Is Wikileaks open government?

Aeschylus wrote nearly 2,500 years ago that in war, “truth is the first casualty.” His words are no doubt known to another wise man, whose strategic “maneuvers within a changing information environment” would not be an utterly foreign concept to the Greeks in the Peloponnesian War. Aeschylus and Thucydides would no doubt wonder at the capacity of the Information Age to spread truth and disinformation alike. In November 2010, it’s clear that legitimate concerns about national security must be balanced with the spirit of open government expressed by the Obama administration.

The issues created between Wikileaks and open government policies are substantial. As Samantha Power made clear in her interview on open government and transparency: “There are two factors that are always brought to bear in discussions in open government, as President Obama has made clear from the day he issued his memorandum. One is privacy, one is security.”

As the State Department made clear in its open letter to Wikileaks, the position of the United States government is that the planned release of thousands of diplomatic cables by that organization today will place military operations, diplomatic relationships and the lives of many individuals at risk.

As this post went live, the Wikileaks website is undergoing a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, though the organization’s Twitter account is far from silenced. A tweet earlier on Sunday morning noted that “El Pais, Le Monde, Speigel, Guardian & NYT will publish many US embassy cables tonight, even if WikiLeaks goes down.”

In fact, Wikileaks’ newest leak, through the early release of Der Spiegel, had long since leaked onto Twitter by midday. Adrien Chen’s assessment at Gawker? “At least from the German point of view there are no earth-shattering revelations, just a lot of candid talk about world leaders.”

The New York Times offered a similar assessment in its own report on Wikileaks, Cables Shine Light Into Secret Diplomatic Channels: “an unprecedented look at backroom bargaining by embassies around the world, brutally candid views of foreign leaders and frank assessments of nuclear and terrorist threats.”

The Lede is liveblogged reaction to Wikileaks at, including the statement to Fareed Zakaria by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, that “the leak would put the lives of some people at risk.”

The Lede added some context for that statement:

Despite that dire warning, Robert Gates, the defense secretary, told Congress in October that a Pentagon review “to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by the disclosure,” of the war logs by WikiLeaks.

The Guardian put today’s release into context, reporting that the embassy cable leaks sparks a global diplomatic crisis. Among other disclosures, the Guardian reported that the cables showed “Arab leaders are privately urging an air strike on Iran and that US officials have been instructed to spy on the UN’s leadership … a major shift in relations between China and North Korea, Pakistan’s growing instability and details of clandestine US efforts to combat al-Qaida in Yemen.” The Guardian’s new interactive of diplomatic cables is one of the best places online to browse the documents.

Is the “radical transparency” that Wikileaks both advocates for – and effectively forces – by posting classified government information “open government?” The war logs from Afghanistan are likely the biggest military intelligence leak ever. At this point in 2010, it’s clear that Wikileaks represents a watershed in the difficult challenge to information control that the Internet represents for every government.

On the one hand, Open Government Directive issued by the Obama administration on December 8, 2009 explicitly rejects releasing information that would threaten national security. Open government expert Steven Aftergood was crystal clear in June on that count: Wikileaks fails the due diligence review.

On the other hand, Wikileaks is making the diplomatic and military record of the U.S. government more open to its citizens and world, albeit using a methodology on its own site that does not appear to allow for the redaction of information that could be damaging to the national security interests of the United States or its allies. “For me Wikileaks is open govt,” tweeted Dominic Campbell. “True [open government] is not determined and controlled by govts, but redistributes power to the people to decide.”

The New York Times editorial board explored some of these tensions in a note to readers on its decision to publish Wikileaks.

The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match… The Times has taken care to exclude, in its articles and in supplementary material, in print and online, information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security. The Times’s redactions were shared with other news organizations and communicated to WikiLeaks, in the hope that they would similarly edit the documents they planned to post online.

…the more important reason to publish these articles is that the cables tell the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money. They shed light on the motivations — and, in some cases, duplicity — of allies on the receiving end of American courtship and foreign aid. They illuminate the diplomacy surrounding two current wars and several countries, like Pakistan and Yemen, where American military involvement is growing. As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.

It seems that the Times and Guardian decided to make redactions from the diplomatic cables before publication. It’s not clear how that will compare to what will be posted on alongside the War Logs and Afghan Diaries.

Open government, radical transparency and the Internet

More transparency from the military, Congress and the White House regarding the progress of wars is important, desirable and perhaps inevitable. Accountability to civilian leadership and the electorate is a bedrock principle in a representative democracy, not least because of the vast amounts of spending that has been outlaid since 9/11 in the shadow government that Dana Priest reported out in Top Secret America in the Washington Post.

