Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A WikiLeaks Primer

I think the outpouring of words from every imaginable source on the WikiLeaks story is perfectly appropriate. These are important, complex issues and we're not close to consensus, or even a shared perception of what the issues are. The complexity and nuance hasn't in the slightest stopped me getting angrier and angrier with every day this story unfolds.

Short Form

Here's a sound bite I can sign up for, from Simon Phipps: "Wikileaks is like Pirate Bay; something that I don't like but have to defend because of the collateral damage caused by attacking it."

Unlike Simon, there are quite a few things I like about WikiLeaks; but even where it's open to criticism, its sins pale beside those of the rabble of wastrels, guttersnipes, nincompoops, and cowards lined up against it.

Let's Be Specific

Here, in The Guardian, is a leaked cable describing an intervention with US officials in Afghanistan by Canadian ambassador William Crosbie, who seems competent and level-headed. He is depicted as urging the Americans to lower the boom on that schmuck Karzai over obvious election-fixing, pointing out that this is politically important to Canada: "We must be prepared for confrontation with Karzai on this issue, he said, or risk losing credibility among our own population if we go along with a rigged election." Well, yep, we all did go along with the rigged election, didn't we, and how's that credibility looking?

So here are two sides of it: Crosbie has offered to resign, on the grounds that this cable and others expected to leak will damage his ability to work with the Afghan government. And, since it seems like we have an intelligent dude there who's saying the right things to the right people, that would be harmful. Bad, bad WikiLeaks.

On the other hand, as a Canadian I really want to know Why the fucking hell are we sending our young people to get killed there? Our senior official on the ground is telling everyone that the team whose side we're on are corrupt and stole the last election and are "making his blood boil"? The fact that our government has kept this intelligence secret while extending the Canadian mission is making mine boil. Thank you, WikiLeaks.

There you have it. Not simple.

To Be Fair

There are smart people pointing out the problems with what WikiLeaks has done. Here's a report from a human-rights activist. And Simon Phipps, once again: "It seems to me that taking stolen correspondence and publishing it for everyone to read is a fundamentally sociopathic act".

My Big Problem

Here's the real problem I have. Cast your mind back to early this year, when WikiLeaks seized the world's attention by releasing video of a Baghdad airstrike in July 2007, depicting what looked like a moderately-severe war crime.

And the real problem is that officials from all the same governments who are screaming now were screaming in advance of that release, about how awful it was that the data was stolen, and the harm that would be done by releasing it; they had stonewalled Freedom Of Information requests for that video from the press.

Try to put yourselves in Assange's shoes; the following fact would probably weigh heavily on your mind: You're being told that releasing this stuff would be harmful by a bunch of people who condoned a war crime and then tried to cover it up.

I don't know what kind of a person Mr. Assange is, and I'm not saying this is simple. But, sitting where he is, I might well have pulled the trigger and released the cables.

Practical Lesson

One of my favorite takes on this whole thing was Missing the point of WikiLeaks in one of The Economist blogs. It's qualitatively easier to leak these days, and having leaked, to get the juicy goods in front of the world, without getting legal or editorial or marketing clearance. The management community ignores this at their peril.

Yes, you can lock down your network with sharp-fanged firewalls, and disable the USB socket and DVD writer in all the computers. I know you can do this because I've worked with organizations that have; highly security-conscious financial institutions. What happens is, they take a grievous hit in productivity, and everyone brings their personal Mac in and puts it on the desktop and uses it for getting actual work done, mailing the results to the castrated company computer for deployment.

So your choice is clear: You can take a horrible productivity hit or you can deal with the enhanced risk of getting secrets leaked. My personal opinion is that your best bet is to have really good reasons for doing what you're doing and saying what you're saying and make sure the people who know the secrets know the reasons, too. Also, it would help if you don't treat your staff like shit. Or condone slaughtering civilians and then try to cover it up.

I wasn't born yesterday; nobody will ever do away with leaking (my employer sure hasn't managed it.) But there are things you can do to minimize the incentive for people to embark on this kind of wholesale sociopathy.

The World Overreacts

Do ya think? I'm fighting a rising tide of nausea as various flavors of functionary try to whack the WikiLeaks mole, applying the thoughtcrime principle, calling for Assange's assassination, hounding Amazon and Tableau and EveryDNS and PayPal into hasty action (and I sure wish my profession had shown a little spine). Thought leaders including Sarah Palin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Silvio Berlusconi, and Vladimir Putin tsk-tsk in unison; those closer to the mainstream who are joining the chorus should be very fucking nervous about the company they're keeping.

Oh, and by the way, I gather the raw material has passed over into torrent-land if you know where to look (I don't) and is thus far, far beyond suppression.


One of my favorite write-ups is from Heads start rolling in WikiLeaks affair. Let's see: A German bureaucrat fired for leaking internal discussions to the US. A Swedish diplomat feeling really bad for similar reasons. Berlusconi in hot political water. The Georgian ambassador to Rome implicated in the Berlusconi mud. The leader of the Moldovan Communist party exposed in what seems like a perfectly routine attempt at parliamentary bribery.

Isn't that awful. Losing sleep? Me neither.


Here are some other links to WikiLeaks news and analysis that I found worth reading:

And, of course, WikiLeaks itself, currently at

Sent from James' iPhone

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