Trust, transparency, and WikiLeaks: Who gets to have control?


Image credits: New Media Days / Peter Erichsen
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Speaking at the Pentagon on WikiLeaks' disclosure of thousands of classified documents, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates used the word "trust" fourteen times.

That is one of the worst aspects of this, as far as I'm concerned: Will people trust us? Will people whose lives are on the line trust us to keep their identities secret? Will other governments trust us to keep their documents and their intelligence secret?

You know, it's a funny thing, and especially for a so-called realist, but it's amazing how much trust matters in relationships, whether it's with governments or with individuals around the world.

And on the other side of the argument, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was "disappointed" by this criticism, said in a Frontline Club press conference:

We have a harm-minimization process. Our goal is just reform. Our method is transparency. But we do not put the method before the goal.

Generally when we talk about the benefits of the open source way, we talk about how transparency increases trust. What's implied, assumed, and sometimes forgotten is that that means voluntary transparency.

I'm not willing to argue that involuntary transparency--or as we're calling it in this case, a leak--is by definition wrong in all cases. And leaks are hardly new--think of the WWII military refrain, "Loose lips sink ships." History has been changed, sometimes clearly for the better, by involuntary transparency. If you'd like to consider it further, George Mason University has a webpage devoted to the history of leaks. And more than one person, including Daniel Ellsburg, has noted that it's difficult not to think of the WikiLeaks story as the 2010 version of the Pentagon Papers.

So if that's the case, to what degree can a government--particularly a war-fighting one--operate transparently? It's complicated. On the one hand, the more that is public, the less there is to be leaked. Full disclosure requires greater written communication, and today that means web-based dissemination. But the more transparency that is expected and required, the more temptation there will be to communicate orally, with no record, which also means no accountability, history, or possibility to confirm responsibility.

One of the biggest benefits to voluntary transparency is that the information source has control over the information. With greater secrecy, the control is in the hands of those entrusted and eventually in the hands of someone like WikiLeaks, who then gets to decide what the public knows. The WikiLeaks of the world become the ones with the power, rather than those we have elected or otherwise entrusted with our national security, our governments, and even our lives.

Further, WikiLeaks, whether what they've done is right or wrong, unarguably works with a degree of hypocrisy. Their own operations are voluntarily opaque, both externally and within, but with a mission of inflicting involuntary transparency on others. Is that necessary to their goals? Necessary to their lives? Or just unequivocally wrong?

Not just critics, but some supporters, can't help but speculate on the two-faced transparency stance. Conspiracy theorists have a buffet of options, from Icelandic government support to the suggestion that WikiLeaks is actually an arm of the CIA. (But don't worry, WikiLeaks answers that one in their FAQ.) Even if they're transforming journalism or changing history--even if they were universally heralded as single-handed makers of world peace (unlikely)--it's hard to put trust in and give credibility to an organization that can't embrace its own values.

Maybe in time, WikiLeaks will find itself on the other side of a leak.

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9 Comments

giulivo's picture
Open Enthusiast

this was a very interesting reading for me, but I don't agree here:

Their own operations are voluntarily opaque, both externally and within, but with a mission of inflicting involuntary transparency on others. Is that necessary to their goals? Necessary to their lives? Or just unequivocally wrong?

I think that wikileaks is forced to some level of opacity because of their goals and lives

the government is using lives of other people, for its own goals and to be able to do that, needs some opacity

--
Giulio Fidente, gpg key id 08D733BA

Colonel Panik's picture

Over on the right side of this page is a pole:
"Which industry would you improve using the open source
principles of transparency, collaboration and meritocracy?"
Those are good things? In the article the words trust
and accountability are used. These are positive ideas?

Voluntary transparency or intentional secrecy?
Open or closed?

Who gets to have control?

colby_hoke's picture
Open Minded

I'm all for it. I like WikiLeaks and what they're doing. I'm going to be broad and say I NEVER know what this government is doing, especially when it comes to our military. This gives me a little more insight into what I see as a problem.

Maybe we don't get to see directly into WikiLeaks' operation. I'm okay with that as long as it shakes things up and gets people to look around and wonder what else they don't know. I'm not talking conspiracy. I'm just talking about the huge disconnect between the government, military, and what sorry excuses we have for "news" today.

