So, Wikileaks tells us that Arab nations don’t like Iran very much. That Qadhafi likes blondes. That Putin and Berlusconi don’t mind stacking up some green together. There is more serious stuff there too, of course, (e.g. Red Crescent gun running; North Korea/Iran putting the ballistic missile evil in that “axis of evil” stuff) and no doubt, more to come.
I’m hearing the arguments we all could predict. Larry Sanger, one of the founders of Wikipedia, has written of his view that the global dump of diplomatic secrets is (a) dangerous to individual lives and to teh project of making sound policy in a dangeraous works (b) so indiscriminate that it can’t be seen as attempt to bring transparency on specific government misdeeds being covered up. Rather, Sanger argues, this is what enemies of the United States do, in what seems to him to be a transparant assault on US capacity to do anything for good in the world.
Josh Marshall, less explosively, says something similar, writing
I don’t recognize what Wikileaks is doing here as some righteous act of government transparency. It’s more like an attack, albeit one with consequences which can easily be overstated.
Me — I think “attack” is one of those words that’s easier to write than to defend. My impression, supported by only one quick conversation with someone with actual experience in the national security apparatus, is that this is less an attack than relatively harmless vandalism — but that’s not a position I can defend with any vigor. I just don’t know.
But what I do know is that this leak is a reminder of what it means to live in a national security state. Not in the sense that these particular documents impinge on my civil liberties or yours. Rather, it’s the combination of sheer volume — that quarter-of-a-million cables number — and the banality of so much of what’s come to light so far. (I guess I’m glad to know that “nurse” is a euphemism in Libya too…but still.)
We live enmeshed in secrets. The Harvard historian of science Peter Galison has been digging into the empire of unknowing that our government now rules, and I just reread this remarkable paper, written all the way back in 2004. Consider this:
The number of carefully archived pages written in the open is large. While hard to estimate, one could begin by taking the number of items on the shelves of the Library of Congress—one of the largest libraries in the world: 120 million items carrying about 7.5 billion pages, of which about 5.4 billion pages are in 18 million books…
…Some suspect as many as a trillion pages are classified (200 Libraries of Congress). That may be too many. 2001, for example, saw 33 million classification actions; assuming (with the experts) that there are roughly 10 pages per action, that would mean roughly 330 million pages were classified last year (about three times as many pages are now being classified as declassified). So the U.S. added a net 250 million classified pages last year. By comparison, the entire system of Harvard libraries—over a hundred of them—added about 220,000 volumes (about sixty million pages, a number not far from the acquisition rate at other comparably massive universal depositories such as the Library of Congress, the British Museum, or the New York Public Library). Contemplate these numbers: about five times as many pages are being added to the classified universe than are being brought to the storehouses of human learning including all the books and journals on any subject in any language collected in the largest repositories on the planet.
Galison in this piece focuses on the irrationality of the classification scheme, and it’s voraciousness. Secrecy breeds secrecy; knowledge disappears from view on a data-level invocation of the one-drop rule. Galison tells us that there aren’t that many people empowered to imprison information in the classification gulag:
…Just over 4000 for the whole of the United States—who bear the title of Original Classifiers. Only this initiated cadre can transform a document, idea, picture, shape, or device into the modal categories Top Secret, Secret, or Confidential. And of these 4132 or so Original Classifiers, only 999 (as of 2001) are authorized to stamp a document into the category Top Secret.
Those few people are the unmoved prime movers of the classified world—it is they who begin the tagging process that winds its way down the chain of derivative classification. For every document that subsequently refers to information in those originally classified gains the highest classification of the documents cited in it. Like the radio-tagging of a genetic mutant, the classified information bears its mark through all the subsequent generations of work issuing from it. More numbers: in 2001 there were 260,678 original classifications (acts that designated a body of work classified) and 32,760,209 derivative ones. A cascade of classification.
All this (and more — really, go read the whole thing) leads up to the point that returns us to the depressing glimpse of the way we live now produced by the Wikileaks dump. That would be Galison’s depiction of the actual impossibility of rational secrecy. What we get instead of security, he argues, is the dystopia Thomas Pynchon saw in The Crying of Lot 49:
…a universe so obsessed with concealment and conspiracy, with government and corporate monopoly control of information, that the causal structure and even the raw sequence of events hovered perpetually out of reach…Secret societies with private communication desperately tried to counter the monopoly on information—Pynchon’s world crawls with disaffected engineers trying to patent Maxwell’s demon, would-be suicides, and isolated lovers all seeking to break the out-of-control monopoly of knowledge transmission.
Galison has a number of targets in this piece. But the biggest one, or at least that which resonated now as I read this essay again, is that once you set out down a road where each unknowable fact needs its hedge of other secrets to preserve the original wall of ignorance and so on…you end up in a position where it becomes impossible for the governed to give informed consent to their governors.
There is the obvious problem, of course: bits of knowledge that disappear into the nothingness of the security apparatus, not because of any danger they pose, but because they impinge on the autonomy of the state. Things that if we knew them we’d react badly to, the sweetheart deals or the unobservered f**k ups that it’s just easier (for some) if hoi polloi don’t know.
