first with some of this, but)

most of it seems to be readily inferrable from publicly-available information, and clear-headed analysis of the objective interests of the parties.

there are such things as evidence and deniability though aren’t there. Not that the most cast-iron physical and documentary evidence can’t be ignored, finessed or trumped by effective impunity given the right climate (and we are in that climate, no matter what the bulk of the population might jadedly and resignedly believe.)

It’s true that much of the stuff seems relatively uninteresting (o tempora, o mores), and what has been presented as newsworthy is largely but it’s worth considering the filters the stuff has been through:

‘intel’ gathering process (in some cases)

decision by intel agencies etc on what to tell diplomats

diplomats’ own ability to understand or recognise info and its implications

diplomats’ decisions on what is sayable/what their interlocutors want to hear

diplomatic language and habitual circumlocution

the leaker’s selection of cables (Brzezinski – as well as Akhmadi-Najad of course – has voiced some apparent suspicion about that – and it would be a standard espionage move to leak false info (and selective = false), either to promote false beliefs, or to muddy waters, or as a strawman operation (where the info is later proved false, discrediting the source). Alternatively large volumes of uninteresting info may be leaked to keeping WL busy, or to achieve a form of soft discrediting by leak-fatigue. I’m disinclined to believe that the leak was a plant on current evidence though.)

Wikileaks deselection of cables, if any – possibly in consultation with interested parties

And for most people: press decisions on what to publish – which is undoubtedly done in consultation with/obedience to other parties.

29

Tim Wilkinson 12.06.10 at 4:46 pm

what has been presented as newsworthy is largely
-> what has been presented as newsworthy and is actually new is largely quite convenient for the US govt

30

Marc 12.06.10 at 5:55 pm

I have a colleague whose tenure case was published in full as a worked example in the Chronicle of Higher Education; all records are public, including recommendation letters. I wonder how many folks supporting the Wikileaks approach are bothered by this. That’s not a tiresome hypocricy charge, by the way – I’m just looking at this from a different angle, namely to what degree everything at all times should be in the open.

Quite apart from classification issues, I can think of quite a few reasons why you’d like to keep some things as confidential – for example, you might actually want diplomats to speak honestly about what allied nations are actually doing. I can also easily see things like this as vehicles for distributing manufactured items, or partial releases (as in the climate community emails) which provide a deliberately dishonest picture of what is being said.

31

geo 12.06.10 at 6:05 pm

Slee’s post is very thoughtful, but there’s one paragraph that seems dubious to me:

The internal struggle highlights an emptiness at the heart of the Open Government idea. It is based on the idea that more data available to more people will make government work better, either by improving efficiency and access (Open 311 etc) or by highlighting particular problems (maplight.org and so on), or perhaps both. But while WikiLeaks is making more data available to more people it has no interest in making the US government work better: quite the opposite. As Assange’s writings and this widely linked essay by Aaron Bady make clear, WikiLeaks is using information exposure to put sand in the gears of the US State Department.

I don’t know much about the Open Government movement, but surely the point is not primarily to improve “efficiency” or “access” but to increase accountability. A government is democratic to the extent its citizens are organized outside its control and, on the contrary, exercise control over it. The chief purpose of government secrecy is to prevent this. To say that the government is “working better” merely because it’s accomplishing its aims, even in the absence of popular oversight and control, is very odd — surely Slee can’t mean this?

32

bianca steele 12.06.10 at 6:52 pm

geo,
What is the difference? AIUI, open government is founded (at least in part) on the idea that openness is the “natural” state of affairs or something like that, and that evil or ineffective actions actually derive from the corruption of the decision making process by secrecy. It isn’t at all obvious to me how “accountability” could have anything to do with it.[1] Where democracy comes in is in the egalitarianism of everybody’s having the same information. So, it might be, you can do your university job better if the profs and administrators you have to work with share what they know with you.

This is rough and could certainly be improved.

[1] (except at a group level, where certain people might be deemed “not accountable” and expected to share their information with a group not obliged to reciprocate–which could in turn, I suppose, be justified by a sense that the group in question has not shared adequately in the past)

33

elm 12.06.10 at 6:54 pm

geo: I looked at some of Tim O’Reilly’s Government 2.0/Open Government postings and a pretty large part of it is about efficiency, innovation, and Web 2.0 buzzwords.

