Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Reflections on Wikileaks

I would like to begin by thanking my readers for supporting me. In recent weeks I’ve received a lot of positive comments about my blog. As part of my mission to be responsive to my readers, I have been asked to write about my thoughts about Wikileaks, and Private Bradley Manning.

I’m not sure I see the value of Wikileaks. I feel that Wikileaks has almost instantly transcended into the realm of symbolism. Wikileaks is now famous (or infamous) for its information dumps. Wikileaks uncovers masses of classified documents and releases them without commentary. They censor information at a bare minimum, only where they believe someone would directly end up in harm’s way.

Before I lay out my thoughts on this organization I’d like to say that Julien Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, problems with the law bare no impact on how I view them. Assange has been accused of sexual harassment and assault. I’ll leave that for the courts to settle.

Assange’s worldview, in my opinion, could be said to be Anarcho-Information. There are some people that are absolutists about the freedom of speech, that people should have the absolute ability to say whatever they want, no matter what. Nothing is off the table. Wikileaks’ philosophy is that nothing is secret. Perhaps another way to say it is that nothing is sacred. That all information should be public is an idea that I fundamentally cannot understand, nor empathize with. The philosophy of Wikileaks seems to be that they have the right to this information. I do not find this to be the case.

The problem is as follows, in my mind: the only people who “deserve” to know about American foreign activity is American policymakers. The trouble there? In a democracy, all American citizens have a voice in foreign policy. The conduct of foreign relations and diplomacy requires the ability to play your cards close to your chest. If your opponents, or rivals, know your moves, then you are severely weakened.

I also am concerned with Wikileaks’ target – the United States. Are there really any other nations we would rather see as the world’s key superpower? Russia? China? India? I frankly would love to see China’s dirty laundry aired. Having the U.S. dominant has a lot of benefits. They are not the devil, even if they can be misguided. As a Canadian, I don’t feel I have the right to know what the Americans are doing. Simultaneously, I feel like our government should be permitted to do a certain amount of leeway to design policy. I hope, in our advanced democracy, that our elected leaders hold our government accountable, and the media responsibly investigate.

Now to Bradley Manning, the private who leaked the information to Wikileaks. It is well within the rights of the Army to try him, especially because he is a member of the military. He can be held to the military standard of justice, and he has betrayed his oath, and revealed state secrets. Given how openly Manning violated his duty, I could reasonably expect him to face charges of treason, or espionage. If Manning was a private citizen I would be less comfortable with that kind of charge, but he isn’t, so I don’t have to concern myself with the ethics of that.

The Bush era (2001-2009) has left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, but I think it is important to keep things in perspective. America isn’t perfect, but a superpower cannot be. What right do we have to demand that the United States be perfect? What are human rights? In a world where many countries spit on our ideals, how can we uphold them? Where do we come off expecting America to protect and police the world, and then complain about their methods?


Jake said...

Some fine points on the issue. As I understand it Manning is only being charged with those violations of secrecy, not even full treason charges for his alleged actions. It seems you hit the nail dead on there. However, I do not understand why the US has not made public any pursuit of those who are seemingly guilty of war crimes.

I mean, if your boss shows you a video of his buddies committing murder, you are aware of their crimes. Now, even if you've signed contracts about secrecy, wouldn't hiding that information make you an accessory after the fact? More importantly, where is the line between damaging security and being honest to the people you represent?

Also, you mention keeping secrets about foreign operations is necessary to success. Would you feel differently had only specific cables been released to public sources?

For example, if the leak only been 200 documents and the two videos featured in "collateral murder," would some of the issues about foreign operations be relieved? Is there ever an appropiate amount of knowledge to release to the public?

The fact the US refused to release the video featuring the deaths of two reuters employees raises my interest. As a layman, it looks like a violation of most standards of war. But you make a great point about war being fought differently when certain countries dont play by the rules. Should the US be bound by the Geneva Conventions and the rights guaranteed to it's own citizens if it's opponents can do whatever they please?

But on the other hand, how many times has the US justified invaisions and wars because human rights were being violated in another country? Wasn't that part of the justification for Vietnam?