But those are probably the easy misdeeds to correct: if the catastrophes are obvious enough, then there are threads to pull if we had more McClatchy’s and no Foxes on the job. The deeper issue is that of the paternalistic state, one in which secrets are kept simply because everything runs so much more smoothly if we don’t know precisely what is being done, to and for whom. Here’s Galison again:
In the end, however, the broadest problem is not merely that of the weapons laboratory, industry, or the university. It is that, if pressed too hard and too deeply, secrecy, measured in the staggering units of Libraries of Congress, is a threat to democracy. And that is not a problem to be resolved by an automated Original Classifier or declassifier. It is political at every scale from attempts to excise a single critical idea to the vain efforts to remove whole domains of knowledge.
That’s right, if unsatisfying. I see no sign that things will change soon; the national security state has too many layers of justification (many classified, of course, but trust us….) to suggest that the ratio of classification to declassification is going to change anytime soon.
Which, by the long road home, leads to Wikileaks.
I understand the view that unfiltered dumps of classified documents about anything can be reckless, or worse. But at the same time if Wikileaks did not exist, it would be invented. When we make more secrets than knowledge we can share, that ever-growing Fort Knox of unknowing will inevitably draw its safe crackers. And if we are horrified when those crackers actually steal something we care about, we might want to look again at how we decide how much we think it wise not to know ourselves.
Images: James Jacques Joseph Tissot, “The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies,” c. 1896-1902.
Diego Velázquez, “Las Meninas,” 1656–1657.
I always wondered about the Harlot of Jericho, if being forced to work as a prostitute in order to survive in Jericho led to her lack of loyalty to the fine city of Jericho. Used and abused?
Anyway, secrets. Much of what I have seen reported on the latest Wikileaks probably shouldn’t have been secret anyway. Why should it be a secret that the US has tried to find homes for the inhabitants of Gitmo? Why should it be a secret that Everybody is getting tired of North Korea? And Everybody thinks that the leaders of Iran might be a little less than sane and therefore quite dangerous?
The next question is, How much of this stuff was already common knowledge among the heads of state all over the world? And how much of it is just an effort to keep the people in the US out of the loop?
One of the functional things with the Wikileaks documents is that the data was transmitted over secure methods as opposed to open methods. Most (the vast majority) wasn’t classified, but was something that should’ve been protected from willy-nilly distribution. If the only way to do that is to put it on SIPR, then it’s going on SIPR whether it should be classified or not.
Just having been transmitted on SIPR does NOT make something classified. That’s why so much of the stuff was and is pretty banal.
The problem for declassification is that very few people have the ability or authority to declassify documents.
Get more people who are cleared for access and posess a bias for declassification, and you’ll make some headway. Train people to properly use the NIPR (non-secure IP nework) and traffic on SIPR will cut down, and you’ll make even more progress. The technology is finally reaching full dissemination to secure individual emails with encryption that is good enough for NOFORN. Simply dumping a million or so documents into the public domain, especially when done as the predicate to a criminal act will not accomplish that.
Didn’t you hear? PFC Manning was gay, and wanted sexual reassignment surgery. It’s a Big Gay Plot now.
If BushCo hadn’t created the Iraq war out of thin air, WikiLeaks wouldn’t have half the credibility it currently has.
The big cheese politicos are all red faced and blustering because the facts have been released, but they’re not even attempting to discredit them.
Business as usual. Get pissed off because the info was released, not because it’s a lie.
The thing about the nexus of what actually ends up happening in governance, and the details of the processes that led to the creation of that reality in governing, for me is only as important as is my agreement with that policy. Republicans have an entirely different set of values and preferences.
I want to see how a lie is formed when shit happens that doesn’t make sense, like with the entire Iraq misadventure. A wingnut may want to know if Obama had a seance to contact the collectivist spirit of Karl Marx for instruction on how to pass “gubmint run healthcare”.
The point is that secrets are only malevolent as what they lead to, and their essence mitigated by things we can see with out own eyes that is relative to ideology and personal values.
I think the state department leaks of cables, and government workings, not matched up with a suspicion of a specific bad policy is at best a flailing “attack” on my country and authority in general. Leak to me the decision making and interactions that lead to torture becoming the official American policy with detailed infrastructure to carry it out. Give me names and address of those making illicit plans that made mockery out of the law. I am not interested in the scattershot fire of foreign anarchists and America haters, especially in the arena of the single agency we have that can promote peace in the world. The US State Department.
I do hope Assange and company gives us the inside skinny on the banksters, it will be a downpayment toward forgiving the bullshit released so far.
I’ve heard that Manning is gay, and that may have added to his disenchantment with the Army. I don’t want anyone to think for one minute that Manning’s sexuality has anything to do with his actions in any but the most superficial of ways if at all.
The only reason I can see for bringing that up would be to sabotage the repeal of the gay ban. And to clarify, I don’t believe that you, Bnut, are the one pushing this angle.
@soonergrunt: Of course, it’s just another angle for the fucking mouth breathers to play. DADT repeal is a lost cause for them, and they know it, I think it’s just character assassination. Momma Grizzly has already openly called for Assange’s murder, the only thing saving him from a “queer smear” is the fact that he’s been accused of raping women in Sweden.
@Bnut: And the fact that alleged rape is less of a flaw than homosexuality makes me want to blow my fucking brains out.
Welcome to my existence dude. The only thing is if you blow your brains out, they win by default. Staying alive and daring to be happy drives them totally batshit insane.
It’s like that guy in the neighborhood everyone knows is cheating on his wife. Nothing happens if everyone just snickers behind his (and his wife’s) back. But once it is discussed openly, and that public secret becomes public knowledge, that’s when the real danger emerges: embarrassment.
