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In Defense of Secrecy

We’re going a little off topic here. This isn’t about smart aid, or peacekeeping reform, or economic development. But the entire world is talking about “Cablegate” today, and I can’t bite my tongue.

I used to be a diplomat. I was one of those guys who wrote secret cables. Lots of them. And I said some very frank and nasty things in those cables.

Why? Well, while posted in Jakarta, my job was to find out as much as I could about the human rights abuses being committed by the Indonesian government, and to help apply whatever pressure we could on Jakarta to make them stop.  I wrote cables back to Ottawa that would raise the hair on the back of your neck. Describing abuses that make me sick even now to think about them.  These cables gave my government the ammunition it needed to lean heavily on the Indonesian leadership at the UN and at summits like APEC.

Let me give you an example. Every few months, I would go visit a small white-washed school in the hills of Indonesian occupied Timor. The young teacher who ran the school would cheerfully bring me into her office, and we would chat about small things while her uniformed students would serve us strong coffee and homemade buns. Once the students left and closed the door, she would open her desk drawer and hand me horrifying photos of disinterred bodies. The Timorese resistance would dig up the fresh graves of torture victims, take photos for evidence, and pass them through their secret network to the teacher, who would then pass them to me and other diplomats. With that information we knew what the Indonesian military was doing and that the government in Jakarta was lying to the international community. And we could confront them, and we could pressure them to change.  And ultimately, thanks to the perseverance of the Timorese and the efforts of thousands of  diplomats and activists and politicians, this worked. The international arm twisting led to a referendum, and Timor is now independent.

One of many many graveyards in Timor

When I sent my reporting cables back to HQ they were secret for a reason. If we had made the cables public, I would have been thrown out of the country in 24 hours and the Indonesian Foreign Ministry would not have permitted a replacement to continue my work. The Indonesian politicians would have hired a rent-a-mob to stone the Canadian Embassy. The Indonesian leaders would have told the local media that I was a liar (as most Canadians are) and would have blamed the Timorese for feeding me calumny.  And before the week was over, the Indonesian police would put the young teacher in one of those graves she was so brave to tell us about.

The third most popular topic in the Wikileaks Cablegate database? Human Rights. Cables from American diplomats doing the same thing we were trying to do in Indonesia; American diplomats trying to make the world a little better. That’s hard to swallow for the cyber mob that is typing away in glee at the embarrassment and humiliation being inflicted on the US government this week. But that embarrassment and humiliation is nothing compared to the pain that is about to be inflicted on the State Department’s the confidential sources in Moscow, and Beijing, and Sudan.  It’s not just the militant activist in Liverpool reading the cables. It’s the military dictatorships and the secret police in capitals all around the world. In the days and weeks ahead hundreds of people who dared to share information with American diplomats will be rounded up. And thousands more who would have been brave enough to pass on pictures of tortured bodies will keep them in their desk drawer.

A chart of the cable topics being released. Human Rights is #3 largest topic.

Ironically, Wikileaks is inflicting the same collateral damage it so loudly abhors. The “Cablegate” release is not a real victory for a more open world. It will lead to a more closed world, where repressive governments will be more free to commit atrocities against its own people and the people who try to stop them will have even less information to work with.

UPDATE: And the mob speaks. 60 seconds after posting this, the verdict came back:

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43 Comments

  1. Lucas says:

    Scott, Does that mean that the odd time (not always, not usually — but in rare cases) being less transparent about aid is ok, as long as it leads to a greater good?