Wikileaks and the Internet together add the concept of asymmetric journalism to the modern media lexicon. File asymmetric journalism next to the more traditional accountability journalism that Priest practices or the database journalism of the new media crew online at the Sunlight Foundation and similar organizations are pioneering.

As Tim O’Reilly tweeted, “wikileaks *challenges* [open government government 2.0] philosophy. Challenges are good if we rise to them.” No question about the former point. Governments that invest in the capacity to maneuver in new media environment might well fare better in the information warfare the 21st century battlefield includes.

Open government is a mindset, but goes beyond new media literacy or harnessing new technologies. The fundamental elements of open government, as least as proposed by the architects of that policy in Washington now, do not include releasing diplomatic cables regarding espionage or private assessments of of world leaders. Those priorities or guidelines will not always be followed by the governed, as Wikileaks amply demonstrates.

Increasingly, citizens are turning to the Internet for data, policy and services. Alongside the efforts of government webmasters at .gov websites, citizens will find the rich stew of social media, media conglomerates or mashups that use government and private data. That mix includes sites like Wikileaks, its chosen media partners, the recently launched or new models for accountability like

That reality reinforces that fact that information literacy is a paramount concern for citizens in the digital age. As danah boyd has eloquently pointed out, transparency is not enough. The new media environment makes such literacy more essential than ever, particularly in the context of the “first stateless news organization” Jay Rosen has described. There’s a new kind of alliance behind the War Logs, as David Carr wrote in the New York Times.

There’s also a critical reality: in a time of war, some information can and will have to remain classified for years if those fighting them are to have any realistic chances of winning. Asymmetries of information between combatants are, after all, essential to winning maneuvers on the battlefields of the 21st century. Governments appear to be playing catchup given the changed media environment, supercharged by the power of the Internet, broadband and smartphones. This year, we’ve seen a tipping point in the relationship of government, media and techology.

Comparing the Wikileaks War Logs to the Pentagon Papers is inevitable — and not exactly valid, as ProPublica reported. It would be difficult for the military to win battles, much less wars, without control over situational awareness, operational information or effective counterintelligence.

Given the importance of the ENIGMA machine or intercepts of Japanese intel in WWII, or damage caused by subsequent counterintelligence leaks from the FBI and elsewhere, working to limit intelligence leaks that damage ongoing ops will continue to be vitally important to the military for as long as we have one. Rethinking the definitions for secrecy by default will also require hard work. As the disclosures from the most recent release continue to reverberate around the globe, the only certainty is that thousands of State Department and Defense Department workers are going to have an extra headache this winter.

21 thoughts on “Is Wikileaks open government?

  1. While I value open government, diplomacy in politics is a little like sausage making. One needs a strong stomach to view the entire process. The recently released film “Fair Game” which depicts the outing of CIA agent, Valerie Plame illuminates the former. Wikileaks seems to favor qualitative extremes of all or nothing, black or white while seeking to eradicate the sometimes, often or frequently grey in which most countries function.

  2. Perhaps open government is policy and service for the people it governs. Foreign diplomatic relations might serve more than just the United States government interests alone.

    The Times demonstrating responsible journalism is a relief and I hope others learn from their experience.

    I believe that if the United States is to lead by example, focusing on trust is a high priority.

    What WikiLeaks originally set out to do, trust through transparency, may have taken a step backwards temporarily by hurting foreign nations trust in the United States.

  3. Great point:

    “It would be difficult for the military to win battles, much less wars, without control over situational awareness, operational information or effective counterintelligence.”

    Releasing classified documents is a very serious offense. The folks who are leaking these documents are quite possibly committing treason. This is going to have some very harmful long term effects.

    If a citizen, government employee or public servant believes that there are documents that should no longer be classified there is a legal process to change their designation. Besides, to its credit, this administration has declassified a great many documents that didn’t need to be kept from the public.

    It is ultimately up to the President to determine the level of classification government information should have, and these leaks undermine the office and are shameful. I do not at all believe that Wikileaks is an example of open government – as a matter of fact their irresponsible disregard for the rule of law will set the movement back…

  4. There is a lot of meat in this post alex – it’s a monster in a good way. I agree that a site like Wikileaks poses some significant challenges to the public, government, and media. This is one of those posts that I’ll come back to a few times – thanx!

  5. No, it’s not.

    Real open government is done with democratic consent. It’s not done forcibly by Bolsheviks like Assange.

    Wikileaks, which is applauded by all the “hacktivists,” also counsels them not merely to hack with a cause, but just hack to gain as much dumping as possible.

    Wikileaks in fact devalues “hactivism”.