And that’s really the only reason this kind of information is kept “secret.” Because openly acknowledging it embarrasses people that TPTB do not want, for a variety of reasons, to embarrass. Including themselves.
The only harm it actually does to national security interests is that members of our foreign service will find it a bit more difficult to get public secrets from their foreign counterparts. Not merely because it was leaked, but essentially because they circulated that information on an intranet that a fucking PFC could access.
@Yutsano: I’m with Louie CK. Thank FSM I am a straight, white male. You other folks have it rough. But no worries, I’ve got your back. We can’t lose, right?
I agree with the general points of this post about secrecy. But I disagree on some specific points about this specific Wikileaks dump, based on what I’ve read about it on the TPM’s Wkileaks Wire
First, it seems like a lot of this stuff is not highly classified and available to an a very large unknown number of people in and out of the military:
11/29/2010, 10:25 AM | Rachel Slajda | #
Where The Cables Came From
“… A diplomatic dispatch marked Sipdis [“Siprnet distribution”] is automatically downloaded on to its embassy’s classified website. From there it can be accessed not only by anyone in the state department, but also by anyone in the US military who has a computer connected to Siprnet. Millions of US soldiers and officials have “secret” security clearance. The US general accounting office identified 3,067,000 people cleared to “secret” and above in a 1993 study. Since then, the size of the security establishment has grown appreciably.”
Most of the stuff is gossip; leads passed on for developing pressure points or blackmail in dealing with foreign governments or officials; things that some official said to some other official for who knows what motive or purpose (or is Assange so idiotically simple minded that he thinks all the stuff these officials say to other officials is true?).
That Arab governments would like the U.S. to ‘do something’ about Iran is not new. That Iran may have used non-medical Red Crescent personnel to smuggle weapons and ammo is not new.
The only scoop I’ve seen so far is that the U.S. government ‘believes’ North Korea provided Iran with more missile technology than previously believed, and that technology may be be more long range than believed. That is the one thing I’ve seen that seems worth following closely.
A lot of this other stuff seems worthless to me. A Chinese official told a South Korean official that the PRC was ‘warming’ to a unified Korea under Seoul’s control. So what? What does mean even if it true? How do you know it is true? Because some PRC diplomatic flack said so?
No one knows much about what is going on in North Korea? That is news?
This kind of indiscriminate release is very damaging to Wikileaks’ credibility in my opinion. If it does release some documents on the U.S. banking scandal, I hope they do a better job than this.
If some government pushes back in a way that endangers the freedom of the press, I will support and contribute to organizations that oppose such actions. But Wikileaks can get lost, as far as I am concerned, if they keep acting like this.
If I had some important secret information that needed to get out, this kind of behavior would make me vary wary of dealing with Wikileaks, or any organization that pulls stunts like this.
@Bnut: Truth be told I’m glad I’m gay in this day and age.I have much more freedom to be myself (and my partner gets federal bennies along with me, I have a certain black President to thank for that) plus there are other countries willing to take me if things go too far backwards here. I personally think it gets even bettah, but I’m also the eternal optimist.
I think Bnut’s solidarity with you in quoting Louis CK, is that being straight is clearly better. Aka it’s more advantageous and less prone to bigoted attacks when you’re straight. We’re glad you’re proud, and unashamed and you can be who you are and want to be. We wouldn’t want it any other way. We’re just saying, side by side, straight is much more stress free day to day. And that’s something that should change.
@freelancer: One of the things I have learned over the years is you change the world one heart at a time. Yes it’s slow. Yes it can be frustrating. But it’s also effective. And the end result is the heart to change wants to spread that change itself. To borrow a line from a cheesy Matt Damon movie, a waterfall starts with a single drop of water. But one becomes two, and so the cycle flows.
That’s so gay.
@Yutsano: My three good gay friends are a lawyer, a video producer and a rather famous interior designer. None of them has been held back by their sexuality. Why should a soldier, or a journalist? Or a hacker or criminal. I’m so over this stupid homosexual shit. Until right wingers engage on substance instead of lube, they can rot in hell.
The problem the government faces is a sheer glut of information. Simply put, there is so much inflow and so little condensation and classification of data that it’s impossible to use effectively. That’s why you have guys touching your junk at the airport.
If Wikileaks has one benefit, it will be that the government will decide that the only way to protect most of this information is to simply not keep it. Purge it, hire people to condense and collate it, but dump the shit that simply doesn’t matter. That’s pretty antithetical to government (I know, I work there), but it can be done. Last year I was allowed to shred about 600,000 documents that my group was responsible for. After patiently explaining to them that if there was something in those 600,000 documents that someone needed, there was no fucking way I could ever find it because I never had adequate staff to take the old stuff assembled on typewriter and scotch tape and collate it, and that, well, nobody fucking cared about what was in those 600,000 documents and nobody had ever asked and so they only represented an administrative burden and downside risk because there was personal information in there that if it got released would make us liable. So, I got permission to shred all 600,000 documents (roughly 3 months after I shred them, but don’t tell anyone – I got tired of waiting).
So yes, more and more leaks. Let’s teach the government that they are better off hiring shredders than classifiers.