Our focus this year is on opening the doors to innovation – learning about the latest technology and its application, and breaking down the barriers to its adoption.

2. Innovation

Real innovation doesn’t just mean tinkering around the edges. It means remembering your goals, and finding a new way to get there. In this series of sessions, we’ll explore some of the most exciting new sources of innovation, and how they can be harnessed by government. We’ll also take a close look at education, one of the foundations of our innovation economy, bringing some fresh voices to the innovation debate.

3. Improving Government Effectiveness

It isn’t enough to be innovative. Government agencies also need to be effective. In this series of sessions, we’ll explore topics such as cost savings, efficiency, and customer service.

Transparency and accountability do appear to take a back-seat to buzzwords like Twitter, Flickr, Web 2.0, Facebook, etc… Fraud and waste in government contracts don’t appear to be a concern, nor does information about and accountability for U.S. foreign policy.

34

bigcitylib 12.06.10 at 8:25 pm

I see wikileaks as a bit analagous to Napster before the shutdown, where the company was basically offering itself as a partner to the music industry. This is where Assange’s discussions of himself as the face of wikileaks comes into, about how someone must be there to take responsibility and etc. Its about branding wikileaks, and situating it within the info leaking space. Note that some of his ex employees are looking to establish alternative info services…competing brands, as it were. And all of these guys are offering themselves as a bulwark against chaos. After all, it would be easy enough to zip the cables and dump them on a server (a la the CRU Hack stuff) or through a p2p site, with nothing redacted. The technology has been around to do this for years. What wikileaks and rivals are offering are competing ethical protocols for whistle blowing; for example wikileaks has cooperated to some extent with the US gov as to the timing and perhaps the content of the leaks (if I am remembering correctly).

35

Tim Wilkinson 12.06.10 at 8:48 pm

What they say they are offering is effective anonymity combined with some degree of validation (which is where the branding is most relevant) and guaranteed publicity. These are all things which whistleblowers want, and which ordinary journalistic media are failing to deliver.

Whistleblowing is a risky business, hence anonymity (corporate media have a nasty tendency to respond to whistleblowers by making a phone call to the Pentagon, naming names and asking for a denial.

Failed whistleblowing not only makes the risks pointless, but is actually more risky. Whistleblowers who are not in the public eye by dint of high-profile leaks or worse still, those who are yet to effectively divulge their secrets at all can far more easily be dealt with in a variety of unpleasant ways.

36

geo 12.06.10 at 9:35 pm

Christopher Hitchens on Wikileaks: http://www.slate.com/id/2276857/. Very sad.

37

mds 12.06.10 at 9:38 pm

(corporate media have a nasty tendency to respond to whistleblowers by making a phone call to the Pentagon, naming names and asking for a denial.)

Unless the names they’d be naming are the likes of Libby, Rove, Cheney, etc. Then corporate media become a gratifyingly compliant megaphone for politically-motivated falsehoods masquerading as whistleblowing.

38

Tim Wilkinson 12.06.10 at 9:40 pm

Grotesque.

39

Tim Wilkinson 12.06.10 at 9:43 pm

Previous was about the Hitchens piece, not mds of course.

40

Jeff R. 12.06.10 at 9:51 pm

Jim@13

Airport security isn’t nearly good enough. There are flashdrives small enough to wrap up, swallow, and pass safely. (And memory cards even smaller that just need a cheap USB adapter.) Of course, there’s no reason that the machines with sensitive data needed to have open USB ports or have the keyboard and mouse other than locked into theirs securely.

41

yeliabmit 12.06.10 at 10:03 pm

On the Hitchens post, linked above by geo, as is the case with so much of his writing, it is ultimately about Christopher Hitchens by way of [subject of post goes here]. Not very interesting or insightful, unless you’re composing a biography of Hitchens.

42

spyder 12.06.10 at 10:22 pm

I think one point needs to be made. Wikileaks was/is the messenger of the documents. All of this latest document dump has already been made to the various newspaper departments around the world. Wikileaks, though continuing to redact and edit pieces each day of their own holding, has already given all of the documents in unredacted form to the various press. It is they, for the most part, who are disseminating the redacted and edited versions.

ps: AIPAC has evidently done much of the same thing with US documents.