At the very least though, I would question the wisdom of letting the gunners (from the reuters incident)back into the field. They clearly failed to identify any weapons, mistook a camera for an rpg after being given the go ahead to fire, and then hovered there taunting a wounded man, who they then killed anyways when people tried to give him assistance. If that is what qualifies as fit for duty, I do have to wonder how many other "insurgents" were just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The official story is that there was no wrong doing, no punishment for these men.

I understand protecting informants and recent operations, but it seems some key events have been covered up. Is it justifiable to hide actions that would greatly alter the public's perception of America's foreign policy? How many people in Canada, let alone the US, are even aware of the estimated death tolls of civilians? Our participation in the War on Terror in Afghanistan killed more civilians in the single year of 2010 than the attacks on 9/11 did.

And as far as public perception is concerned, Canada followed the US into Afghanistan (and Harper would have lead us into Iraq). Would Canadians really have been so willing to follow America had they known what the US considers acceptable losses? Would you listen to your neighbour if you could watch proof of their criminal actions? (and yes, I know many previous accounts of crimes committed by the US military and CIA have been well documented, but you rarely hear details about installing dictators and paying generals to overturn governments)


Jake said...

Obviously, the general public will never be 100% about whats going on regarding foreign policy, but it seems that authorities are intentionally deceiving the public. At what point do you feel the government needs to be honest with voters? Does the end result justify any means? Would people even feel the ends necessary if not for inital deceptions about WMDs in Iraq?

Where does the Orange Tory think foreign policy meets public responsibility?

Finally, one side note, it seems the US was not specifically a target of wikileaks, but the release of 200,000 cables dwarfed anything they had received in the past from other countries. It also helped push them into the spotlight after operating relatively quietly for 3 years.

and that ended up being much lengthier than I thought it would.

Jake said...

*technically Vietnam was justified to the American people by talk of the domino effect, whereby Vietnam falling to communism would open the door for other nations in asia to convert. Not explicity about human rights, but the red menace was feared for destroying the freedoms and rights of democractic people everywhere.

SJL said...

Jake, thanks for the comments, I'll do my best to address them.

If I had to answer frankly, I believe the reason that the US isn't pursuing its "war criminals" is because the American public don't believe they are, the media hasn't pursued it, and the government doesn't want to be challenged. I don't think Americans believe they CAN be war criminals.

I'll admit that the philosophy of Wikileaks colours their actions in my mind. If select cables were leaked to the New York Times then I would probably think about it differently. The information dump aspect is concerning. There is too much information. No individual can go through all of it, and so much of it gets overlooked. There are too many things so people ignore all of it. Wikileaks fails to give focus and context. That is benefit of traditional media.

The Geneva question is a big one. What I believe is that Geneva is an international agreement with no enforcement, nor do I believe one could enforce it. As someone once said, all wars are crimes.

Those soldiers responsible for killing civilians, without reasonable circumstances, should face punishment. However, we're simply more sensitive to this than any other time. How many civilians died in World War One, or Two? We have different feelings about war now, for better and worse.

There is a difference between lies of omission and outright lies. Taking the Iraq example, there is a lot of evidence that the Coalition was misled. That is wrong. Governments should be honest, or silent. Like medicine, the first rule of foreign policy is Do No Harm (to the country).

Foreign policy in this country is designed by elected officials, but generally our foreign policy is non-partisan, which I'm grateful for. Therefore we can consistently hold the government to account on issues. Sadly, Canadians (and Americans) don't pay much attention to foreign policy when it's time to vote.

There are two distinct ways to look at foreign policy - realism and idealism. Realism says, "Sure, they're a terrible regime, but they're our regime." Idealism demands that every regime must fit an ideological model. Canada's foreign policy is a mix of both. I prefer realism because idealism has a lot of blind spots.

Foreign policy was not the intended focus of this blog, but I'm glad I could address these issues. I hope I addressed all your thoughts. Thanks again.

Jake said...

It addressed them quite well.

The commentt about many Americans not believeing they can commit war crimes is a frightningly small exagerration.

And you pointed a fairly large obstacle towards government acocuntability. The voter apathy towards anything not imnmediately affecting them is definetly problematic for international relations and development.

Its kind of a shame really.

SJL said...

The issue is that there is a system of accountability in our democratic system, but it's not exercised. Recommendations hold more accountability, such as international courts, seems unlikely and impractical.