Saturday, July 31, 2010

Thoughts on the Wikileaks controversy

I'm sure almost all my readers have by now heard about the so-called Wikileaks controversy. In case you missed it, the Wikileaks Web site released something like 90,000 pages of allegedly secret and confidential US military and diplomatic material relating to the war in Afghanistan. According to the Guardian:

The files ... give a blow-by-blow account of the fighting over the last six years, which has so far cost the lives of more than 320 British and more than 1,000 US troops.

. . .

The war logs also detail:

• How a secret "black" unit of special forces hunts down Taliban leaders for "kill or capture" without trial.

• How the US covered up evidence that the Taliban have acquired deadly surface-to-air missiles.

• How the coalition is increasingly using deadly Reaper drones to hunt and kill Taliban targets by remote control from a base in Nevada.

• How the Taliban have caused growing carnage with a massive escalation of their roadside bombing campaign, which has killed more than 2,000 civilians to date.

That's not the whole story, however. The leaked documents allegedly pose a threat to ongoing Coalition operations in Afghanistan. CNN reports:

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the massive leak will have significant impact on troops and allies, giving away techniques and procedures.

"The battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and Afghan partners, and may well damage our relationships and reputation in that key part of the world," Gates said. "Intelligence sources and methods, as well as military tactics, techniques and procedures will become known to our adversaries."

Furthermore, it's alleged that the leaks contain sufficient information to identify informants, thus putting their lives at risk. The Telegraph reports:

The Taliban has issued a warning to Afghans whose names might appear on the leaked Afghanistan war logs as informers for the Nato-led coalition.

In an interview with Channel 4 News, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said they were studying and investigating the report, adding “If they are US spies, then we know how to punish them.”

. . .

Information from the documents could reveal:

* Names and addresses of Afghans cooperating with Nato forces
* Precise GPS locations of Afghans
* Sources and methods of gathering intelligence

Predictably, reaction to the release of the documents has varied depending on the perspective of the commentator. Anti-war activists are delighted that so much 'dirty laundry' has been aired in public, placing particular emphasis on evidence suggesting that the Coalition has repeatedly violated the human rights of Afghans and others. Those supporting Coalition operations, on the other hand, regard the publication of these documents as nothing less than treason. They unleash diatribes against Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks (for a good example, see here), and want him, and whoever made the documents available to him, punished for what they've done. Assange, meanwhile, rejects any insinuation that he has 'blood on his hands' for what he's done, and insists he has the right to pursue his anti-war mission.

So much for the background. Let's take a long, hard look at the realities of the situation.

First, Julian Assange's political views may be anathema to many (including myself), but he's not a traitor to the USA. The dictionary definition of 'traitor' is:

1. a person who betrays another, a cause, or any trust.

2. a person who commits treason by betraying his or her country.

No matter how much one might dislike Mr. Assange or question his views and/or motives, he's neither a US citizen nor a US resident, so he doesn't fit that definition as far as the USA is concerned. Since he's an Australian citizen, and that country is part of the Coalition in Afghanistan, he might be the subject of official inquiries there: but as far as I know, he hasn't released any Australian-sourced documents concerning the war in Afghanistan, and is therefore probably not in breach of Australian law.

Mr. Assange's source is, of course, another matter. Information currently available suggests that a US Army Private First Class may be responsible for providing the documents to Wikileaks. If so, he's almost certainly in violation of his oath of service, and probably of one or more laws, regulations and restrictions governing the handling and dissemination of classified material. If media reports to date prove correct, I have little doubt he'll face charges for his actions, and I fully support that. If one freely takes an oath of office, and submits oneself to military discipline as a volunteer, one can and should be held accountable for any breach of that oath or of military discipline. That goes with the territory.

What if one disagrees with official policy, or believes it to be in error? Napoleon, in his Maxims of War, said:

Maxim LXXII. A general-in-chief has no right to shelter his mistakes in war under cover of his sovereign, or of a minister, when these are both distant from the scene of operation, and must consequently be either ill informed or wholly ignorant of the actual state of things.