  2. Scott Gilmore says:

    Lucas – I wouldn’t put it that way, but there has to be a basic understanding that some good things must be done discreetly and secretly. Just because something is not being shared with the world does not mean that it is automatically evil and must be unmasked. And as for the specific case with aid, I refer you to the infamous “Grey Goose and Strippers” exchange with Aidwatch, which began here: http://buildingmarkets.org/blogs/blog/2010/08/18/transparent-yes-but-transparent-what/

  3. […] Some in the aid community are among those arguing, along with the embarrassed politicians, in defense of secrecy. […]

  4. The problem is of course: who gets to decide what should stay secret and what not?

  5. Broken Ladder says:

    I have to admit, it’s harder to find the tangible benefits of this release, as opposed to the the war crimes and general war madness in the prior leaks. Being an American, I’m a lot more skeptical of government than I would expect a Canadian citizen to reasonably be. That strongly shapes my perception of this issue. I see a remarkable amount of potential good to come from visibility into the “back room dealings” of world leaders. In a vague way, I feel that each new embarrassing revelation on the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations helps to chip away at those horrendously flawed and lethal endeavors. It’s easily conceivable to me that the increase in transparency due to these leaks will dwarf the loss in transparency that occurs when school teachers become less willing to divulge data to diplomats.

    While that’s little more than a brief distilling of what amounts to little more than intuition about things which are very hard to objectively quantify, I think the following point raised by Assange on Sunday is pertinent:

    “As far as we are aware, and as far as anyone has ever alleged in any credible manner whatsoever, no single individual has ever come to harm as a result of anything that we have ever published.”

  6. Scott Gilmore says:

    Michael: I agree with you. Right now we have a system which has evolved wherein diplomats who decide on what is public and private are held accountable by legislation and elected officials. Wikileaks effectively gives this power to newspaper editors. I see that as a step backwards.

  7. Cynan says:

    I’m mulling over whether the ‘cablegate’ leaks are fundamentally about a weakening of American soft power. Both in terms of the effects you describe above Scott, as well as the short term embarrassment, and the longer term potential for distrust of the discretion of US diplomats around the world.

    What’s perhaps interesting is to consider that the cablegate incident itself is also an effect or symptom of the weakening of soft power. Had the US not failed to date in Afghanistan and/or invaded in Iraq, would an organisation like wikileaks be targeting it to such an extent in 2010? I doubt it. Which makes this a positive/reinforcing feedback upon the foreign policy debacles of the last decade. Either the US needs to find some way to short circuit this process or they will alas find what lies further round the spiral.

  8. Sceptical Secondo says:

    No need to mull much longer if you’d ask me. It’s going to be all about soft power + internal politics + third party politics even.

    Most of what I’ve seen so far are observations that people in the places reported from have most likely already made themselves. Russians aren’t offended by their PM being labelled an alpha dog. If anything, Putin probably thinks of it as a bit poof. Neither will it come as a surprise to any Italian that Berlusconi is …. well Berlusconi.

    I realise the example and argument of Scott’s post is different from the above but I think I still consider it to be a bit off target. I don’t see how, in this example, the government of Indonesia would be surprised to read the info in the cables, as they’re available now, and should therefore react differently than they already are. The big issue then is how the government of Indonesia will react given that the Indonesian society now knows along with everybody else. Or to complicate things more: how people in third countries will react now vividly seeing the cynicisms in IP.

    So far I’m likely to consider this cablegate a storm in a tea cup. But it could too be the last drop that makes the difference………

  9. @Scott

    I see that as a step backwards.

    Only if you assume that elected officials do better than journalists, or stick to legislation — or even just that they are, in fact, held accountable instead of being supported by partisan politics. Judging from what I have seen up to now, those are all questionable assumptions.

  10. Sceptical Secondo says:

    Or to put it short: Given the nature of the info now available through wikileaks, the ‘possible’ problem is not the concerned government knowing (and in many cases even the public in that specific country). It’s everybody else knowing.

  11. Amgine says:

    There are so many points to contend with, but ultimately your position is: Trust the government to tell you what you need to know, it’s better for everyone.

    Which is exactly what you were circumventing in Indonesia.

    What you were doing there was a small scale of what Wikileaks has done.

    One of the topics people aren’t talking much about is that in many cases these diplomats were violating US law as well as local law to do what you seem to feel is their job. Treaties ratified by Congress are a part of the law of the land, according to the constitution, and that happens to include the UN Charter. When do we think it’s okay for the government to violate our own laws secretly?

