Smart Takes on Wikileaks

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Jack Shafer:

International scandals—such as the one precipitated by this week’s WikiLeaks cable dump—serve us by illustrating how our governments work. Better than any civics textbook, revisionist history, political speech, bumper sticker, or five-part investigative series, an international scandal unmasks presidents and kings, military commanders and buck privates, cabinet secretaries and diplomats, corporate leaders and bankers, and arms-makers and arms-merchants as the bunglers, liars, and double-dealers they are…

The recent WikiLeaks release, for example, shows the low regard U.S. secretaries of state hold for international treaties that bar spying at the United Nations. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, systematically and serially violated those treaties to gain an incremental upper hand. And they did it in writing! That Clinton now decries Julian Assange’s truth-telling an “attack” on America but excuses her cavalier approach to treaty violation tells you all you need to know about U.S. diplomacy…

The idea of WikiLeaks is scarier than anything the organization has leaked or anything Assange has done because it restores our distrust in the institutions that control our lives. It reminds people that at any given time, a criminal dossier worth exposing is squirreled away in a database someplace in the Pentagon or at Foggy Bottom.

Will Wilkinson:

If secrecy is necessary for national security and effective diplomacy, it is also inevitable that the prerogative of secrecy will be used to hide the misdeeds of the permanent state and its privileged agents. I suspect that there is no scheme of government oversight that will not eventually come under the indirect control of the generals, spies, and foreign-service officers it is meant to oversee. Organisations such as WikiLeaks, which are philosophically opposed to state secrecy and which operate as much as is possible outside the global nation-state system, may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy. Some folks ask, “Who elected Julian Assange?” The answer is nobody did, which is, ironically, why WikiLeaks is able to improve the quality of our democracy.

Glenn Greenwald:

The WikiLeaks disclosure has revealed not only numerous government secrets, but also the driving mentality of major factions in our political and media class.  Simply put, there are few countries in the world with citizenries and especially media outlets more devoted to serving, protecting and venerating government authorities than the U.S.  Indeed, I don’t quite recall any entity producing as much bipartisan contempt across the American political spectrum as WikiLeaks has:  as usual, for authoritarian minds, those who expose secrets are far more hated than those in power who commit heinous acts using secrecy as their principal weapon

It’s one thing for the Government to shield its conduct from public disclosure, but it’s another thing entirely for the U.S. media to be active participants in that concealment effort.  As The Guardian‘s Simon Jenkins put it in a superb column that I can’t recommend highly enough:  “The job of the media is not to protect power from embarrassment. . . . Clearly, it is for governments, not journalists, to protect public secrets.”  But that’s just it:  the media does exactly what Jenkins says is not their job, which — along with envy over WikiLeaks’ superior access to confidential information — is what accounts for so much media hostility toward that group.  As the headline of John Kampfner’s column in The Independent put it:  “Wikileaks shows up our media for their docility at the feet of authority.”

Most political journalists rely on their relationships with government officials and come to like them and both identify and empathize with them.  By contrast, WikiLeaks is truly adversarial to those powerful factions in exactly the way that these media figures are not:  hence, the widespread media hatred and contempt for what WikiLeaks does.

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19 Responses to “Smart Takes on Wikileaks”

  1. #1 |  Mal Armstrong | 

    Ahhh…what a coincidence that the “Smart” Takes are the ones you are in general agreement with. Check out Ross Douthat for a Smart Counter-Take.

  2. #2 |  Mattocracy | 

    “Who elected Julian Assange?” The answer is nobody did, which is, ironically, why WikiLeaks is able to improve the quality of our democracy.

    That might become the new “Who is John Galt?”

  3. #3 |  Blakenator | 

    Mal, I’m not sure why you even bothered to respond. “Smart” takes are always the ones we agree with. Douthat does make the point that the “backlash” may come as a tightening up of security but if you somehow think that not putting lots of “heat and light” on government activity is good, I really don’t know what to say to you. Remember, these leaks were provided by people with a conscience and the reaction to them says a lot about the individual who is doing the reacting. I agree with Balko.

  4. #4 |  Larry Signor | 

    The DFH in me says let the shitstorm roll.

  5. #5 |  Nick | 


    I can’t believe you persuaded me to search for Douthat’s post. If you’re goign to trick me into re-reading a moot point, at least provide a link. In fact, Douthat’s “counter-take” has been repeated so many times that Arthur Silber has had to blog a response several times (maybe he’ll do it again for Douthat)…

    To justify its quest, the United States invents a series of terrifying threats, all of which, in one way or another, are alleged to be “existential” threats to our very survival. With almost no exceptions at all, the leaders of the American Empire concoct these threats out of nothing.


    Consider the fact with great care. With this momentous and endlessly horrifying fact in the forefront of your consciousness, ask yourself: What does it signify that those who seek still further war and conquest will use the Wikileaks material to provide more supposed justification for their murderous actions? To ask the question, to ask it with the nature and history of American Empire in mind, is to see how completely irrelevant it is when evaluating Wikileaks and its work.

    Of course they’ll use the Wikileaks material to justify their policies. That’s what they do. They do it with everything — and they do it with absolutely nothing. I repeat: That is what they do.

