Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Secret Messages

So... WikiLeaks, then.

Like a million other, cleverer observers, I find my responses genuinely conflicted. In saying that, I do not imply some 50:50 fence occupation strategy; I am firmly towards the “Freedom of Information” side of the equation. But that doesn't blind me to some simple, pragmatic realities.

Foremost of which is that no human relationship - whether it be in a marriage, between tennis partners, or between national governments and international organisations – can possibly function in an atmosphere of 100% disclosure. During the relentless assault on western civil liberties that has occurred in the last ten years, Establishment voices have been keen to use variations on the mantra, “If you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear”. Now, the poverty of that argument stares them coldly in the face. EVERYONE has something to hide; it's how we function in societies. If we knew about others all the little things we find shameful in ourselves, we would all retreat to the caves and eat spiders.

So, if we are to engage in international diplomacy – and even the most reclusive regimes have yet to find a way of avoiding that entirely – then of course it must remain just as possible for two high-ranking officials to have a private conversation, as it is for a co-habiting couple to have a quiet word over the cornflakes.

We deplore the instinct to cover-up when battles go badly, or when soldiers behave in reprehensible ways. But it is those same mechanisms of obfuscation that allow terrorist cells to be infiltrated and destroyed, or hostages to be rescued. If we accept that military operations are sometimes necessary, then military secrecy must be an allowable concept.

Julian Assange has some good points to make, though, when he talks about the mechanisms of conspiracy, and his agenda to erode them. He takes pains to differentiate his notion of “conspiracy” – an emergent behaviour arising naturally from power structures – from the “Big C” notion of moustache-twirling super-villains. His position is undoubtedly extreme, but it can be argued (by which I mean, I have) that extremists are sometimes useful where there is imbalance.

I believe it is clear that the balance between diplomatic utility and military security on one side, and public accountability and civic enfranchisement on the other, is severely out of alignment in the western democracies. As such, I'm excited by the possibility of effecting a shift. And in those limited terms, I support what WikiLeaks is doing.