  12. Ken Lewis says:

    Scott

    Great article spot on – one of the best commetarie I have read on the WIKIleaks issue. Thanks for doing this.
    I could have said some of the same things about my reporting from Jakarta during the Manulife shakedown and the sources I had feeding me information.

    Ken

  13. […] Peace Dividend Trust Blog « In Defense of Secrecy […]

  14. CJ says:

    Thank you for the work you have done, and the morals and ideals you continue to hold yourself to. I understand the whole argument better from your perspective.

  15. Cynan says:

    Scott,

    Let’s take all of your above negative collateral impact as a given. What is the appropriate ‘public interest’ test for wikileaks, the guardian, nyt etc then? Is it that revealing the cables should have zero foreseeable negative public interest? Or that on balance, the positive impact of their release is likely to outweigh the negative? I think the potential downsides of this release are going to be apparent (many already are) whereas the positive public interests will take longer to emerge. One of the best pieces I’ve seen so far is in Harpers, around what appears to be a full court (and bipartisan) US diplomatic effort to interfere with the judicial system in at least one NATO ally. To the extent that the Spanish government colluded in this interference, that says a lot about Spanish governance, and Spanish voters and civil society might find the cables to be actionable information.

  16. Antony says:

    Your argument for the need of secrecy only applies to the anonymity of the sources – rather than information itself.
    If Wikileaks had have existed at the time, the pictures of the atrocities could have been published anonymously so the whole world could know about it, without fear of reprisal. Having this information public would have put a lot more pressure on the Indonesian Government.

  17. […] information to send back their HQs?) and my dismay that work to combat human rights violations could be compromised, I was encouraged by the fact that release demonstrated that the State Department is very […]

  18. Rebecca says:

    Are you kidding me? While I debate in my head the possible dangers versus benefits of the release of diplomatic information, I find your argument weak at best.
    Canada’s alleged “pressure” on the Indonesian government amounted to supporting the atrocities in East Timor at the time. Canada’s policies actually aided the acts of genocide that occurred there and hid the crimes away until it was too late to act. Perhaps if there had been a Wikileaks at that time and your memos about the atrocities had actually gotten out– people’s lives could have actually been saved.
    http://archive.peacemagazine.org/v05n6p09.htm
    http://www.english.uva.nl/research/phdresearch.cfm/71723A6F-F224-45B9-AE23060D415B4636

  19. Alex Bowles says:

    Scott,

    @brokenladder is one guy, not ‘the mob’. Regardless of whether or not his assessment is fair, please note that he was referring to your argument. He was not saying that you – personally- are a BS human. If you really didn’t take him seriously, you could have ignored him. Instead, you singled him out for personal attack.

    As you should know better than most, that kind of thin-skinned, reflexive nastiness goes hand-in-hand with the unaccountable tyrants who respond in the most personal way possible; by torturing opponents in secrecy before burying their mangled corpses in unmarked graves.

    If you’re trying to convince people you’re really one of the good guys, you’re going to have to become a lot more self-aware than this. Separately, there are holes in your argument big enough to sail fleets through. But having seen how aggressively you respond to criticism, and how swiftly you make it personal, I’m not going to point them out here. For now, I’ll just award the point to Assange.

    But I will give you some advice; if you’re going to put “peacekeeper and diplomat” on your bio, you better behave like one in public. And that’s twice as true if you expect people to trust what you do in private.

  20. Scott Gilmore says:

    Alex: You’re right. Brokeladder is one fellow, and not the mob. Once again, I am guilty of using artistic hyperbole. I was well aware that his criticism (to the extent that four words can be called that) was not personal. And later exchanges with him lead me to believe he understood my own four word response was not personal either. You’re the only one who is upset.

    Now, I’ve been called many things and many of those have been well deserved. Arrogant. Stubborn. Unreasonable. Quick-tempered. Slow-witted. Suspicious. And those are just from the staff around the office. But thin-skinned is not one of them. Not only do I welcome a good critique, I enjoy the opportunity to spar. In fact, I tend to surround myself with friends and colleagues who give as good as they take. But setting that aside, I do think you are also possibly guilty of artistic hyperbole by suggesting that being thin-skinned goes hand-in-hand with tyrants and genocide. Surely there are a few leaps before you go from cranky to killer? No?

