November 28, 2010

Wikileaks, #cablegate, and a new dictatorship of information

What to make of the latest document dump via Wikileaks? The information is very interesting, partly because of which diplomat or world leader is saying what. 

Perhaps this level of detail isn’t necessary to drawing intelligent conclusions about international developments and policies. Most likely, the fact of who said what about whom will undermine some relationships going forward. Clearly, few if any crimes of note have been revealed thus far in the release of U.S. diplomatic cables. 

For some of us who fancy ourselves to be in the know, some of these revelations reduce the advantage of our “inside information”. I have heard from Arab officials of their sympathy for a U.S. or Israeli air strike on Iran, for example, but now that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is quoted to that effect in an official U.S. document, any account I can give seems both obvious and minor by comparison.

For those diplomats still serving in the posts from which they faithfully sent these leaked cables, their ability to continue performing their duties may face new barriers. How does one pass through a receiving line when everyone knows you reported to Washington on rumors about the hostess? 

The long-term danger is that cable traffic might get dumbed down to “just the facts”, eliminating the nuance that makes diplomatic decisions and the eventual history files so rich and sophisticated. With email, Twitter and blogs, however the sharing of information and opinions has already erased a certain level of privacy and thoughtfulness in ways that are probably irreversible. “Crowd-sourcing” may be great for many things, but it does not drive the powers of human imagination and creativity. 

Without denigrating or demonizing the Wikileaks team, who have definitely tapped into a fascinating set of documents, it is difficult to see justification for the wholesale dissemination of privileged communications. Will a military crisis or natural disaster be averted by this? Will democracy and freedom triumph over evil? Was this really done for the public good? 

In trying to stop a few would-be terrorists (which the evidence suggests it has failed to do), the Transportation Security Administration proposes to body-scan or feel-search every single airline passenger -- hoarding assets that could otherwise be devoted to actually catching terrorists. Is the Wikileaks "no more secrets" approach any less of a distraction from the real crimes of state taking place around the world, under our noses, while we immerse ourselves in mountains of cables?

Wikileaks is literally self-appointed and answerable to no one, so its leaders cannot claim to be acting in anyone’s interests but their own -- unless they purport to be virtual dictators. A dictatorship of information? And from the noise of thousands upon thousands of cables and revelations, will we be any wiser? Will our policymakers become any more sober, or less? Time to reach for my Bose noise-canceling head phones...

1 comment:

  1. If anything, the founder of Wikileaks has delusionary visions of grandeur. It is a classic cry for attention, probably with a misguided goal to market himself. Undoubtedly, his ambition is laced with a sense of moral superiority, although he has yet to articulate what that authority might be. Personally, the information I’ve seen so far contains little of anything new I would consider earth-shattering. It would be nice, though, if diplomats acted with a little more discretion and professionalism to help avoid such embarrassing episodes.