    It’s a good example of how a revolution eats its children.

    The moral objection to Wikileaks does not rest on the theoretical or actual harm to the sources exposed. That’s paramount, of course, but there is also the issue of how undemocratic it is, and how it is not made with consent of the governed.

    No majority would vote for such a dump of diplomatic cables *freely* and *fairly*; no one vote for a government like Wikileaks that would arbitrarily expose anybody or anyone on a whim and a caprice.

  6. I’d call it “opened government.” No dispute something is now open, just a matter of who did the opening and under what circumstances.

    Related but separate note — another interesting question would be to ask what elements make this case unique to a digital age, beyond just more efficient transmission of the information. Certainly the Internet didn’t invent the diplomatic cable nor candid diplomats nor leaks for that matter. I don’t have the full answer, but just because this happened in an Internet era and was reported via the Internet doesn’t mean the Internet made it possible. Faster maybe — but does that make this a uniquely digital phenomenon? We engage with information every day on the Internet that was entirely possible before the Internet. Thoughts?

  7. My favorite take on this megaleak is at where they discuss a bit the history and form of the traditional diplomatic cable — a format we inherited from telegraph days, and the age when bilateral diplomacy was the *only* diplomacy a century ago, before the foundation of the League of Nations, far less the UN.

    It’s worth remembering that a century ago, bilateral and private communications were the only form for diplomatic relations. Multilateral treaties were rare as hen’s teeth, and the big multilateral organizations (League of Nations, UN, WTO,…) were not conceived.

    The tradition of the State Department’s diplomatic branch still has remnants of…the stately. And that means matching world leaders in wit and little intimate jabs at those you wish to present as mutual annoyances.

    None of the content should be taken as earthshaking — or even necessarily the actual truth. Diplomats make offers and reports of conversations that involve feeling things out, offers made expecting them to be turned down, comments from allies that are similarly taken as chat, not serious, not truth.

    The froufrou about these leaks will be generated by people with very little sense of the history of diplomacy.

    The real issue is that negotiation of any sort relies on privacy, and the diplomatic cable is likely gone with this release. It will be replaced by something more secure, and more security on its repositories at any eventual destination.

    You can not negotiate with transparency. Horse trading doesn’t lend itself to blunt honesty, and international relations are full of delicate nuances and lies.

    My father was a union organizer in the 40s. If the rank and file knew what was actually discussed behind closed doors, before a deal was struck and announced, they’d have rioted against management *and* their own leadership. However, many offers and discussions are made in what Wikileaks might describe as bad faith — they are put forward for the reaction, not as offers.

    This is true in any kind of haggling. It’s just, typically, Americans in general don’t understand or appreciate that art.

  8. Short answer: NO. 🙂

    As you pointed out, the principles of “open government” are superseded by the principles of national security. In no way does the leaking of classified information equate to open government.

    There’s a lot to consider here, and little history gap that is worth noting. When Thomas Jefferson served as the first Secretary of State under Washington, he often left the doors to his office unlocked at night. This allowed the newspapers of the day to come along and rifle through his things and undermine the foreign policy of the Washington administration. Then, as now, such actions are criminal and reprehensible. Statecraft is a trade that is practiced only by government. As a trade, it is (and should be) protected by some measure of secrecy. Citizens should understand why their government must protect these kinds of communications, because no one else can practice this trade.

    Secondly, “radical transparency” is code for “breaking the law.” Call it what it is.

    Third, and perhaps most important in my mind, 98% of what the government does is in the unclassified space. Focusing on this 2% takes the eye off the ball on what open government is designed to achieve. It’s counterproductive to conflate these criminal acts, which fly in the face of open and accessible government, to large amount of real work that needs to be done on the DOMESTIC front to make government work better for its people.

  9. The LA Times wondered aloud whether Wikileaks existence could have prevented the intelligence failures that allowed 9/11 to happen.

    I wonder whether the Bush administration would have felt comfortable misleading the American people into supporting the War in Iraq if they knew wikileaks stood ready to publish their secrets.

    Government should fear the people, not the other way around. Isn’t that a central tenant of open government?

  10. Good points raised here Alex. But I’m troubled by some of the comments here and think the NYTimes pretty much got it right.

    “…the more important reason to publish these articles is that the cables tell the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money. They shed light on the motivations — and, in some cases, duplicity — of allies on the receiving end of American courtship and foreign aid…As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.”

    We’re walking fine lines here, but I think the public has every right to know how the govt persecutes wars and pursues impt policy objectives. You can argue about the timing of transparency. Some diplomatic situations, to be sure, are better resolved in private. But for there to be accountability, there has to be transparency and I’m not so sure we want the political elite to be a in a position to dictate the terms of transparency.