    Regardless, thank you for the advice. You’ll be glad to know that there are a long list of people who have also suggested that I do not behave like a former diplomat. I typically remind them that the emphasis is on the word “former”.

    But back to my argument. Your fleet? Sail away. I promise not to respond aggressively (really? four words? aggressive?).

  21. Alex Bowles says:

    The single largest problem with your perspective is that you’re arguing for a universal using anecdotal evidence. This can work well if you actually scale up from your single example to your broader point. But you don’t. Nothing indicates whether your story represents the rule, or the exception. So that’s a formal issue.

    The second problem is that you’re Canadian. Enviable as this may be, it also means your situation was very different from that of your US counterparts. In truth, there’s no real comparison. As Defense Secretary Gates recently pointed out “No one is going to stop doing business with the US because of Wikileaks. That’s out of fear in some cases, respect in a few more, but mostly, it’s simply because they have no choice. We remain the world’s only indispensable nation.”

    Gates went on to note that the US is notoriously bad at keeping secrets, and has been for ages. Unmentioned, but worth remembering is that we’re also pretty cavalier about the sovereignty of others. And then there’s our persistent need to invade something new every ten years, just to keep the Pentagon sharp. This makes us *much* harder to eject, at least while our credit rating remains strong.

    The third problem is that you’re not accounting for the explosive (and highly dubious) growth of our domestic surveillance state. Along with its rampant junk-touching, and shady contracting, it’s busy redefining security and secrecy in a very not-nice way. As one outraged commenter said “The stuff that leaked was okay to share with *three million* people, but not me? What am I now, a serf!?” She was right. When the circle of ‘needs-to-know’ takes on the dimensions of a full-blown (and increasingly entrenched) social class, our problems have gotten bigger than the death of the odd informant. Secrecy is fine, in small doses. As a widespread default, it’s bad news. As the Economist put it, when it comes to America, people are going to get killed no matter what. Leaking just means different people die, and probably fewer of them (exhibit A: Iraq).

    Finally, you seem to be ignoring the content of the leaks themselves. Titillating? Yes. Awkward? Absolutely. But here’s what’s conspicuously absent: troop movements, nuclear launch codes, anticipatory plans of attack, incriminating financial records, etc. What you do see a lot of is stuff that Americans are vastly better off knowing. Or rather, stuff that we already suspect, and simply need the government to acknowledge openly.

    Above all, there’s our problem in Saudi Arabia. No government official has the brass to say that our terror problem comes down to Wahhabi extremists funded by money coming almost exclusively from Saudi Arabia. Not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not Yemen, not even Pakistan. Saudi Arabia. Largely, this is because no government official (or newspaper) is prepared to address our crippling dependence on Saudi oil. 9/11 should have been a Sputnik moment. It should have been the point where we woke up and got very serious about our incoherent, unsustainable, still top-secret energy policy. A full decade later, and what do we have? Two giant new embassies in Kabul and Baghdad? We should be building reactors (or hiring the French to do it for us, if we don’t trust our own ability anymore). Instead, we’re subsidizing corn for ethanol, even though everyone admits that the process consumes more energy than it releases while jacking up food prices in a bad way. As Rome burns, Senator McCain is squandering the Nation’s time in his quixotic drive to keep gay people out of the military. So much for priorities. The big news now is the bank dump. If criminal conduct at a TBTF institution puts a spotlight on the Senate’s defense of banksters, it won’t come a moment too soon. Maybe that will be what’s needed for Obama to side with the people who elected him, but I don’t know anyone holding their breath.