@freelancer: Hello! Matt Damon? Do I have to serve these things up to you on a silver platter? Jeez. :)
Two of the greatest fucking soldiers I know (one Army, one Marine) are both gay. Where you feel your sexuality lies has dick all to being a good soldier period. And most of the force has figured that out before the brass. So hopefully now that the results will go public on that, DADT will die with a whimper.
@jl: I find that 3.0 million number interesting for a few reasons. One is that it is 1% of the population. What are the chances that a few of those 3 million people at any given time don’t share the same institutional goals of the government? But the number is from 1993 – I wonder how often that number gets updated and what level clearance one needs to find out what the current number is?
@Suffern ACE: Just consider that every single one of them underwent a background check by the FBI. I mean, if you want to talk about big government…
Mike Kay (Democrat of the Century)
@Bnut: Well, it could have been worse, at least he wasn’t muslim.
I mean muslim is the new gay-illegal-mexican-immigrant-welfare-queen-elitist-christ-killing-flag-burning-jew.
@Martin: I like that idea. I wonder how many 99ers the government could put on temporary employment in the Civilian Condensing and Shredding Corps?
Villago Delenda Est
The thing about classification of documents is that it’s done, in part, as CYA…if you fail to classify something, you might be in trouble for letting too much slip, so stamping something “Confidential” is easy. Since I was a COMSEC custodian, I could classify stuff pretty much at will, and not be questioned…after all…it might involve codes!
Also, if it’s related to something classified (let’s say it has something to do with the old General Defense Plans I used to work on in Germany in the 80’s) it’s very simple to classify it “Secret” just to be sure. So there’s a great deal of derivative classification that isn’t necessarily going to be harmful to the nation’s defense if it’s read by just anyone.
Then of course there’s the entire secrecy fetish of governments in general, but total authoritarian asstards like Cheney who classify shit just because they can, and with the same capriciousness, unclassify stuff when it’s convenient (see Plame, Valerie).
Villago Delenda Est
These are good points…the fact that something is sent over a secure network means that it is, effectively, classified. Whether the content is sensitive in anyway or not. You classify it “to be sure”.
It’s more CYA.
Frankly, it’s gotten easier and easier to use secure channels over the past 30 years. It used to be a major pain to get a secure line to talk about secret stuff. Now it’s like falling off a log…so everything, to include biscuit recipes, gets sent over a secure channel.
Which means that there’s a lot of very bogus “classified” stuff out there.
Of course, if it’s leaked, you have to treat it all like it’s the real thing. So the actual content is secondary to the means of transmission, if that means is a secured channel of some sort.
Because you have to be sure. CYA, again.
It really is useful, occasionally, in a democracy to know what our government is up to. Not often, but occasionally. and this is all sort of enlightening.
what exactly is supposed to be classified from the alleged rulers of this republic? seriously, we need some definitions.
Well there are other models of how secret government actions come to light, and they’re mainly mediated by powerful media outlets, who take the position of being arbiters between the national security state and the public interest. If you look at it from Wikileak’s point of view, they just released really important documents about Iraq and Afghanistan that showed not huge attention grabbing things that you could use to bludgeon the government, but illustrated the climate of decision making and procedures that our decision making institutions operate under. And the institutions that were supposed to say “shit, this is important” and bludgeon the government with it greeted wikileaks with a very big yawn. I think when people say “there’s nothing new”, they mean there’s no big release that can be used to easily and thoughtlessly push public opinion, like the Reuters killing video was.
With that said, I think the point of indiscriminate release as opposed to the so-called “responsible” targeted release is to allow people to similarly witness the climate of decision making and deal-making that goes on by the foreign policy elites in our name. I don’t think it was expressly a way to vandalize the government, even though there might be short-term consequences. It just sucks that we couldn’t see cables from a more critical time, like 2002-2003, where we could have seen the ways the Bush administration got other people to aid in the invasion of Iraq, with what justification and with what threats.
One more thing. Suppose wikileaks was just trying to force media outlets to do their job and report the interesting things out of the cables. They could have bluffed that they were going to release the documents, forcing newspapers to run analytical pieces, interact with the U.S. state department to determine what actually does compromise national security, etc.. Then they could have just not released anything and put it on the backs of major media outlets.
If they did that, then they wouldn’t be taken seriously, and news organizations would just take future leaks and soundlessly forward it back to their governments in the name of national security. By sort of using the threat of indiscriminate release as a collateral, and following up on it, for example, they forced the New York Times, at least, to actually report on whatever was in those cables.
And most of this stuff, let’s be clear, isn’t classified at all. It’s mostly just embarrassing because it’s impressionistic, but all the more revealing because that is what actual on the spot diplomats think before all the bullshit sets in. And again, I have to come back to the point, are the American people, the alleged sovereigns of this republic, allowed to have a say before our alleged representatives tell us what to think about all this. That is the real, and I admit difficult, question.
And how much is actually surprising. Pakistan is a shithole and a mess of contradictory impulses between helping the radicals and opposing them? North Korea is full of shit and China is secretly sick to death of them? Iran is a pain in the ass for everybody within missile range? Wow, wish they’d kept all that under wraps. How innocent we all were, once upon a fuck, are you kidding me?
How far we’ve come.
Five years ago, people were stone cold pissed that Bush was pulling exculpatory stuff like Powell’s meeting in Egypt when he announced that Saddam was not a threat off the web and pretending it never existed.
Now we want to push everything back down the rabbit hole and the only difference is it’s OUR guy in the White House.