43

Hidari 12.06.10 at 10:34 pm

Incidentally if anyone wants to support Wikileaks in its attempts to bring to light the actions of people whose wages we pay for, engaging in actions which are committed in our names, then it can be done here:

http://213.251.145.96/support.html

Alternatively, of course, one may permit other people, whose wages we pay for and who are, in a democracy, ultimately accountable to us, prevent us, the taxpayers, from knowing what it is that they do in our name.

44

bianca steele 12.06.10 at 10:47 pm

Tim W.:
I’ve seen the reference to “whistleblowing” before, but I’ve also seen Wikileaks described as political activity: “liberating” the information. A whistleblower doesn’t necessarily object to the existence per se of secrets. What you’re describing isn’t too different from what a journalist normally does, I think, in deciding what parts of what sources are saying deserves to be publicized, and in deciding whether or how to identify those sources. But it feels a little pranksterish to me, as if “the system” couldn’t withstand a little irreverence, or as if a lot of random activity of not obvious utility could shake its foundations.

I also worry that Assange may think he is really a player, and that the threats are idle or in some other way “not real.”

45

elm 12.06.10 at 10:49 pm

Why do I ever read Hitchens: “The WikiLeaks founder is an unscrupulous megalomaniac with a political agenda.”, by contrast with the humble and agenda-free Hitchens.

46

Craig 12.06.10 at 11:47 pm

Oh hitchens, what a rambling ideologue you are.

47

Tim Wilkinson 12.06.10 at 11:48 pm

bianca: I’m not saying Wikileaks is itself a whistleblower – but its main role has been as a conduit for whistleblowing. This latest batch is a bit odd, because unlike previous stuff it’s not clear what the whistle is being blown on; but unless WL has started using active espionage techniques, somebody presumably made a free and deliberate decision to leak it – and that person counts as a whistleblower (or possibly a disinformation agent) I suppose. ‘Whistleblower’ can be replaced with ‘leaker’ without affecting any point I’ve made, I think.

And WL doesn’t seem to object to secrets per se, either – it apparently accepts that some secrets should not be revealed. But its advertised commitment is to publish what is passed to it unless there is very good reason not to.

48

Emma_in_Sydney 12.07.10 at 12:57 am

Umberto Eco on Wikileaks, much more interesting than Hitchens.

49

Tim Wilkinson 12.07.10 at 1:31 am

But even further removed from reality.

50

tomslee 12.07.10 at 3:15 am

Just my luck; the day work keeps me away from a computer from dawn to dusk is the day I get Timbered.

Not much to add to the interesting discussion, except maybe for geo @29: “I don’t know much about the Open Government movement, but surely the point is not primarily to improve “efficiency” or “access” but to increase accountability.” I am sure this is the case for some people in the movement, but for others the initiative is more of a commercial opportunity, to write and sell applications based on public data. The two agendas have come together around “openness”, but this seems pretty thin common ground to me.

51

geo 12.07.10 at 5:13 am

Tom et al: I guess I didn’t express myself very clearly @29. What I meant was not that the point of Open Government, whatever it is, is surely accountability, but that the point of Wikileaks is surely accountability, rather than making government more efficient. In this sense they do, as Hitchens so acutely observes, have a “political agenda.” They want to make it a little less difficult for citizens to control their government. To a government and its apologists, this is, of course, treason.

52

Salient 12.07.10 at 5:43 am

This latest batch is a bit odd, because unlike previous stuff it’s not clear what the whistle is being blown on

Glad to see I’m not the only one who’s a bit mystified by the infodump. A month ago, if someone had plausibly offered me “psst, a quarter million classified embassy/U.S. diplomacy missives and documents on a USB drive for $100,” I’d have happily paid up. Now I’d hesitate. Folks who would like to see the State Dept hampered, etc, will have a hard time convincing me that this infodump will make a significant difference, except that it might make future (potentially more useful) leaks a bit harder to accomplish.