    In any case, unquestioned secrecy is fine for Canada. You guys behave like grown-ups. You can handle it. Down here, it’s only making a bad situation worse. Ultimately, I’m appalled that we need Assange, but I’m glad he’s risking his life for us. It’s just a shame our President doesn’t have a fraction of his nerve. We thought we were getting FDR2. Instead, we ended up with a useless mix of Jimmy Carter and the ghost of Neville Chamberlain. So at this stage, we’re not so picky about our catalysts. And you shouldn’t be either. After all, if things down here continue deteriorating, we’re all moving up to Canada.

  22. Alex Bowles says:

    To underscore our problem with deficient transparency, consider this.

    If you’ve still got it in for Wikileaks, I understand. Just hold your fire until after they release their bank info. If there’s enough in there to force (much needed ) criminal charges, and our banking cartel starts to fold as a result, you – and the rest of the global economy – can thank him at you leisure.

  23. Rebecca says:

    Why has my comment not been approved and ones that came after have? Why are you censoring out my comment?

  24. Rebecca says:

    Are you kidding me? While I debate in my head the possible dangers versus benefits of the release of diplomatic information, I find your argument weak at best.
    Canada’s alleged “pressure” on the Indonesian government amounted to supporting the atrocities in East Timor at the time. Canada’s policies actually aided the acts of genocide that occurred there and hid the crimes away until it was too late to act. Perhaps if there had been a Wikileaks at that time and your memos about the atrocities had actually gotten out– people’s lives could have actually been saved.
    http://archive.peacemagazine.org/v05n6p09.htm
    http://www.english.uva.nl/research/phdresearch.cfm/71723A6F-F224-45B9-AE23060D415B4636

  25. Scott Gilmore says:

    Rebecca,

    We actually don’t have a comment approval system. So, if your comment isn’t posted, try posting it again. If that doesn’t work, email it to me sgilmore@pdtglobal.org and I’ll paste it up for you.

  26. Rebecca says:

    Ok thank you. The original one is actually still sitting up there saying “Your comment is awaiting moderation.” Strange.

  27. Marshall Mermell says:

    Quick response to Alex Bowles: You can move to Canada. I am fine staying right here in the U.S. It seems as though it is Alex who is showing his hyperbole.

    I suspect that Alex and others who have responded to Scott’s article would think differently about his posting, if one of their loved ones were one of the people to loose their lives due to one of Wikileak’s posting of information. Alex’s comment that “our problems have gotten bigger than the death of the odd informant.” seems blase at best.

    A person who will lose their life due to these leaks will probably never be posted by Wikileaks.

  28. Chris O'Donoghue says:

    Hi Scott,

    I cry bullshit, no matter what good you thought you were doing in the 70 sending information about the near genocidal atrocities in East Timor, the fact remains that the west UK, USA, Canada, NZ, Au…. all played along with the Indonesians. I was a student protester in the 70s about this issue and we were constantly told by the media and the various western governments that we were exagerating and that these types of atrocities were rarities.

    In fact despite the admission you have made in your blog that the west knew about the extent of the atrocities, the western powers continued to trade arms and get cheap labour from Indonesia. No matter what quite remonstrances went on in back rooms, the real power, the trail of money led straight past the consciences of the senior diplomats to the cleptocrats that run this alledged democracy of ours.

    Come on Scott confession is good for the soul, admit it, despite you striving and believing that you may have been doing some minor goos with all your disclosing cables, all you really did was create a minor barganing chip for that next arms deal. Your life as a diplomat was entirely supportive of those that profit from our consumerism, any other analysis is just self delusion.

  29. […] and from a different set of rhetorical principles. This article – “In Defense of Secrecy” – was written by former […]

  30. A friend says:

    Scott. Thank you for this. I think it raises important issues and am disappointed in the responses. While I don’t think you can argue from an anecdote to the general, I think your post illustrates well problems we need to address.

    I was one of those on the ‘outside’ over those 24 years of Indonesian occupation of East Timor. People supporting the East Timorese received documents, photos, and testimonies smuggled out of East Timor via various means and used them to publicise the issues and campaign. People went in and out of the country.

