Saturday, July 31, 2010

On secrecy and Wikileaks.

Introduction

So, as everyone and their brother's roommate knows, Wikileaks managed to get their hands on another chunk of material that the powers-that-be would rather the rest of us never saw. This time, of course, it was a collection of documents related to the war in Afghanistan. This has raised a number of issues which, oddly, didn't come up when Wikileaks released the CRU emails or the draft of the ACTA treaty.

Secrecy and the Government

I think it's important to get away from the idea that the government has some absolute right to keep secrets. It does not. In fact, its right to keep secrets is really quite limited. Exactly what the right is depends on the governmental structure. (I know, of course, that the actual functioning of government really deviates from these ideals. But, insofar as it does, the government is asserting rights it doesn't actually have. If the citizenry don't or can't contain this, that's a separate issue.) In the US, it's reasonable to say that the government has to always be able to justify its secrecy -- and, when it doesn't, it can't keep secrets. This seems to flow from the checks-and-balances idea, but also from the idea that only limited powers are delegated to either the federal or state governments. That is, in the US, anything the government doesn't explicitly have the authority to do, it lacks the right to do. There is no explicit authority to keep secrets of all kinds from the populace. When it comes to Canada, the government can keep secrets only insofar as it does so responsibly -- that is, on our behalf and with awareness of a real and pressing need to keep information secret. The idea here is responsible government. Government is entrusted with massive power, but is expected not ot use this capriciously or for its own benefit. On Afghanistan, the Canadian government has clearly failed in this regard. Keeping deaths of civilians secret clearly has more to do with protecting the government than with anything that benefits the people of Canada.

Secrecy and War

It's also important to note that there is no special right to keep secrets during war. (I'm assuming that it can be truthfully said we are at war in Afghanistan. There's certainly an armed conflict. But is it war? Not every armed conflict -- such as between street gangs -- is therefore a war. I tend to think wars can only be fought between state actors, and there's a legitimate question as to whether Afghanistan currently exists as a state and, if so, whether it's in a condition of war with anyone else.) If there were, it would be an instance of a general right to keep secrets. But there is no such general right; at best, there's a limited right, when keeping secrets is either justified to the populace (the US) or in the best interests of the populace (Canada). So, "it's war" is never good enough to justify secret-keeping by the government. There has to be more than this. "National security" or "troop safety" are no better -- these are formulas, not sincere justifications. As yet, no sincere justification is available for keeping as much secrecy around Afghanistan as there is.

Redacting Names

Redacting names is a tricky issue. It seems to make sense to keep names secret if it puts people at risk for unnecessary harm. After all, to want to keep people from unnecessary harm, especially people who are already exposed to a certain amount of risk, seems like a bad thing -- so, making the risk or the harm greater seems wrong. But, there are two issues that need to be established here. First, is the harm or the risk of harm increased? If the names were already known to people who might put them at risk, then Wikileaks has only confirmed the names. That's a pretty small increase in harm or risk of harm, at worst. Second, even if there is an increase in harm or risk of harm, then this has to be evaluated against any increase in benefit or chance of benefit. That is, the approach in play here suggests that the harm must be weighed, which raises the possibility that the harm or risk of harm is counter-balanced by some greater increase in benefit or chance of benefit. (This is the problem with consequentialist thinking: if you're going to say that putting people at risk is too much harm, then you have to allow that this could be outweighed by even more Benefit.) Arguably, given how much our governments have been keeping from us, this is actually the case. Certainly, it's not clear that the increased risk -- no one's died yet as a result, after all -- in comparison to our benefit in terms of knowledge gained is such that Wikileaks is not justified in naming names.

One might suggest that there's a kind of absolute right to having one's identity concealed in these sorts of situations. That only makes sense if the government -- the agent who had the information -- has an absolute right to keep secrets. So, the right to have one's identity concealed has to be contingent and limited, if it exists at all. Again, then, the names should only have been redacted if there were demonstrable harm caused by not redacting -- not proven, and unlikely, given the high level of danger already present -- and if that harm were not outweighed by the benefits -- tricky, as all consequentialist calculations are.

Furthermore, there's an issue here about responsibility. If I'm wrong above, then Wikileaks is required to try to figure out which people would be at risk if named. According to them, and not denied by anyone else, they tried to contact the White House to have them review the documents and indicate which names should be removed, and got no response. (Which is quite stupid on the White House's part; they didn't even need to read the documents, only claim they had and say all the names should be redacted.) That seems to discharge their responsibility: the choice then is either to name no one, or name everyone (of those they aren't sure about, that is). I don't think the first option is at all reasonable, as then the government can just name something as secret by refusing to explain. So, the second option was the only reasonable choice. It would be a different matter if Wikileaks had just named everyone, without showing any concern, but trying to contact the White House seems to demonstrate a reasonable level of interest in the problem.

