This weekend, I went on a Twitter rant in which I took the extreme position that Wikileaks had done no good whatsoever, then challenged defenders to prove me wrong. It took a while to get even one concrete example of a change directly attributable to the leaking — namely, the video of U.S. abuses in Iraq that forced the Iraqi government to deny the U.S.’s request of legal immunity for residual troops.
That was a good thing, in my opinion, but it’s small compared to the original vision of Wikileaks. As implied in the name, it was meant to be a distributed network of leakers — rather than the bizarre personality cult it ultimately became. The goal was to restrict the ability of the elites to operate in secrecy by making the cost of secrecy astronomically greater and thus to limit their ability to abuse their power.
There was simply no way this plan was ever going to work. In fact, the U.S. government’s response to the leaks, so seemingly irrational and disproportionate taken in the abstract, can be taken as a direct rebuke to the Wikileaks strategy. The message they’re sending is that they can and will expend essentially limitless resources ensuring secrecy and pursuing those who endanger it. And even leaving that aside, we have the recent historical example of the Cold War, where both sides had to assume they were being spied on constantly — and yet somehow they managed to hold things together. Yes, the Eastern Bloc ultimately fell, but I don’t recall any theories where the Soviet Union’s annual counterintelligence budget led to its dissolution.
Coupled with a severe underestimation of the resources the powers are able to devote to secrecy is a vast overestimation of the power of public opinion. To put it lightly, political elites have considerable autonomy in their decision-making. We have the recent example of the Iraq War, which dragged on long after the American people had turned against it and continued even after the election of the president who was supposed to stop it. There were innumerable abuses widely reported in the mainstream press, most notably Abu Ghraib, and it had seemingly no effect. Further back in history, the Pentagon Papers hugely influenced public opinion on the Vietnam War — which then continued for another four years.
Given that the effectiveness of leaking is ambiguous at best, and given that the consequences are so great, it strikes me as reckless to egg people on to do it. Bradley Manning’s life is essentially destroyed — he will be in jail most likely for the rest of his life, and his abusive treatment has permanently damaged him psychologically. Edward Snowden will certainly never be able to return home again, and he has to live the rest of his life in fear. This is not to say that they were wrong for doing what they chose to do or that the U.S. authorities aren’t morally culpable for what they’ve done. Trying to launch a mass campaign that will predictably expose people to that kind of danger, however, is hugely irresponsible if there isn’t a corresponding ability to protect them or at least provide some kind of formation and training for coping with the inevitable retaliation.
I know someone is inevitably going to ask, “Well, what should we do then?” I have to confess that I don’t know. All I know is that it seems pretty dumb to spend our effort and support on things that most likely will not work — though they will certainly expose individuals to hugely disproportionate reprisals — just because we feel like we need to do something.