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Wikileaks: For and Against

Presentation by Gareth Evans to Panel on Media and Freedom, Forum 2000 Conference, Prague, 22 October 2012

I thought it might be useful to focus on the issues for media, freedom and governance thrown up by the Wikileaks affair which, although now old news, has implications which linger on. I do this partly because I am, for my sins, an Australian compatriot of Julian Assange, but more relevantly because I am someone who has been on both sides of the secrecy/exposure debate – as a human rights activist and global NGO head for many years often trying to prise open government secrets, and as a government minister for many years trying to protect them (although at the same time trying to allow the widest possible scope for the operation of freedom of information legislation).

Perhaps I should say at the outset that while I am not a huge personal fan of Julian Assange, because I see his motives as being more anarchic than genuinely idealistic (I don't put him in the same category as a Daniel Ellsberg or Anna Politskovaya), I am wholly opposed to his prosecution or persecution through any court system anywhere for his role in putting on to the public record hundreds of thousands of pages of classified government information.  Whatever the appropriateness might be of pursuing him for other alleged offences, I think it is demeaning, unproductive and probably counterproductive to pursue him for those disclosures, and governments should not.

But some lines do have to be drawn somewhere if good government is to be possible, just as in our personal and family lives a zone of privacy is crucial to our capacity to develop and sustain the relationships that matter most to us. As too many twitterers and other new media users are painfully learning, there is such a thing as too much information.

The trick is to know how and where to draw lines that concede neither too much nor too little to those who will always have a vested interest, for good reasons or bad, in avoiding scrutiny. Some nuance needs to be injected into a worldwide Wikileaks debate which has until now been too often conducted in black or white terms. 

In government any leak will be, by definition, embarrassing to someone, somewhere in the system. But we need to distinguish between three categories of media leaks – and the embarrassments they cause: i.e. those which are perfectly defensible, those which are totally indefensible, and  those which are undesirable for various reasons, but which we should be prepared to live with

Defensible Leaks. There have been some published Wikileaks perfectly defensible on classic freedom of information grounds, uncovering abuses that might otherwise have remained concealed. Good examples are disclosures about the helicopter gunship killings in Iraq, corruption of the Ben Ali family in Tunisia, and some of the paucity of achievement in Afghanistan, and showing the weakness of the case against some Guantanamo-confined terror suspects. Sometimes whistles do have to be blown.

Indefensible Leaks – for which leakers must expect some punitive reckoning – are those which put intelligence sources or other individuals at direct physical risk (as did some of the early Afghanistan and Zimbabwe-related published Wikileaks); expose the exploratory positions in conflict resolution negotiations (which will usually help only extremists and spoilers); or disclose trade negotiation bottom lines.

Disclosures which may be as indefensible – but which need case by case evaluation, because more transparency than governments will admit is often possible – are those which are claimed to put at risk intelligence methods, as distinct from personnel, and military operational effectiveness. The difficulty with all these cases is that the stakes are so high that it simply cannot be left to the judgment of the Wikileaks organisers, and the media outlets they use, to make the necessary calls without consultation with relevant officials. Sensible governments will facilitate that process on a without-prejudice basis.

Undesirable – but to be lived with – Leaks. The hardest cases are those – of which there were many in the Wikileaked US diplomatic cables – disclosing private assessments of leaders and their countries (for example Lee Kuan Yew’s on Malaysia, or the local US embassy’s on the Indonesian first family) which are bound to create hurt with no obvious redeeming public policy justification. The problem is not that such things are said – as one leader famously responded to an apologising Hillary Clinton, ‘You should hear what we say about you’ – but that they are become public. Loss of face in Asian cultures in particular is much more painful than most Westerners ever begin to understand.

Governments should respond philosophically to these kinds of leaks. Most embarrassments of this kind will few lasting implications for government relationships; there will be some bruises, and tensions in first meetings of players in question, and quite likely some personal tensions that will inhibit effective cooperative decision-making on some issues, but life will basically move on, because it has to.  Nor will they fundamentally change what diplomats say behind closed doors: people will always talk – and diplomats especially, because assessments of personality, behaviour and likely behaviour are their stock in trade

But these kinds of leaks should not be naively applauded as somehow contributing to better government. They won’t, essentially because they are going to impact profoundly, if not on what is said orally, certainly on what is written down and widely circulated.  And that in turn will significantly inhibit the free exchange of information within government: reinstating silos which it is crucial to break down.

The ironic result of acting to improve the free flow of information and presumed quality of decision making that goes with it, will be I fear to reduce the free flow of information within government and increase the prospects of decisions being made in ignorance.

It is also bound to lead to greater premium being placed by governments on the products of covert intelligence-gathering, generally less leak-prone but in my own experience usually much worse value for money than the more overt kind. 

All that said, those like me who see significantly more potential for harm than good in the Wikileaks are probably trying to resist an inexorable tide. With the new technology of communication and information transfer things are vastly more open than they were decades ago, the media and public expect more and more, and the younger generation is particularly hard to convince about the need for a zone of privacy anywhere. We will have to get used to more and more exposure and make the best of it, but that shouldn’t stop us trying to draw some lines where it really matters.