    Moreover, we should also be mindful of the important role whistle blowing plays in a democracy. Calling Wikileaks criminal and advocating for it to be shut it down takes us down a much darker path than the one leading from radical transparency.

  11. Is it breaking the law to expose classified documents that show lawbreaking?

    As the released cables prove, much of what’s classified needn’t be, and no claiming moral higher ground, either, because classification is also used to hide misdeeds by the government.

    That said, wikileaks contributes to transparency in all sectors, not just the government, so it’s only a subset of what they do that could be considered open government.

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  13. This is law-breaking, not open gov. This leak will re-stove pipe government, with all the attendant dangers reintroduced. This info was intentionally distributed via SIPPr to gain the benefit of crowdsourcing policy and intelligence. The lesson from the theft and republishing will be to limit distribution once again. Gov 2.0 RIP…

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  15. There’s an “elephant in the room” that appears to be missing from the discourse in this post. The fact that there has been a lot of secrecy assigned to information that is not of national security importance but rather for political expediency. What’s more, from the last three Wikileaks releases, we have learned that in effect our government (U.S. Gov’t) has misled or outright lied about various events. We have a trust issue here.

    What is sadly taking place is an erosion of the trust we put in our elected and unelected officials. When you combine what we’re learning from these releases with the behavior and security theater of the TSA, and the misnomer laws such as COICA being quickly pushed through our Congress, we begin to realize that we have a gov’t run amok and unaccountable. Add to this the misguided statements coming from legislators who should know better, around their desire to prosecute Wikileaks’ founder. Wikileaks has not been shown to be a participant in leaking the information being released, but merely the recipient of this information. Even the initial releases of the information, due in part to the DDoS attack on their servers came from mainstream media organizations who received early copies from Wikileaks, none of which has been threatened with prosecution for their role in releasing this information.

    I find it reprehensible, that in the face of being shown as untrustworthy, gov’t officials again demand our trust in asserting the risks associated w/these leaks. This after clearly stating that their previous concerns to this effect never materialized. It feels like the pendulum of transparency will reach full transparency before it moves back to the opaqueness we have endured for some time now, and perhaps that the Gov 2.0 we need to focus on.

    There is one piece of irony here. The fact that (a) FOIA requests move so slowly and generally receive incomplete responses, and (b) that the Third Estate has not been much better than simply amplifying the gov’t’s spin, are the reasons why an organization like Wikileaks can exist. Want Wikileaks to go away, get gov’t to stop classifying everything as secret whether or not it actually is 😉

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  18. No, there’s no “elephant in the room,” people just don’t agree with your perceptions that these cables don’t need to be classified. I deal directly with some of the countries issues in the cablegate dump, and I can see that while care was taken by the Guardian and then Wikileaks itself to redact out names and certain place names, there are still names shown of sources that will be burned. There are people who will never be talking to the U.S. again; there are people who may be getting PNG’d as we speak for doing so in hostile settings.

    It’s not that someone like me has some naive trust in the government doling out information. It’s that I think that this has to be a democratic and voluntary process. Journalists have to work sources and get sources to cooperate and volunteer information and cross check it, not just get it scraped and dumped off servers without any sense or context.

    I’m not sure that the last three dumps show that the U.S. lied; I’d have to study it more. What is lying? When a general says “we don’t keep bodycounts,” what he’s really saying is, “We don’t tell you what they are” — he may keep them. It turns out they did. It turns out there are more than we knew. It’s a war. It’s awful. But…was somehow truth or justice served by this exposure? Did you notice the terrorists stopped killing people? Did you notice the war stopping? No.

    I reject the term “security theater”. It’s just the theater of those of the left posturing and impressing us with software thinking — you can’t do everything, so do nothing.

    It might well be that there is a case to be made against even this foreign saboteur Assange. It’s got to be debated openly. You can hardly claim he is not liable to prosecution when his motive was to wreck as much damage as possible, and his existence is a magnet for the malicious like Manning.

    I wonder what utopianists like you really think an “open government” open all the time would really look like. Are you familiar with Philip Rosedale’s Love Machine invention, where workers are constantly open to their bosses about what they are doing? It’s merely a modern form of Taylorism and Stakhanavitism in the end, and it only leads to deeper forms of lying.

    The slow processes of journalistic inquiries and FOIAs and certain kinds of VOLUNTARY disclosure by officials and even civil disobedience will continue and will eventually displace Wikileaks.

    No one wants to live in the Pantoptikon, Assange first and foremost. Like all the other extremists and radicals through the ages, he will eat his own children or they will hang him themselves.

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