    At every stage, they had to think about security and reliability. Does this picture/document reveal too much? When sharing material with a human rights organisation or journalist – how much must be revealed to satisfy claims of reliability? Who can be trusted to share the concern with informants’ safety and the reports’ reliability – whether in or outside the country?
    Trust had to be earned, established and sustained.

    In the course of the international campaign about East Timor, there were those who went to jail in the UK – but were then acquited for damaging Hawk planes destined for East Timor; there were journalists – across the world – who defied threats and government notices to publish information; Australian security officers leaked material (after the fact) on Australian knowledge of Indonesian planning of the invasion, etc. etc. All these people were willing to put their liberty at risk in order to unveil these secrets.

    Rebecca and others would respond that Wikileaks would make this much easier. I would profoundly disagree. I was on the periphery of much of this, but speaking to some centrally involved in this and other similar campaigns(not wishing to overstate this – just a few, not many), they are emphatic that they would not use Wikileaks, nor would they advise their informants to do so.

    None of us actually know who these Wikileaks people are – from the ubergeeks constructing and controlling the sites, to the document -sifters, to the analysts of the material. We know their commitment to freedom of information, but not the limits they deem legitimate. We do not know what conditions – if any- can be placed on material given to them. The responses to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Stephen Aftergood’s and others’ specific requests or critiques reveal a chilling imperiousness and arrogance.
    There are other whistle-blowing sites; there are trusted journalists and activists.

    WikiLeaks has done some very useful exposures and I was an initial supporter.
    This information dump of cables and previous ‘information dumps’ of material on non-corporate/non-governmental organisations (some of which I despise) made me question much more closely its organisation and agenda. It is too opaque for me to feel trustful.

    As indicated by my comments, it is not an either/or situation. If I do not simply applaud Wikeleaks, I don’t have to thereby endorse the levels of government and corporate secrecy.
    I cannot endorse the idea of a totally unaccountable, self-selecting, opaque yet in this cyber world – incredibly powerful – organisation being the repository or arbiter of the world’s secrets.

  31. Alex Bowles says:

    That’s a cheap shot, Marshall, but I’ll take it as a complement, since it doesn’t actually find fault with the argument. Instead, it tries to knock down the guy making it with the absurd criticism that he’s coming from a place that’s altogether too objective and clear-headed.

    At the same time, it raises a truly serious question: specifically, what makes you think it’s smart for policymakers in a nuclear and economic superpower to start by imagining themselves in an highly reactionary, emotionally overwhelmed state of mind, and setting their course from there? I mean, isn’t that the *opposite* of sober statesmanship?

  32. Alex Bowles says:

    @Chris – your BS detector is in fine working order.

    Regarding the extent of Scott’s delusion, here’s a very different account of what brought about change in East Timor. Interestingly, it not only portrays the ‘witness-bearing’ work done by Scott as being spectacularly useless, but names Scott himself as the guy who made that assessment in the first place.

    Here’s the Jan. 2010 interview in which Scott says what’s now characterized as “supplying ammunition” wasn’t that at all. Instead, it was systematically ignored until the Indonesian regime (which had been shooting the East Timorese with American guns and bullets) were no longer politically useful, and had simply become an embarrassment. Cynicism of this kind runs deep. In Scott’s own words, realizing that these crimes were not, in themselves, even remotely influential “was very depressing and very upsetting, and a very futile exercise as a junior diplomat.”

    Scott – everything else I’m reading about you, from your commitment to truly defenseless people to your very nuts-and-bolts approach to the reality of working in devastated countries all suggest you’re a good and competent guy with your heart in the right place. But I think you’re underestimating the power of an informed public to be the one truly decisive factor in these situations.

    As Samantha Power has noted (and here I’m quoting @zunguzungu’s summary) “the reasons for US inaction in the face of genocide in the twentieth century can be traced to the fact that there have been no significant domestic political costs to such inaction…[W]hat makes states suddenly break with history and care about, say, a little thing like genocide, is when a lot of people start demanding that they care. If inaction has political cost, states will act. And if there’s one thing that the secrecy of diplomatic cables will not accomplish, it’s making citizens angry about inaction, or about actions done in their name.”