Hence it follows, that every general is culpable who undertakes the execution of a plan which he considers faulty. It is his duty to represent his reasons, to insist upon a change of plan--in short, to give in his resignation rather than allow himself to be made the instrument of his army's ruin. Every general-in-chief who fights a battle in consequence of superior orders, with the certainty of losing it, is equally blamable.

However, he was speaking of a general, who's senior enough to have broad knowledge of all the factors involved in a given situation. A Private First Class, by definition, doesn't have nearly as much information at his disposal, and is unlikely to be well-trained enough to draw appropriate conclusions (particularly on the strategic level) from the little first-hand information he receives. Armies don't work that way. (Been there, done that, and got the T-shirt to prove it!) By all means, if one believes strongly that the policies of one's superiors are in error, it's one's duty to make that point to them, up to and including requesting to be relieved of one's post if one cannot in conscience obey orders. However, this isn't the same as abandoning one's oath and violating discipline.

I think this highlights the basic dichotomy separating the two sides on this issue. One side believes that conscience and personal belief override and supersede any considerations of duty, oaths of service, restrictive laws and the like. This is evident in Wikileaks' statement of its position in general:

The public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions forces them to consider the ethical implications of their actions. Which official will chance a secret, corrupt transaction when the public is likely to find out? What repressive plan will be carried out when it is revealed to the citizenry, not just of its own country, but the world? When the risks of embarrassment and discovery increase, the tables are turned against conspiracy, corruption, exploitation and oppression. Open government answers injustice rather than causing it. Open government exposes and undoes corruption. Open governance is the most effective method of promoting good governance.

Today, with authoritarian governments in power around much of the world, increasing authoritarian tendencies in democratic governments, and increasing amounts of power vested in unaccountable corporations, the need for openness and transparency is greater than ever. In an important sense, WikiLeaks is the first intelligence agency of the people. Better principled and less parochial than any governmental intelligence agency, it is able to be more accurate and relevant. It has no commercial or national interests at heart; its only interest is the revelation of the truth. Unlike the covert activities of state intelligence agencies, WikiLeaks relies upon the power of overt fact to enable and empower citizens to bring feared and corrupt governments and corporations to justice.

WikiLeaks helps every government official, every bureaucrat, and every corporate worker, who becomes privy to embarrassing information that the institution wants to hide but the public needs to know. What conscience cannot contain, and institutional secrecy unjustly conceals, WikiLeaks can broadcast to the world.

WikiLeaks is a buttress against unaccountable and abusive power.

We propose that authoritarian governments, oppressive institutions and corrupt corporations should be subject to the pressure, not merely of international diplomacy, freedom of information laws or even periodic elections, but of something far stronger — the consciences of the people within them.

There's more at the link.

That all sounds very moral and high-principled, doesn't it? Unfortunately, it completely ignores the other side of the equation, which is that there may be very good reasons for maintaining confidentiality about certain issues - reasons which may not be immediately apparent to those not in possession of all the facts, or unable to see the 'big picture' as a whole.

Unfortunately, observing such restrictions means trusting those in high authority to do their job . . . and that sort of trust has been eroded in recent decades through all too many scandals and shortcomings of officialdom. To put it bluntly, politicians, military officers and bureaucrats have lied so often about so many things that their utterances are now treated with suspicion as a matter of course. Examples are legion. The Pentagon Papers . . . Watergate . . . Iran-Contra . . . Zippergate . . . the rationale for the Iraq war . . . the list goes on, and on, and on. I don't blame people for mistrusting their leaders and rulers. I don't trust them either!

It's this pervasive, corrosive atmosphere of distrust of officialdom that has ultimately led to the existence of Wikileaks, and the willingness of some to use such channels to 'blow the whistle' on what they see as the deliberate covering-up of evidence of official ineptness, corruption and even actual crimes. Let's be very clear on this: the documents circulated by Wikileaks do, indeed, appear to provide solid evidence of some such cases. It's to be hoped that where appropriate, official investigations will follow, and guilty parties identified in or through the leaked documents will be punished.