And, we can't ignore two other points. First, the Taliban has already been targetting suspected informants, so Wikileaks may actually be saving innocent people, namely those who would have been targetted as informants and now will not be, because they aren't really informants and the documents prove it. And, second, no one would be targetted if the military weren't there. Let's not let governments off the hook here; responsibility doesn't just accrue to the proximal cause of a harm, but also to the cause of the harmful situation.

If, on the other hand, you're the type who thinks that any harm is bad, then you're basically screwed in this case. There's harm no matter what Wikileaks did (what the literature calls a "tragic dilemma"): civilians have been killed (as now proven), civilians would continue to be killed, soldiers would continue to be killed, etc. So, if that's your view, it follows that there's nothing right to be done, so Wikileaks may as well have flipped a coin. In other words, this kind of position is not respectable in this situation, as it yields no guidance on how to proceed. The counting harms approach is the only reasonable one, and, when counting harms and benefits, it has to be done honestly: that is, one has to take the broad view, not just pick out the harms that one personally find outrageous and ignore the rest.

Assange and wikileaks and the MSM

Some have suggested Wikileaks and Assange are not the right sort of organization to release this kind of information. I'm not sure what the right sort of organization means, except as a kind of off-hand smear of Wikileaks because they're weird and not nice and safe like, say, the New York Times. Filthy hippies or something, I suppose.

It's necessary to remember that the NYT et al have sat on important information before. To my recollection, the New York Times has yet to do any serious investigation of whether George W. Bush ever showed up for his alleged military service -- which one would think was at least worth looking into. The MSM, particularly in the US, have been big ol' cheerleaders for war, and suppressed the views of those who raise legitimate concerns about it. (Do I need to remind everyone of what the run-up to Iraq and Afghanistan was like?) Generally, they've fallen down on their job of keeping the government accountable, by telling us the things the government would rather we didn't know, but really has no business keeping secret. The same does apply to Canada as well, unfortunately. Given that situation, where the government is keeping secrets they shouldn't, and the MSM are failing to make it clear, what else was going to happen? Wikileaks was inevitable.

It's like Napster, really. (Seriously.) The record industry wasn't letting people get their music electronically in a convenient fashion, as they wanted. So, Napster came along and forced the issue. Now, more or less, you can get music electronically in a convenient fashion. (Still not perfect, but we do have BitTorrent.) The same is going to apply here. If you aren't providing what people want -- in this case, clear and accurate information about what's going on in Afghanistan -- someone on the internet will, sooner or later, step up and give it to you. The demand exists and some organization will fill it. If you don't like the way Wikileaks does it, you have a few choices. One, try to suppress them legally. (Go ask the recording industry how that's working out.) Or, two, outcompete them. Wikileaks has very few resources, certainly in comparison to mainstream news organizations. If the MSM wanted to, they could do wikileaks' job better than wikileaks, and confine them to the status of a fringe organization. There isn't a good track record when it comes to out-competing web-based competitors, but I suppose journalism might figure it out. (Think, over in entertainment, how often we hear about TMZ scooping the MSM.)

But, instead, Wikileaks keeps scooping the MSM. The CRU emails, the ACTA draft, the BNP (British National Party) membership lists, Afghanistan. The mighty MSM keeps getting shown up by some hacker and his buddies. The documents Wikileaks finds are obviously in the public interest: even when the resulting scandal is bullshit, like the CRU emails, the documents themselves are something people should know about and be able to see. (When it comes to the CRU emails, I would suggest that the MSM was the real problem: they didn't bother to carefully read through them, which would have shown that there was no scandal there, and they didn't bother to push back against the developing right-wing talking-points, due to some misguided notion of neutrality on an issue of science.)

Frankly, we need Wikileaks, given that no one else is willing to tell us the things we may not want to know, or may have been told we shouldn't know, but really do need to know. We need to know that civilians have been targetted and killed by the military. That's an important piece of information in deciding if we still want to be in Afghanistan. We need more Wikileaks, really. For example, can someone get their hands on anything showing the discussions in the government regarding the census decision? We know it's Harper's idea, and Clement and Flaherty hate it, but imagine if we could prove it? Or, could someone get their hands on internal Canadian government documents regarding the billions they've blown on fighter jets. It'd be nice to know whether anyone in the government thought this might be a problem. But, the MSM is unable or unwilling to help us out here. Besides Wikileaks, what resource do we have to help us figure out what we need to know?

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