In Defence of In Defence of Secrecy
That was unexpected. My hastily written blog post from two days ago, arguing that diplomacy is not Facebook, was up for less than an hour before I was asked to reprint it by a couple of newspapers. I opted for the Globe & Mail, where it became the most (un)popular article on their site, attracting over 300 comments. Most of these were, er, negative. Delightfully negative. I mean, genuine bang-the-keyboard angry.
“Scott Gilmore sounds like an undercover spy, the kind that endangers real peace and justice workers.”
“Gilmore, you are full of it.”
“Mr. Gilmore’s arguments are really tired.”
“What a disgusting, self-serving apologist. You, sir, should be ashamed of yourself.”
“What a freakin’ fairy tale.”
“This is a shameful piece of apologia”
“If you can’t handle free speech and democracy, go live in Myanmar or North Korea.”
I’m almost positive this one is from my Mom:
“Scott. Did you notice that all your efforts didn’t make a bit of difference in that part of the world? You spent that part of your life wasting it in a futile effort to no appreciable difference.”
To be honest, this all put a bounce in my step. Take from this what you will, but when something I’ve written angers the mob to this extent, I feel that was labour well paid. (In fact, I’ve even inserted several of those quotes into my stock bio.) However, there were some more thoughtful points raised, and I’d like to respond to a few of them. If you’d rather see the moving/talking version, watch this:
People didn’t know about the human rights abuses in Timor because diplomats kept them secret. Wikileaks would have changed that.
Diplomats screwed East Timor over in the 1970s, so it’s hypocritical to say you were trying to help them in the 90s. (off topic from the wikileaks, but frequent)
True. And the Portuguese screwed over East Timor in the 1500s, so it’s hyprocritical for them to send aid in 2010?
What Wikileaks helps expose is the way governments use “national interest” or “geo-politics” to decide how to pursue a human rights agenda in the international arena.
I don’t think we needed Wikileaks to expose that. It’s a Hobbesian world. Even the “white hats” in the diplomatic corps, like the Norwegians or the Dutch, pick their friends and enemies pragmatically. We all know this.
But Wikileaks isn’t going to harm anyone because the newspapers have redacted the names of the sources.
If those cables could be stolen from the State department’s secure servers, how can it possibly be safe in the newsroom of a Spanish newspaper? If the redacted names aren’t already being read in Moscow or Beijing, they will be by the end of the week.
On the original blog post itself, the always interesting Cynan Houghton raises some thoughtful points about the rise of Wikileaks and the decline of American soft power. I don’t have an answer to the questions he raises, but it’s worth thinking about. Over on Bill Easterly’s always formidable AidWatch site, his hackles are raised by the fact that Secretary Clinton has ordered her diplomats to collect personal data on other diplomats, in effect spying on them. His commenters do a good job refuting this, and it’s an interesting read. We’ve had some in-house discussions about how my views on Wikileaks jibe with my (and PDT’s) push for more aid transparency. In short, just because I push for more openness in one area does not mean I believe in a fundamental right to information everywhere all the time.
But to sum up, after spending two days discussing this issue on TV and on the radio I’ve reduced my thesis to the following points.
- This wikileaks dump is not whistle-blowing. It is not revealing any crimes or atrocities like other leaks did. It is simply vandalism on an industrial scale. Specifically, it is hurting two groups of people. First, it is hurting diplomats, the folks who prefer to “jaw jaw instead of war war”, the ones who argued against the invasion of Iraq, if you remember. Second, it is hurting the often brave people who talk to diplomats. The human rights activist, the opposition figure, the sympathetic bureaucrat. There will be direct consequences for these people. They will be arrested and worse.
- Diplomacy is not Facebook. It is willfully naive to think that we can negotiate with, pressure, influence, or understand foreign governments if we posted our every thought in public for the world to see. Human nature itself explains why this is impossible. If we want our diplomats to provide frank and fearless advice to our elected officials, then they must do this in private.
- Absolute transparency is not to be confused with accountability. Your diplomats are already being held accountable. By political assemblies composed of citizens like you, elected by you. By judges and courts and legislation. Wikileaks? Totally unaccountable. One man self-appointed himself the guardian of this data, deciding who gets to see it. As a result, the night editor of a French newspaper is taking life and death decisions on whether a cable should be redacted or printed in full. The public should be outraged that their power to elect people to take these decisions, to hold officials accountable, has been usurped by a hacker.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bone to pick with my mother….