    Here’s Clay Shirky’s, with which I entirely agree: “If the long haul were all there was, Wikileaks would be an obviously bad thing. The practical history of politics, however, suggests that the periodic appearance of such unconstrained actors in the short haul is essential to increased democratization, not just of politics but of thought.”

    His broader point is that we are moving into a vastly more open world, and that’s something that governments need to adapt to in a way that strengthens – not undermines – individual human dignity and freedom. In the long haul, says Shirky, “we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to. In the short haul, though, Wikileaks is our Amsterdam. Whatever restrictions we eventually end up enacting, we need to keep Wikileaks alive today, while we work through the process democracies always go through to react to change. If it’s OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.”

    So just remember what Samatha Power said, Scott, and ask yourself if you’re really taking the right side here.

  33. Loxy Bagel says:

    Any comment on the Aaron Bady (zunguzungu) piece? He really kind of destroyed you there, Scott.

  34. Alex Bowles says:

    Good question, Loxy. Any thoughts on that one Scott?

  35. Scott Gilmore says:

    Amgine: I don’t say trust the government. Push for more transparency, more openness. Elect politicians that you trust. Demand accountability in the courts and in the legislatures. But don’t simply hand your responsibility as a citizen over to a hacker and some newspaper editors.

    Alex: 1) Scale up? If my day job was to debate wikileaks, I’d be happy to. 2) Cdn vs US? Canadian diplomats are largely ornamental. My reporting, while used to illustrate, changed nothing. But my American and British colleagues were a much different story. Ask anyone who was a human rights activist in Indonesia or Timor in the late 90s who Ed McWilliams was and they will tell you long stories about the monumental good that US Foreign Service officer did. And their cables did change things, Timorese independence was not born merely from the hopes of radicals. The midwife, if you will, were diplomats like Ed. 3) Not accounting for domestic surveillance? Really? I didn’t account for a million negative things in the world. Check the topic of the post again. It was about wikileaks, not Homeland Security. 4-5 etc?. I’m bored. Moving on.

    Rebecca. Yes. I agree. Canada could have done more. Timorese independence came about from a variety of factors, and Cdn diplomacy was not one of them. However, US, British, and Australian efforts did amount to something. Regardless, my use of the Timorese anecdote was to illustrate that diplomats work closely with human rights activists who will get hurt if their identity is revealed.

    Chris: As a bad Catholic, I agree confession is good for the soul. But your views that diplomats are merely storing up bargaining chips for the next arms deals is a dated paranoia. It may happen, it does happen, but so rarely that I can honestly not think of a single example from my experience.

    A friend: Thank you for a thoughtful and nuanced post. I also am grateful for pointing out something I should have made clear from the beginning. My “delusional” views on this are actually shared by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and even some of the wikileaks staffers themselves. Good company, if you ask me.

    Alex, back to my delusion: Yes. I agree. My personal reporting changed only a couple of small specific things. And you can find other interviews and articles where I say this. But I did see the work of State dept officials making a huge difference for the good of Timor and other places in the world. Your government is not all evil. (as hard as that may be for you to believe.) if you go back and read the post you will see I never claim that I was changing the world. I was arguing (and I’m typing this slowly now so you can follow) that human rights activists, opposition figures, and other innocent participants will be hurt if their identities are revealed by cablegate.

    Loxy: The zunguzungu piece is interesting and I will read it fully later today. (day job, alas) from a quick scan I suspect that my only quibble will be a) I never argue that I or Cdns changed the world. b) I also never argue that Timor is free solely because some white diplomats deigned to help, and c) back to the point I make several times above: my thesis (again, shared by Amnesty and others) is human rights activists, opposition figures, and other innocent participants will be hurt if their identities are revealed by cablegate.

  36. my thesis (again, shared by Amnesty and others) is human rights activists, opposition figures, and other innocent participants will be hurt if their identities are revealed by cablegate.

