Wikileaks reaction makes the US government look bad

Wikileaks continues to stir a lot of discussion. It seems to me that the US government’s reaction has so far been entirely counter-productive. The heavy-handed efforts to destroy the site’s ability to function has only fed the image that Wikileaks is the victim here. It seems pretty clear from past experience that it is pretty much impossible to prevent information hosted on one site from being replicated elsewhere on the internet if the original site is taken down. After it was taken down in the US, it has relocated its primary site to Europe, while dozens, if not hundreds, of mirror sites have sprung up all over the world. It seems clear that it will not be possible for the US government, even with the cooperation of other governments, to take down all these sites. And even if they did, new ones will just appear. All Wikileaks has to do is maintain its ability to upload new cables once in a while, and the mirrors will continue. Plus, the traditional newspapers that have collaborated with Wikileaks on releasing the materials will continue to publish the stories and the cables that accompany them.

If the US government can’t actually stop the release of the cables at this point, then what is the purpose of its attacks on Wikileaks and its founder? It seems to me that the goal is to punish Assange  and his organization. As I’ve written before, I think publishing the cables is reprehensible. But at the same time, it seems to me that the way the government has chosen to go after Assange has only made it look like a bully, throwing its weight around, while Assange and Wikileaks have taken up the role of David courageously fighting off Goliath with whatever minimal resources it can find at hand. In this situation, world opinion will rapidly swing (if it hasn’t already) toward the underdog. Wikileaks will find much more support than it would have otherwise. And the US government’s standing in the world will be damaged more from its reaction than from the revelations in the cables themselves.

Domestic reaction within the US is also in flux. The policy of preventing government employees from viewing the cables, which I mentioned in my previous post on this subject, has now gotten widespread attention, especially because of ham-handed efforts to warn students at various universities that sharing information about the content of the cables may negatively impact their ability to get government jobs in the future. Again, the US government seems to be on the side of censorship and acting like “big brother.” Everyone on some level understands that getting a government job requires background checks, which involve doing things like checking people’s facebook accounts. But it really doesn’t help the government’s image to rub this fact in people’s faces, especially in the immediate aftermath of last month’s flap about overly intrusive airport screenings.

This is not to say that there should be no consequences for the leaks. If laws were broken by Wikileaks and/or Julian Assange, either those of the US or of another country, then the legal system should be used to prosecute the violator(s). And if Wikileaks’ actions aren’t actually illegal, then efforts to go after Assange and his organization seem even less appropriate.

The US government should stop its efforts to shut down Wikileaks, end its idiotic policy that prevents government employees and contractors from viewing the publicly available cables, and focus on changing its security procedures so that this type of leak can never happen again.

The pros and cons of Wikileaks disclosures

In a post on The Monkey Cage, Josh Tucker invites colleagues to debate the pros and cons of using the classified documents posted on Wikileaks in their research. For various reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue over the last few days, as well as in the aftermath of previous releases of documents over the last few months.

While I was initially torn about the extent to which the first two sets of leaks (the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs) actually harmed US national security, I firmly believe that the leaking of the diplomatic cables is a horrible act that will damage not just US policy but will actually harm international relations and increase the likelihood of conflict in the world in the future. There are two obvious harms: 1) US diplomats will fear that their cables will be leaked in the future and will be less forthright in their assessments. 2) Leaders and diplomats around the world will fear future leaks and will be less candid in their private conversations — preventing potential future diplomatic breakthroughs.

Having said this, I think it would be silly to avoid using the data now that it has been released. This would be kind of like the official position of the Defense Department, which states that the material found on Wikileaks is still considered classified and therefore should not be accessed from an unclassified computer by anyone with a US security clearance. It seems to me that this puts such people, all of whom can freely access these documents (and many others just like them) on their classified computers,  in the slightly silly position of being the only people around who cannot actually look at the documents. I wonder if they should also skip reading the front page of the New York Times for the next two weeks….

One might argue that there is a moral hazard issue — if one uses the data, it would encourage Wikileaks to release more data. But I think that the extent to which the data is used is irrelevant to the motivations of Assange and Co. They believe that the  “US is essentially an authoritarian conspiracy and … that the practical strategy for combating that conspiracy is to degrade its ability to conspire, to hinder its ability to “think” as a conspiratorial mind.” Given this mentality, they are going to post anything they can get their hands on, regardless of whether academics use it in their analysis or not. So we might as well make the best of it.

One excellent example of the kind of work that can be done with this data can be found in a recent article by the political geographer John O’Laughlin using the Afghanistan war logs data to perform a geo-spatial analysis of where violence has occurred. It seems to me that this type of analysis will benefit not just scholarship, but also the US military operation itself, allowing it to better understand trends in violence, etc.

Perhaps there would be benefit from the government releasing this type of information in a controlled format — a database of events, without the sensitive personal information that puts people in danger or has a negative effect on various diplomatic efforts. This would address the argument of many critics of the US government’s tendency toward excessive secrecy and over-classification of documents whose release, many argue, would not actually harm US security. Of course, this seems highly unlikely in the current political environment, where the Wikileaks disclosures are likely to prompt more secrecy on the government’s part. Of course, greater secrecy will likely make it more difficult for those who have a legitimate reason to access classified documents in the course of their work to do their jobs, thus potentially making the US less secure….