The things said e.g. about Iran would be so incredibly shocking… if we didn’t have high-level officials like Senators saying the same things. Didn’t McCain claim at least a couple times that the Middle East would support us attacking Iran, in the 2008 Presidential election? Maybe I’m misremembering, a quick search didn’t turn up quotes, but certainly such a sentiment would have fit right in with his belligerence. We have lots of dumb people working for the State Dept who believe the same dumb things that many of our dumber leaders publicly espouse. Shucks. I’d rather have some leaked information about the hiring and entrenchment of Republican loyalists in the Justice Department back in 2000-2008, please and thank you.

It’s too bad the tea parties are kind of in a lull right now, or I’d go ask them what they thought of all this — maybe I just need to try to see it through the eyes of someone who personally, passionately despises Hillary Clinton?

53

weaver 12.07.10 at 6:06 am

Jesus wept.

The point of the cable leaks isn’t what has been said, but that these things have been said. The press seems to hold the febrile notion that what ambassadors tell, or pass on, to the State Department constitutes evidence of something real. And the reaction of “what’s the fuss about?” derives from trivial recasting of this stuff as the news the press prefers to focus on – as always. Ooh, ooh, Gaddafi has a busty nurse!

The important stuff is in the orders being given: like the US strong-arming the Germans over the CIA abduction case. Or that the US has apparently written the Spaniard’s intellectual property law for them. Or Clinton breaking relevant treaties by instructing US operatives to spy on the UN. Or that Obama cheerfully chose to ignore his own ambassador’s characterisation of the regime change in Honduras as an illegitimate coup, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of being held to the legislative requirement of cutting off aid. Y’know, stuff like that: the day to day running of an empire.

And this is the two hundred or so cables out of a quarter of a million – so talking about storms in teacups at this early stage is a little premature. I for one eagerly await to see the marching orders that have been handed down to the craven governement of my own little vassal state.

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Salient 12.07.10 at 6:20 am

Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.

Although WikiLeaks has so far only published 291 of the 250,000 documents in its possession, and none of the reported 1400 Australian-related ones,

Ohhhh. Premature indeed. I thought it was just my own incompetence, that the only option to acquire the full set that I could find was that torrent with the secret ‘nuclear option’ password, and was unconsciously assuming the vast remainder must have been deemed entirely too trivial or uninteresting. Thanks, weaver. Glad to become aware that we don’t have the full extent of it yet. Crikey’s now bookmarked, and hope springs again.

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Emma in Sydney 12.07.10 at 9:06 am

I for one eagerly await to see the marching orders that have been handed down to the craven governement of my own little vassal state.

Me too. Rumour has it that some of them relate to the tenure of a previous foreign minister, Lord Downer of Baghdad, which may be amusing. In a cringeworthy kind of way.

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Emma in Sydney 12.07.10 at 10:41 am

And there you go. Assange arrested in London. The US State Department wouldn’t have anything to do with it, of course.

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Tim Wilkinson 12.07.10 at 2:07 pm

weaver: Yes, there is undoubtedly interesting and new stuff and little has yet been released – I did not and would not suggest otherwise. And very useful to historians much of it would be if they were inclined to address events less than a declassification window ago. But WL’s advertised commitment is (has hitherto been) to get maximum impact for the revelations of whistleblowers – and if there is some one thing in particular here that’s having the whistle blown on it, it’s unclear what it is, which means it has not been given maximal impact.

It’s easy to overestimate the impact of leaks, and in fact the House of Cards model is , o mores (not so much tempora – one of Eco’s idiocies is to suggest that diplomacy has only recently befcome intimately linked with espionage), things like spying on the UN is not a big deal – like much of this stuff, the other parties aren’t going to object much because they are all at it – this is dirty washing and governments – esp permanent elements therein – like to keep this stuff away from the public eye, as do the rest of the political class and the corporate media. That’s why the absence of clearly presented smoking guns is so important, because this stuff is dog-whistleblowing as it stands. Yes, to you and me this stuff lays bare skullduggery – but just watch as it’s finessed and excused, and the international hue and cry remains unraised. In the meantime, the way this stuff is coming out means the ‘all arabs want Iran bombed, ergo nothing to do with Israeli agitation’ dogwhistles its way into the headlines.