    If that is your only point, then you did a remarkably bad job of bringing it across for someone who usually writes so well. Anyway, I think the operative word here is “if”: if, as in if activists etcetera will be hurt by having their identities revealed. Now my question: has that happened? Can you show us any cases?

    Because if that is not the case, your whole premiss goes for nothing and your opposition to Wikileaks has no merit.

  37. A friend says:

    Alex: I cannot open the first link you provide in your December 7, 2010 at 11:59 pm post.
    So please give the source again.

    I will respond in more detail after reading that, on the issues as they relate to Indonesian human rights/democracy campaigners and the East Timorese resistance.

    Thank you.

  38. Alex Bowles says:

    @ A Friend – try this: https://zunguzungu.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/julian-assange-and-the-computer-conspiracy-“to-destroy-this-invisible-government”/

    And Scott – I know your example was focused on East Timor, but your position was not. It was focused on secrecy in general. You were making the general argument that our current policies are the right ones, and that Assanges intervention is a detriment to something that is, on balance, for the good.

    It’s natural for opposition to this position to diverge from East Timor, especially when arguing that our current policies are *not* the right ones, and that on balance, they do far more harm than good. Counterexamples come from around the globe.

    Here’s an especially chilling example that’s just surfaced, about a private military contractor in Afghanistan dipping into the sex trafficking business. With children. Revolting.

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20101208/00221812176/so-wikileaks-is-evil-releasing-documents-dyncorp-gets-pass-pimping-young-boys-to-afghan-cops.shtml

    I rest my case. We need Wikileaks, like yesterday. Again. You’re Canadian. These aren’t your tax dollars in action here.

  39. Ken Lovell says:

    Can you point to any concrete disclosures in the WikiLeaks material that are reasonably likely to mean that even one person ‘who dared to share information with American diplomats will be rounded up’, let alone ‘hundreds’?

    Even Robert Gates and the Pentagon have admitted that not one person is known to have suffered as a consequence of the previous leaks about Iraq and Afghanistan, contrary to the hysterical allegations that continue to be made by the likes of Sarah Palin. Your bald assertion falls into the same category unless you can produce some evidence to the contrary.

  40. Chris O'Donoghue says:

    In the 70s and 80s when I was an activist, the govts of the west were quite plainly involved in supporting the regime of indonesian occupation, to among other things, get significant arms sales. Also Idonnesia was a large counter in the game of risk called the cold war.

    By the 90s the Indonesians had become surplus to requirements, the red tide was broken in Sth East Asia and the core CCCP itself had collapsed. Then the support for Indonesian genocide started to wane. And their were cheaper better educated labour markets.

    Nothing to do with valiant efforts of diplomats, really nothing to do with the protests etc of the earlier decades. You delude yourself Scott that you were anything but a pawn of a minor player in the great game, any information leaks before the end of the cold war were just used as a bargaining chip for a better deal (some of them arms deals), while your govt and mine denied the extent of the atrocities. Post cold war the information leaks served the purpose of your masters, which was not human rights or any such altruistic urge, but profit, power and prestige.

    Chomsky and others before him were right in that states are all rouge states, that they have no moral dimension. We as members of the species and our nations must hold our govts to acct otherwise they will serve the interests of those with the biggest marketing/lobbying budgets.

  41. Paula says:

    Thank you.

    I’ve been trying very hard to not beat my head against every single wall while trying to explain this to what you characterize as “the mob”. Not just that, but hearing high praise for WL from members of my faculty had left me wondering where that last shred of common sense had gone (perhaps my bad for trying to find common sense in academia, but we play the hand we’re dealt, no?). In any case, thank you for so articulately explaining what I’ve been too boggled to put into words.

  42. A Timorese says:

    @ Scott Gilmore: Scott, I believe and I personally know that there were, and are, some diplomats like you were, who did things the way you did in cases like Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste. But if I read the “Independent Diplomat” of Carne Ross, you are making an over generalization. If your heart is in the right place, you will be able to make a difference wherever you chose to put your energy. Thanks
    .


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