    If you want to avoid their using the Wikileaks material, or anything else, to justify their policies, there is one course you can follow, and only one. Henceforth, you can say nothing whatsoever. But if you choose to resist the profound evil committed by the U.S. government, evil which it continues to commit today and will commit again tomorrow, you must reject that course.

    To drive the point home, let me express it another way. As demonstrated repeatedly by the historical record and by events today, the leaders of American Empire use everything and even nothing to justify their actions and policies. In this sense, the leaders of American Empire are profoundly irrational and endlessly, murderously destructive. Their arguments are self-contradictory, massively inconsistent, and frequently incoherent. Yet today’s leaders of American Empire also possess the most frighteningly powerful weaponry and military in all of history. From this perspective, the Empire has all the power.

    In comparative terms (and even in absolute terms), Wikileaks has no capabilities or powers at all — except for one. And that is the ability to make information available to everyone, information which the otherwise all-powerful leaders of Empire seek to keep secret from those they rule, and from those they seek to subjugate in the future. In this context, and especially when we keep in mind the gaping abyss between the powers of Empire and the single power of Wikileaks, to blame Wikileaks (or anyone similarly situated) for the improper use of the material they release is to blame Wikileaks for someone else’s irrationality and immense destructiveness. It is to blame Wikileaks for actions over which Wikileaks has no control whatsoever.

    Does that make any sense at all? No, it doesn’t.

    Beyond this, it is critical to appreciate the further implication. In effect, Forte and others who make the same criticism seek a mediating authority: that is, they seek some means to ensure that leaked material is used only for purposes they view as “good.” But this represents a failure to understand the nature of the work to which Wikileaks is devoted, just as it represents a failure to escape the reliance on authority itself. Forte (and others) want authority to serve a purpose that is very different from that of the Empire — but they still want an authority to make their desired outcome more likely.

    But the very purpose of Wikileaks is to challenge any and every authority of this kind. For Wikileaks, the only authority that matters — the only person who is ultimately entitled to all available information and who properly should judge it — is you. In this sense, which I submit is the highest and best sense of the term, Wikileaks is a genuine “leveller.” It seeks to make each and every individual the ultimate judge of the truth, just as it seeks to empower all people to make the determination as to what course of action is indicated, if any. This, dear reader, is what a real revolution looks like.

    I also suggest you check out Silber’s latest post. Via the ICYMI RSS Feed.

  6. #6 |  A.G. Pym | 

    Michael Yon posted an email from Defense Secretary Gates today, responding to his question about Wikileaks:

  7. #7 |  Federico Campoverde | 

    Wikileaks back on Amazon. Currently released so far… 486 / 251,287|esmeil|

  8. #8 |  rjbrash | 

    Saw on youtube a Harper (Canadian Prime Minister) advisor calling on Obama to have Assange assassinated. Wow. Now people get violent when a bank is in the crosshairs (forthcoming dump). This stuff is getting good. Keep it up Wikileaks!

  9. #9 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    There are numerous US politicians and pundits calling for Assange to be killed (or death after being convicted by a kangaroo US court). For example, the moronic Hucklebee is calling for death (he’s a real nice Jesus-thumper).

    This is a good list and thanks for assembling. I hope Assange becomes increasingly successful at his goal of “crushing bastards.” To do this his other goal must be attained: The people who fund this shit have to wake up and demand it stop.

  10. #10 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Mal Armstong,
    You’ve been pwned hard by the ninja Nick.

    Ross Douthat? LOL. Were you serious?

  11. #11 |  Nick T. | 

    “Who elected Assange?”

    I’ve heard that too. So we’re supposed to elect people to tell us what we can and can’t know about the people we elect as our leaders. Brilliant!

  12. #12 |  albatross | 


    Yeah, I’ll admit I haven’t been reading the Good Book as much as I should lately, but I’m having a hard time remembering many times from the New Testament where Jesus had people disappeared, tortured, or killed. I guess it must be right next to those verses where Jesus explains the importance of low marginal tax rates and tort reform.

  13. #13 |  Toastrider | 

    I stand by a comment I made before, elsewhere:

    Assange may think he’s hot shit (for a guy facing a rape charge in Sweden, anyways). But he’s a small fish moving into a VERY big pond, and if I were him, I’d have some hired bodyguards.

  14. #14 |  Invid | 

    @ 13
    “…facing a [likely bullsh*t] rape charge…”

    Fixed it for ya

  15. #15 |  Joe | 

    Patrick Fitzgerald just got a hard on.

    Perhaps Team Obama should appoint a special prosecutor? Hmmmm?

    I just hear crickets.

  16. #16 |  albatross | 


    I think the future of this kind of organization won’t be high-visibility leaders, but rather participants who are hard to find and whose removal doesn’t much affect the rest of the system of publishing leaks. If your business is disclosing the embarrassing secrets of the powerful, you *really* want it to be a pain in the ass to find you.

  17. #17 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Research that rape charge and what passes for rape in Sweden.

  18. #18 |  Luke | 

    According to the leaked diplomatic cables, our officials consider Russia to be an oligarchy controlled by its security organs…

    Projection, anyone?

  19. #19 |  Sunday links | Library Grape | 

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