It may be that this deviation presages a new direction for WL, away from its proclaimed model which includes a string editorial element in pursuit of publicity and impact. If so, I suspect it is likely to retreat into the background as just another source to be acknowledged or gnored by the press. And if it does so, the motivation for genuine whistleblowers to risk leaking to it wilol be diminished.

Another example: British assurances that ‘measures’ would be put in place to ‘protect US interests’ in the Chilcot inquiry. De-diplomatising the language (which is there partly because this stuff can leak) suggests that the inquiry was nobbled – and I didn’t imagine that it wasn’t nobbled in a number of ways – but there is no smoking gun, no clear detail – basically, it is near-worthless.

If this had been the only thing leaked, then more resources might have been put into following it up, wwe might have front pages, questions in parliament, letters to gthe times from solid respectable types, etc., and more might come to light. You haev to look at it from an opinion dynamics point of view, and this kind of vague stuff, presented in bland and transient headlines, is not going to change anyone’s mind (force anyone to overturn their entrenched opinions).

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Tim Wilkinson 12.07.10 at 2:15 pm

sorry about typos – fuck knows why I should expect anyone else to bother reading this stuff when even I get impatient with it, even while I’m still typing. Ho hum. Scroll on.

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Tim Wilkinson 12.07.10 at 2:20 pm

Just in case anyone is paying attention –

in fact the House of Cards model is , o mores

was probably mean to be:

in fact the House of Cards model which exaggerates the impact of leaks is often used as an anti-conspiratorial argument. A leak is successful only when it gains critical mass with the right audience. For example, o mores…

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dave heasman 12.07.10 at 2:26 pm

“I haven’t really seen an issue coming out of Wikileaks yet that wasn’t already under debate. “

How about the Chagos Islanders? Earlier known as Diego Garcia? Islands in the Indian Ocean that are a UK dependancy, the inhabitants were forcibly removed in the 60s by the Wilson administration so the US could base bombers and comms there. For 40+ years the islanders and their descendants have been agitating to return; the US used the islands as a base for renditions until a short while ago. Now the plan is to turn the islands and surrounding waters into some giant nature reserve and in public the UK Foreign Office has been saying this will facilitate the islanders’ return.

The leaks show the UK Govt assuring the US that the islanders will never return.

Probably Alex H is on top of this, but it was something that I didn’t know and was , I confess, shocked by.
Who’d have thought the UK Govt would continuously engage in ethnic cleansing for two generations and conceal it?

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Tim Wilkinson 12.07.10 at 3:37 pm

Re: the ‘rape’ charge; this is the best standalone summary I’ve come across so far. (Of course CT readers will separate the occasionally infelicitous presentational aspects from the core content.)

More circumstantial stuff – on his accuser’s political background – here and here.

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politicalfootball 12.07.10 at 4:38 pm

The discussion of the irrelevance of Wikileaks reminds me of this column by Michael Kinsley.

Yes, yes, by 2005, everybody who was paying any attention understood that intelligence and facts were being fixed around the U.S. government’s policy of war with Iraq. But not everybody was paying attention, and there was no smoking gun.

And yes, Wikileaks won’t change anything if the public isn’t inspired to act, but I don’t think Assange can be blamed for that.

Information doesn’t always act instantly. When information has an effect, it’s often because of a constant drumbeat over a period of time.

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bianca steele 12.07.10 at 4:43 pm

Salient @ 52: Everyone is free to believe what they want to believe (whether or not it’s true), but that isn’t very multicultural of you.

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bianca steele 12.07.10 at 4:43 pm

Tom Slee and Geo: It’s within the realm of possibility that people developing applications are driven by idealism. It doesn’t make much sense that they would be less driven by idealism than people who make lots of FOIA requests or try to get newspapers to shame civil servants who aren’t as open as they should be in principle. Surely, they are more likely to have a moral sense than finance and marketing majors are?

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geo 12.07.10 at 5:13 pm

pf@60: Thanks for the Kinsley link. It encapsulates everything that’s exasperating about Kinsley and has made him the ideal token left-liberal for the Post, Atlantic, New Republic, etc. The unfailing gentle smirk, the equal distancing from people on left or right who are benighted enough to be indignant about something, the broad-minded concession that those people are right, but what’s the big deal? So fixing intelligence is a scandal, so it’s SOP for the Bush administration, so what? We in Washington knew this all along. Ho-hum. Get over it.