Tribalism – it’s not just for the GOP.
If wikileaks got 250,000 documents basically for free, how much do you think the Russians or the Chinese could get for say $500,000? Considering there are 3 million+ people with access to this stuff, there must have been some takers. Definitely a better investment for the Russians than those bumbling spies that go busted earlier this year (or maybe those bumbling spies were there to see if they could bribe some of those 3 million.)
Ooh, a new troll, how cute. It’s even trained already in making up strawman arguments.
I think this lame wikidump actually helps the governments. The impression becomes: “See nothing seriously corrupt is happening.”
Whassamatter, your betters can’t be bothered to speak up in their defense, so they need you for the lame cliches?
Don’t you have school today?
@Yutsano: None of the guys in my platoon ever came out (to me) until post-deployment. I had my suspicions and I was correct, but I never brought it up at all. But looking back, all the phone/Skype calls I heard and they overheard, all the very WASPy prayers we had to listen to and attend, the far too easy homophobic jokes thrown around (by those gay Marines as well), it must have been torture.
Straw — it’s the new white meat.
Link something to support this or stfu. I see most liberals and Democrats disapproving the security breach but glad the information is coming out, at least some of it. Where the hell are the ‘we’ who ‘want to push everything back down the rabbit hole’?
And I think you meant ‘memory hole’, not ‘rabbit hole’.
Example 1. You can find more if you REALLY try, unless you want to argue that a leak of government workings during Bush’s regime would have been an ‘attack’ on the country.
You know, like this. Or unless you really think that the way we’re doing things right now in the Middle East/Iran isn’t a ‘bad policy’. Which I do, by the way.
It has been a long time since Sunday School for me, but was the Harlot of Jericho really a transvestite?
All hail the security state, ignorance is strength!
After all the lies our benevolent rulers have shoved down our throats over the past decade, from Iraq to torture to wiretapping to bailing out the rich and letting the poor eat shit and die, I’d think most people would be happy with a little transparency.
Apparently I was wrong.
Unfortunately for me, most of these diplomatic cables are not what I was looking for. I was hoping for some really condemnable stuff concerning Haiti, Honduras, Venezuela, and Ecuador. The way that the State Department and CIA push the transnational corporate agenda in the third world is really sickening, but I guess those details will have to wait for another day.
This day we just have to settle for mildly embarrassing the oligarchs. I guess that will do for now.
This post via Matt Yglesias, I think, is thoughtful.
Put me in the category of those who think that the citizenry do in fact deserve to know, even if only occasionally and sporadically, what their government is actually doing.
And, in addition, letting other peoples know what their governments are doing.
We’ve basically stopped continuing to release Foreign Relations of the United States — the official declassified record of US foreign policy (i.e., why you hear about how it usually takes 20 or so years to see what actually happened instead of public lies) — since it’s getting to quite controversial years.
The latest releases are portions of Nixon era policies. It’s no longer 20 or so years until the US declassifies its official State Department history: we’re over 40 years. Many volumes for the Nixon era are still in the ‘proposed’ category.
FRUS was never a source for explosive revelations of what State cable said this tremendous thing. Thankfully, the series goes beyond embassy cables and publishes higher level documents. Which do, in fact, have serious impacts — 40 or so+ years after the fact, because, well, fuck you.
Even older volumes continue to be delayed, coincidentally with regard to US policies in ‘covertly’ backing an army coup (and helping them slaughter hundreds of thousands of civilians — ‘Communists’), and backing what would soon become a generations-long murderous dictatorship.
This information was published too via a leak of information to the public which the State Dept and CIA were blocking, albeit on a much lower scale, the volumes being printed and awaiting shipment.
Even when the records have been declassified and the histories published and awaiting distribution, the national security state must delay the process.
The Indonesia volume includes significant new documentation on the Indonesian Army’s campaign against the Indonesia Communist Party (PKI) in 1965-66, which brought to power the dictator Suharto. (Ironically, Suharto’s successor, ex-President Wahid, is on his way to Baltimore this week for medical treatment, and has been replaced by his vice-president, who is the daughter of the man Suharto overthrew.)
For example, U.S. Embassy reporting on November 13, 1965 passed on information from the police that “from 50 to 100 PKI members were being killed every night in East and Central Java….”; and the Embassy admitted in an April 15, 1966 airgram to Washington that “We frankly do not know whether the real figure [of PKI killed] is closer to 100,000 or 1,000,000 but believe it wiser to err on the side of the lower estimates, especially when questioned by the press.” On page 339, the volume seems to endorse the figure of 105,000 killed that was proposed in 1970 by foreign service officer Richard Cabot Howland in a classified CIA publication.
“PKI”, as usual, meaning ‘anyone whom the army and rightist elements want massacred’.
Such interventions by the security state are occasionally ham-handed enough to insult their own employees.
An uncensored version of the CIA’s own history of its operation to overthrow the Mossadegh government of Iran because of its independent nationalist policies on its own oil was then leaked online.
Great essay Tom.
Obama, however, has committed itself to a more logical treatment of documents than simply disappearing them into the legal swamp of semi-classified para-statuses.
Order or not, it goes on and will go on, because the NSS doesn’t like letting anyone ever know what it really does.
Weak sauce. You have to do better if you want to become a respected troll around here. At the moment you’re not even reaching the level of myiq1/2xu.