WikiLeaks fills a gap for me. I trust them more that anyone with a military rank in front of their name.

Tilman Baumann's picture

Aparently WikiLeaks gave the White House a chance to go though the material pre-releasing it to ensure the safety of individuals in this material.
This offer was not taken. Which renders most criticism on WikiLeaks moot, especially the argument that they have "blood on their hands".

Just my 2 Eurocent

Asif Devji's picture

Julian Assange Responds to Increasing US Government Attacks on WikiLeaks -- http://www.democracynow.org/2010/8/3/julian_assange_responds_to_increasi...

Colonel Panik's picture

Thank you!

I have lived through the McCarthy era, the Cold War, Viet Nam,
Nixon, Reagan and numerous Bush Wars. In the last half of the
1940's I was lied to but was too young to know that. Through the 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's, 90's and the 2000's I was lied to.
Now in the 2000 teens I am still being lied to. Why?

I was taught in USofA public schools about how evil the German
Gestapo was during WWII. Taught the horrors of Stalin and the
KBG. Taught about Mao and his henchmen and the millions who died in China. I was not taught about Viet Nam, I got to see that for myself. Now we, the USofA, are doing the very things that all those countries of my younger days did. What happened?

Open Source. Yes this post is about Open Source.
When all the good people here on Open Source talk of the
great things that are happening in the US Government
re: Open Source, do you think there may be some reason to
cry foul? Open Government? Transparency? I wish!

The future is Open. Just don't be surprised if the government
is the last to fall.

I apologize for the rant. Maybe it is my age?

Rex Ballard's picture

No political leader like it when HIS dirty secrets get shown. When Daniel Ellsburg obtained the Pentagon Papers, Richard Nixon tried to find dozens of ways to discredit him, and the organization that was suspected of stealing the papers. He even ordered the break-in to Ellsberg's psychiatrist.

Ironically, Nixon's attempt to plug such leaks and to engage in illegal activities on behalf of the Vietnam war and the protection of his own presidency, ultimately led to the leaks of "Deep Throat" to reporters for the Washington post investigating the break-in at the Watergate Hotel.

Almost 30 years later, we learned that "Deep Throat" was the director of the FBI, who was very concerned that the President was ordering illegal and unconstitutional searches and seizures.

We don't know WHO released WikiLeaks, but both sources ultimately faces the possibility of criminal charges and a minimum of 10 years in federal prison, just for leaking the information that they felt duty bound to release.

Many people with top secret security clearance have subsequently been told things that were very much in conflict with their ethics and morality. In some cases, they were even ordered to engage in criminal acts and cover up criminal acts - in the interest of national security.

The Pentagon Papers, Deep Throat, and WikiLeaks are those rare moments in history when someone is willing to put their freedom, their reputations, and their lives on the line to make public secrets that people have even killed to protect.

The first "leaker" might have been Dwight D Eisenhower when he warned us to "Beware of the Military Industrial Complex" - hinting at a power greater than his own.

At the root of both the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks, were top secret reports pointing out that the existing strategies and tactics had resulted in an unwinnable situation that would perpetuate itself indefinitely. They warned that continuing the conflict would ultimately drain the economy, and that huge portions of the gross domestic product would end up in the hands of arms dealers and military contractors as the government went bankrupt.

These weren't idle threats. The Soviet Union spent several years in Afghanistan and it so drained the economy and the political will, that it ultimately lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The problem for the Obama administration is that they took this as a mandate to INCREASE the involvement and spend even more trying to control "The destroyer of empires" (Afghanistan).

jennifer's picture

This is controlled leak. When The Afghan War Diary is simultaneously given to reporters from The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel, and the US government only "strongly condemns" it means that they're willingly letting you read something that would never have gone public if it was important, secret or in the nature of harming the agenda of the US foreign policy

websoza's picture

Mathematic are the way to know God.
inserting the amount of information from internet and e-mails fishing, we can merge, indexit, calculate probabilites by repetitions and finaly elect one information as 99% true. And Publicate it as True.
Who dont know don trust. It disgusts all that want hide what mathematic shows.

wkileaks are 60% true and 40% reaction, so, bacme 100% true.