The missing wikileaks debate

Peter Beinart’s take on the latest wikileaks stash seems about right to me: no significant surprises, no great scandals (apart from the fact that the leak was not prevented in the first place), all very interesting in a voyeuristic sort of way–but how, he asks, are diplomats supposed to do their job if they are denied confidential communication with HQ? As Timothy Garton Ash says:

There is a public interest in understanding how the world works and what is done in our name. There is a public interest in the confidential conduct of foreign policy. The two public interests conflict.

Yes, but whose job is it to resolve this conflict? Do we really want to put Julian Assange in charge? The New York Times, the Guardian and the other wikileaks collaborators say they have taken care to ensure that nobody has been put at risk by the selections they have published–but they have certainly not condemned Assange’s activities, and indeed that would be an awkward thing for them to do, given their role in facilitating them. Assange, obviously, is not interested in balancing the two interests. He is not releasing secrets judiciously, arguing that the benefits outweigh the harm in each specific case. The whole point is that he is releasing documents by the hundreds of thousands–indiscriminately, for which the only rationale can be that the very idea of official secrecy is wrong.

I’m not saying that this view is completely indefensible, only that among those who look kindly on the wikileaks project somebody, surely, ought to be trying to defend it. Assange isn’t going to. He seems to regard the evil of official secrecy as a simple truth requiring no further comment. The wikileaks promoters disagree: they appear to recognize the dilemma. But they feel under no obligation to say more. They are capitalizing on the sheer scale of the leaks–which is what, more than any specific disclosure, has caused their notoriety–yet spare themselves the inconvenience of discussing the very question which the size of the leaks immediately raises. And they are sanctimonious about it, too.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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