I have just spent 30 min looking at the life and works of painter Diego Velázquez. While I knew of some of his work, there was much to get to know. Time well spent. Thank you Tom.
Two different (though not contrasting) views from The Independent (UK) on the WikiLeaks release of State Dept cables.
First, Patrick Cockburn:
Next, Robert Fisk:
Oh, what the heck, one more.
Ahmedinajad dismisses the Wikileaks cables release as a propaganda campaign by the US gov’t — agreeing, to an extent, with Patrick Cockburn above.
By the way, was Italy’s Berlusconi supposed to be offended by cables suggesting he was extravagant and partied hard, or, more likely, proud?
I am not one who thinks Assange should get a medal or anything, but I simply am not at all upset about his release of theses cables. The only thing anyone can say about these docs that is “bad” is that they are embarrassing because they reveal how leaders and diplomats talk among themselves when they think no one is listening. No real national security secrets are revealed, just gossip and unvarnished impressions and opinions. It’s revealing but not in a dangerous way and certainly not an attack on the US. In fact, in the larger sense that Tom is discussing, the massive amount of classified information that really need not be classified but for the obsession with secrecy, it’s a good thing. But I would rather Assange get going with a really helpful dump, like his previous ones regarding the Iraq war. This one rally tells us nothing we didn’t already know. Now a dump of bankster docs? That would be fucking awesome.
I can live with secrets. With enough fingers in enough pies, the ‘secret’ business gets busy. It’s when this atmosphere enables the lack of facts and the presence of outright lies to start a war and its commensurate killing that we’re done for.
The problem here, with the post and most of the comments in the thread, is that almost everyone here assumes that classification is hiding bad things, and if only those things are made public the bad behavior of our and other governments will go away. What’s not evident is much understanding at all of the world that’s been exposed.
This is the crux of the whole essay — a well written and nicely reasoned essay, to be sure, but one that essentially is barking up the wrong tree. Frankly, there’s more substance in soonergrunt’s comment than in the entire essay. And there’s more insight and understanding in General Stuck’s comment as well. And all due respect to Peter Galison, but I don’t expect a science historian to have the insight into the admittedly byzantine world of international diplomacy that someone with actual experience in it would have.
Look, the assumption throughout the entire debate surrounding this latest dump, on the part of the overwhelming majority of the people chiming in, is that secrecy always and necessarily hides things that we the electorate need to know. The document dump itself has proven that this isn’t true. What’s more, everyone who says that governments shouldn’t keep secrets, then in the same breath says that there’s nothing new or surprising in the dumps, realizes it. Yet they still cling to the secrecy-is-bad mantra.
I’m all in favor of exposing wrongdoing. I’ll say that till I’m blue in the face, because it’s true. What this latest dump does is not to expose wrongdoing per se — Assange et al. can’t be arsed to comb through the information and make such a determination themselves — but to expose the day-to-day activity of our State Department, warts and all. Interesting for all of us on the outside looking in, to be sure. But what about the people who sit where the rubber meets the road? Diplomacy is a world that turns on the axis of communication. How willing are the people in that world now going to be to communicate with our diplomats and their staff, knowing how easily and thoroughly the system can be breached? How much more difficult is it now for our diplomatic staff to gather information — including the information we feel our government should have to avoid making stupid mistakes, and exactly the kind of information (when made available to us, directly or indirectly) we feel we, as a supposedly informed electorate, need to put the right people in the driver’s seat of this nation?
Just because an administration can’t be trusted doesn’t mean all State Department grunts can’t be trusted. I have firsthand knowledge that there were highly principled and competent people at State during the Reagan and W administrations. And they did their jobs on a routine, mundane, day-to-day basis and helped keep the intergovernmental communication system functioning smoothly (a situation made all the more crucial during times when much of the rest of the world disliked and mistrusted our administration). Did they have to toe the party line? And how — and therein lies the kind of information that’s potentially helpful for us, the electorate, to know. Unfortunately, that kind of information doesn’t get separated out in a document dump such as this. If Wikileaks showed themselves to be a principled investigative outfit, separating out the useful stuff and keeping the rest under wraps, I’d view them, and their document releases, quite differently. But they don’t. So we’re faced with this: Now we have much greater insight into how the State Department works. Fine. Is it worth it?
@El Cid: And who thinks Putin, or the average Russian for that matter, is really offended by being called an Alpha Dog.
@Ash Can: Now we have much greater insight into how the State Department works. Fine. Is it worth it?Yes. Because for the most part it is simply another source for comments we’ve already heard, and by rubbing elephant shit on everyone’s faces there’s a chance they’ll deal with the pachyderms soiling the room.
@Pococurante: What makes you so sure the response won’t be to hide even more shit?
@jl: See what I said about using SIPR.
The cause of this is that SIPR and systems like it are very expensive, so there’s no secure alternative to SIPR. Once something gets into SIPR, it’s hard to get everyone to treat it as non-classified. A lot of people are of the attitude that if it’s on SIPR, it MUST be classified, etc.
As I noted, there are encryption capabilities that are finally widely spread within DoD for use on NIPR. Getting people to use those capabilities is not easy because people get in the habit of doing things one way, and because of the knowledge that if there’s a breach of classification, somebody’s career is going to stall out if not end completely.
@Villago Delenda Est: I don’t know if you’ve ever been involved in a Classified Material Incident, but I’m sure you’d see what a total pain in the ass they are.