However, the problem is how to restore faith in the leadership we've entrusted with fighting the war in Afghanistan. That's a far more difficult issue. I've written before about the situation there, and I repeat here what I've said in the past: there is no military solution to the problem of Afghanistan. It simply doesn't exist. I have the highest respect and admiration for General Petraeus, who's probably the most brilliant commander the US Army has produced for decades; but I maintain that there is no way in the world for him to win a military victory in Afghanistan, no matter how many troops and how much firepower he's given. That conflict cannot be won by military means. Centuries of experience in that part of the world, by many occupying powers, bear that out. It's not going to happen. Any scholar of history will tell you that. As for a political solution? It's possible . . . but it'll take a quality of leadership, personal courage of conviction, and breadth of vision that I simply don't see in any of our politicians at present. The thought of President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton trying to reason with the Taliban is so ridiculous that it would be laughable, if it weren't so tragic! A modern Theodore Roosevelt would be far more likely to succeed . . . but we don't have a modern Theodore Roosevelt, more's the pity.

The Wikileaks scandal is merely a 'tip of the iceberg' indication of the polarization of our society; the conflict between, on the one hand, those dedicated to traditional values such as honoring one's oath of office and duty to one's superiors and country, and on the other, those who assign a higher, overriding importance to individual conscience and one's personal moral perspective. I fall into the first camp, but I can understand the perspective of those in the second (even if I disagree with it).

I don't know the answer to this dilemma. I don't think there is any simple answer. All we can be sure of is that the Wikileaks scandal is merely its current manifestation. There will be more. Be in no doubt about that!



Anonymous said...

Thank you. Well written and worth reading.

John Peddie (Toronto) said...

The long-standing dilemma of Western democracies is that they want to win "dirty" wars while playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules (or, if you prefer, the Geneva Convention).

Those restraints work only in conflicts where the enemy shares at least some of the same basic human values.

That is not the case in Afghanistan, and of course they would laugh at us.

Old NFO said...

Peter, excellent post. As you indicated there are "other" issues... I somehow doubt there will be any real followup to see how many Afghans die as a result of this. I'm 'sure' wikileaks won't publish that. I also find it interesting that the only documents wikileaks seems to publish are US documents... Just sayin...

Anonymous said...

Its a valuable thought exercise, just like asking, at what price is security to our freedoms.

Unanswerable in real terms, relying on elected and appointed officials and their personal morality is the unfortunate report.

Which should tell us something about a leader who buys votes with promises.
In the end a majority of weak (at least in thought) countrymen is bound by luck, momentum and appearances for their governance.

SiGraybeard said...

The exact placement of the line of secrecy in an open society is a difficult question. Those whose lives are most affected by it are - obviously - inclined to classify everything. Those who are opposed to it want everything open, and make the kind of vapid statements Wikileaks is making. I wonder how he would like his most personal information spread around... phone numbers, family's names, identification numbers, bank accounts?

Simple fact for the "information should be free" hippies: no. Some lines of secrecy are absolutely needed. He may not believe it, but that Afghan blood will be on his hands.

Also, to amplify what Old NFO said, I don't believe it's just US information that is being leaked, it's information that makes Bush look bad. I have heard from a guy I trust (can't confirm) none of the leaks are from after Obama took office.

Ever see the movie "Sneakers"? No secrets anymore. (Really a fun movie look at encryption, secrets, and reality).

Anonymous said...

Exposing wrongdoing, such as the videotaped attack on civilians from the helicopter, while damaging, is an example of a leak I would see as ethical, despite the violation of secrecy. This assumes that attempts to have the situation rectified by ones superiors was unsuccessful.

Revealing the names of Afghani informers and collaborators doesn't meet that standard, and Mr. Assange will have blood on his hands. I also suspect that his anonymous freedom is in jeopardy, and it would not surprise me if he were to soon have an "accident".


On a Wing and a Whim said...

Blood's already spilled:

"possible" blood on the hands, fuck, there's already death threats and a death to lay at their feet.

SewerDweller said...

I have a question.

Has wiki leaks printed any leaks from any communist, socialist, islamic, or non-western goverment, agency, military, or corperation?

something to ponder as you ponder the wheres and whyfors.