What a loathsome little twerp.

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geo 12.07.10 at 5:36 pm

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tomslee 12.07.10 at 6:27 pm

bianca – Yes, for some people, idealism is the motivator. But if you look at the Gov 2.0 Summit sponsors (http://www.gov2summit.com/gov2010) you will see a list of highly commercial companies, driven purely by profit. There is significant money to be made from Gov 2.0 initiatives, and there is also significant potential benefit from a freedom-of-information, civil liberties standpoint. Unfortunately, the two blend together and on occasion the civil liberties motivations get used to promote a commercial agenda.

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dsquared 12.07.10 at 6:34 pm

Not awful, but fairly depressing

I think the visible failure to even google “ellsberg assange” and look at the top two results pushes it over the edge into “awful” actually.

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bianca steele 12.07.10 at 6:56 pm

Tom,
Maybe I’m confused, but that link is for Government 2.0, not Open Government. From what I can see, Gov 2.0 has to do with improving government IT, in part by importing solutions already used by commercial firms, I suppose in part on the theory that commercial software tends to be better than software produced specially for government. I see that O’Reilly is involved in both, but (a) O’Reilly will publish a book on anything, and (b) I’ve seen some crap technical books but none were from O’Reilly.

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tomslee 12.07.10 at 7:27 pm

bianca – I think Government 2.0 is an O’Reilly branding of Open Government (or “Government as Platform”) and it’s been quite successful. Microsoft uses the phrases interchangeably (http://www.microsoft.com/industry/government/guides/OpenGovernment/default.aspx), and the promotion for another O’Reilly event called the Gov 2.0 conference says “At this Gov 2.0 Online Conference, you’ll hear about open government efforts in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Israel” so some at least treat the two phrases as synonyms. Which may be part of the commercial/civil liberties blurring exercise I mentioned.

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bianca steele 12.07.10 at 7:57 pm

Well, Microsoft would, wouldn’t they? It looks like “open government” was used in a White House memo, so it’s a buzzword that helps sell, and vendors probably are instructed to make everything they do saleable as “open government” if possible.

I assume people asking whether Wikileaks is open government are not asking whether the president of the US got what he was asking for, or even whether what they are doing is immoral because it’s no different from Wikileaks. (And whether Assange has said he thinks so has no bearing on whether it’s true.) Those ideas are ridiculous, and people working on open government as requested by the president should not have to worry about whether the Assange case reflects on them and whether their actions are criminal. But you seem to be looking at it from the other side and complaining that open government is not as radical as it should be.

Personally, I think the privacy/security issues sit poorly with a left-wing economic analysis. Neoliberals and Stalinists are alike strong proponents of secrecy, and the DoD is a pretty strong proponent of government ownership of intellectual property (until recently the default contract with the DoD for software gave them ownership of all source code and all rights–that’s why software contracts are so lengthy–vendors had to explicitly deny the transferance of those rights with every sale).

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bianca steele 12.07.10 at 9:30 pm

Anyway, my comment @ 30 was based on Tom Slee’s post, which looks now like it describes what Open Government isn’t succeeding in being, less than what at least some of OG’s actual proponents are doing, though I haven’t read all of the links.

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Salient 12.07.10 at 9:34 pm

Salient @ 52: Everyone is free to believe what they want to believe (whether or not it’s true), but that isn’t very multicultural of you.

Ha! Hadn’t thought of that. Not so much anti-multicultural as pro-freedom, though, right? (If I’m remembering the song correctly? If not, I blame the tower bells.) Honestly, I just wasn’t sure what else to say to “Jesus wept.” given the necessary concession to weaver that I was ill-informed and had it coming.

Just in case anyone is paying attention — I try to…

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roy belmont 12.07.10 at 11:32 pm

One thing this thing whatever it is or becomes has already accomplished is that from here on out none of those mega-wonk public servant mutants will ever be able to send anything digital anywhere to anyone with the self-confidence of private secure transmission they heretofore obviously thought they enjoyed.
IT security consultant-ninja assurances that “This time it really really is secure!” to the nonce.

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