There’s the old story about the Soviets filming a foreign leader (Suharto?) with two women (neither his wife) while on a visit to Moscow then trying to blackmail him. The leader instead asked for extra copies to pass around to prove how strong and virile he was…
joe from Lowell
An attack, but a minor one
An act of vandalism.
I think we need to scream at each other for hours over this.
@Ash Can: We know they certainly will. As El Cid noted earlier, this became absurd forty years ago and gets worse with each election cycle.
This is nothing new. We find similar “leaks” from the second millenium BCE. Somehow nations manage to focus on national interest instead of pouting off to the nursery.
What makes you so sure that making no effort to pry it open is the path of angels?
@Pococurante: To pry what open? A system that, if peered into, shuts itself up even tighter?
This isn’t a matter of principle, it’s a matter of practicality. It’s a matter of doing more harm than good — specifically, of leading to less transparency, not more. Also known as defeating the purpose.
I’m gobsmacked that more people can’t see this.
ETA: If peered into the wrong way, I should say.
The leaks either are relevant to corrupt policy or they are not. Doesn’t matter who is in the WH. Policy you don’t agree with doesn’t really need leaking the entrails on. You can see it with your eyes, and cast your vote on election day for a change. It’s called democracy.
There must have been a big xmas sale down at the feed lots on straw dude. This argument is so weak, a teaspoon of simple common sense knocks it down.
@Yutsano: Veering back OT
I’d like to believe that can happen. But the evangelical Protestant minority in this country has inordinate power (I can’t for the life of me understand why, but they appear to), and they know – they full well know – that ending DADT and having open gays in the military will utterly destroy their attempt to heterosexually purify America.
DADT will end, but don’t expect a whimper. The rearguard action of the Christianist right will be intense. And then they’ll fold.
@WarMunchkin: Thank you that link. Zunguzungu’s article on Assange’s purpose for Wikileaks is thought-provoking and interesting. An excellent analysis.
@Calouste: People – there is a big misunderstanding here – just because you have a clearance does not enable you to see any classified information nor access all, some, or parts just because you have a clearance. Yes, some people can but that is a very small number compared to people who have clearances. I know – I’ve been on both sides of that fence.
This critique misses the mark because it fails to take into account what we’re talking about here: diplomatic cables. Diplomatic cables are not classified (and it’s a rather low-level classification) because of some mania for secrecy spawned by the “national security state” and keeping them confidential is hardly some uniquely American or uniquely modern phenomonon.
Diplomatic cables have always been confidential. As long as we’ve had diplomats, we’ve had a recognition that countries have a legitimate interest in keeping their diplomatic correspondence confidential. The sanctity of the “diplomatic bag,” along with the inherent recognition that other countries will try to pierce that veil but will themeselves usually keep what they find secret so you don’t know they’re succeeding–goes back hundreds of years.
And the reason such communications are deemed confidential is the same as why attorney-client communications are confidential–because the ability to have frank discussions between colleagues and between subordinate and superior is essential to getting the job done.
National policy makers need to know what the people on the ground think–what they really think–about the countries they’re in and the leaders and people they meet. If diplomats have to be concerned that what they say in confidence is going to be revealed, they’re going to be less frank and, equally important, other people aren’t going to want to talk to them.
The real damage from this dump isn’t going to be from the contents of the cables. Other nations get very much the same kind of stuff from their diplomats and none of them are going to be shocked or angered at the tone, the detail or the type of information in them. The real damage is to the future flow of information that senior policy makers need to do their jobs in dealing with foreign governments. The real damage is the loss of confidence that future communications will actually remain confidential. In the future, there will be less detail, less information from foreign states conveyed through our diplomats, and, most dangerous of all, less frankness. That is inevitably going to affect the picture people in Washington, particularly at State, have of what’s going on the world.
My apologies to all for taking this long to enter the thread, and thanks to all who’ve commented. (I posted this at 1 a.m., and the day is still catching up to me — hence my silence.)
A couple of thoughts, in reply to several writers above, but notably @Ash Can: and now @NCSteve:
I think I made my point poorly, or rather buried it in too much verbiage (a habit of mine). I agree with you that the dump does not breach the wall of secrecy in any meaningful way. I agree that it causes at least some harm — though I think it may well be that you both overstate the degree to which this will have a chilling effect on communication. That’s an argument without a possible resolution, so I’ll even stipulate that this could do a lot of damage to US and others’ interests.
It may also do some good, as it happens; it’s not obvious to me that exposing a general Middle Eastern distrust of Iran is a terrible thing; nor that North Korea ships missiles here and there, or even that US diplomats can be seen here doing a pretty good job in the terms of their job description. Again — it’s easy to overstate the positive too, and how much benefit, if any, the US or the world will derive from the information in this dump is unknowable.
But my point was not that Wikileaks has done a terrible thing, nor that it is the last bastion of free communication on the web. It is that that metastasizing body of secrets makes this kind of action inevitable — especially when combined with the digitization of information and communication.
When you conceal more total data than you permit an open existence, you create not just a target, but one that demands attack: we know, even if these leaks are wholly indiscriminate and irresponsible, that there are gazillions (term of art) of other secrets that are material to civic life in a democracy that are being kept hidden for reasons that hurt democracy. In that context, you’ll get your Seymour Hersch prying loose a key secret precisely fitted to a story…and you’ll get your Assanges doing the journalistic equivalent of a home invasion, bursting in, grabbing what they can, and then jamming the accelerator down on the getaway car.
The only way to keep secrets (barring Franklin’s solution) is to make many fewer of them. But once you commit to any kind of broad “harm to America” criterion, as opposed to the kind of operational secret or deep-dive technical ones, two things happen. For one, you get a seemingly unstoppable flow of secrecy – by – contagion, as each fact that could cause harm needs to be walled in by other facts that could reveal the first one’s existence, until the vaults overflow. For the other, given that some people — often a lot, need access to this or that datum, you’ll get the human vulnerabilities that Assange exploits.
Shorter: this dump is a symptom of the over reach of the national security state. That it doesn’t alter that octupus’s grasp on our society doesn’t change the pathology that produced it.
This. And it’s also a symptom of the general failure of the media, such as the NYT and especially the Washington Post to filter through such secrets and step up to the duty of a free press to warn the public in a timely fashion. And the expiration date of even stale secrets ensures knaves will enjoy comfortable retirements praised as statesmen. (Though somehow Kissinger is still praised and it’s pretty well known that his hands have the multitudinous seas incarnadined.)
That. The content is beside the point. The leaks this time are an attack on the cult of secrecy and its acolytes and not just a grab at a bunch of secrets, many of which are banal or obvious. It’s like the Stuxnet worm meant to demoralize Iran’s nuclear effort rather than break some centrifuges.
Secrets that really deserve to be kept will get the heightened security they need. So will frivolous secrets or those covering up wrongdoing to no good purpose, but those in the last category will induce cognitive dissonance in their more conscientious keepers. The extra paranoia will lower morale and reduce efficiency (as happened with Iran) and may motivate further leaks of bad secrets. Conspirators will know exactly what each thinks of the other and plans to do about it.
At least that’s the idea. It’s a typical science-fiction Big Idea, and owes a lot to John Brunner’s classic proto-cyberpunk novel Shockwave Rider (1975) or Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956!). The idea has its faults, but it was a very good, very 1990s idea. Contrast that with Bill Gates’s Big Idea of a network with only one central server (contents owned by Microsoft) and millions of dumb terminals. That was a very 1970s idea that he published in from The Road Ahead in 1995.
Bruce (formerly Steve S.)
I know this is a bit off-topic for this post but I want to correct this when I can; the dictators of Arab nations don’t like Iran very much. The Arab general public is much more favorably disposed toward them (pdf). I want to make this point because the propaganda barrage about how this vindicates the US/Israeli position is already beginning, even being reflected on lefty blogs.
A bunch of my friends have been playing the “These leaks are going to get people killed” card, and I keep telling them that people are getting killed right now, and we don’t even know who or how many, because it’s all kept secret.
But beyond that, there’s a simpler reason why I’m in favor of Wikileaks. Ultimately, it comes down to this:
wow. most excellent take on this situation, and could not agree more. it’s become an entire rabbit hole of secrecy, to the point where the classifiers don’t even know what they’ve classified, and will reclassify the declassified when the declassified embarrasses or contradicts them, of course ignoring the fact that the reclassification refutes (or, refudiates) the entire classification system as a whole.
lewis carroll, meet monty python.
the paintings were also most adept touches, especially the velazquez. from your choice i’m sure you’ve read foucault’s analysis of this painting and its symbolism of the exit from the classical period, all reflected in the relationships represented therein. as such, the painting moves us from a period of classification certainty (of aristotle’s genus & species) into that uncertain period prior to the new episteme. in that case, into the modern. which, true to foucault’s understanding of the cyclical nature of the epistemic shifts (parallel to kuhn’s paradigm shifts), eventually creates its own burgeoning storehouse of secrets.
given the level of chaos the wikileaks will undoubtedly create, it seems safe to say we’re in the throws of another uncertainty.
fasten your seatbelts, everybody; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Used to have a boss who told me I needed to keep every slip of paper that came over my desk, because I didn’t know which would be important. Knowing that I couldn’t disagree/argue with him on just about anything I just kept stuff in a stack for 6 months at a time. If I hadn’t looked for or used anything in the stack, it got dumped. In 11 years I was never wrong. Never once threw out anything of value.
When I was in the military we kept records of everything. Keeping some stuff actually had value, maintenance records, who was driving the boat when it went aground, etc. But that ship was sold in the 90’s to Greece and decommissioned a few years later. I’ll bet all that info is still being kept somewhere. For no reason. And I’ll bet some of it is still classified.
These leaks are a public service. They show how silly and potentially threatening a lot of the secrecy of the government is. If there is little to no harm, it means nothing. If decisions are being made on your behalf that you not only disagree with, but that only power hungry people would make, using information that is at best misdirected, how can you be OK with those decisions? More importantly how would you know without an organization like Wikileaks? And how can one help change it’s government peacefully if one does not have the information? Governments and business organizations make decisions that directly affect your life everyday. And frequently not in a good way. As Tom states if Wikileaks didn’t exist someone would have to start it. It’s not that government or businesses are too big, it’s that once they get big they take on a life of their own. Their agenda becomes less of serving their constituents/customers and less of survival and one of power, unless they are watched closely. Your eyes are Wikileaks.
@68 Bruce S.
Yes, and notice how the NYT (I get the Herald Tribune but assume it’s the same story) gave the biggest play to the stuff about Iran.