Refreshing the Bullseye

Wikileaks is again set to release tens of thousands of sensitive documents, this time pertaining to diplomatic cables from the United States referencing scores of other nations. Despite a rather suspect attack on their infrastructure by a hacker named “Jester,” Wikileaks reports that they are still on schedule to release the documents this week in the second of two high profile leaks of sensitive and potentially damaging information about US foreign relations this year.

While representatives for Canada’s diplomatic service have already been outspoken that none of what is revealed in those leaked documents will in any way alter the relationship our nation has with the US, one has to wonder what the actual effect of this leak will be. More to the point, even if the released information does not chang business as usual in diplomatic circles, the question remains how it will impact social relations among the people. Or, can we feel comfortable knowing that all of this will likely blow over and be forgotten within our usual and short collective ADHD interval?

In my personal opinion, the jury is still out on the topic of the worth of Wikileaks efforts to make private information public. I wrote about the previous leak here, and still feel a gut level instinct to believe that the right to information overrides the government’s need to keep it secret. That’s overly simplistic, though, because the old adage really does hold weight, “Information is power.” Some information can be dangerous, and even more information can be more dangerous when taken in the wrong context than it is when held in the proper.

When Wikileaks released thousands of documents relating to the war in Afghanistan, I defended the value of the action and the importance of transparency. Popular reaction was divided between those who felt, as I did, that something as crucial as our political leadership’s positions and actions during a time of war are a matter that everyone subject to that government’s leadership should share in knowledge, and those who felt that documents of such sensitivity should never be released to the public because of the damage they could cause to our soldiers on foreign soil and our efforts to defeat the enemy. I’m not sure that the release of diplomatic cables and the potentially embarassing information they could contain will polarize the public quite as much, but the basis of the action is every bit as polarizing: should anyone with the ability and desire be allowed to make public documents that were not intended for public consumption? Should the inherent value of information and our natural desire to see behind closed doors outweigh governmental privacy?

Sure, it sounds like a boring political topic, but think of the implications.

At the time of the Afghanistan info leak, the founder of Wikileaks was under constant death threats. My previous post actually addressed an editorial column in the Ottawa Citizen that amount to more threatening rhetoric and posturing. Some people felt, and still feel, that releasing certain types of information could cost lives on the ground in Afghanistan or prolong the conflict by giving the enemy insight that they otherwise wouldn’t have into our strategy and methods. No doubt there will be those who will argue that the release of diplomatic cables could result in chilled relations between the US and foreign nations, with a possible economic impact. Given the state of our global economy, that could be very damaging indeed.

So, you would naturally conclude that information should never be made public unless first reviewed and approved by some oversight body. Yeah, it’s censorship, but for a good cause, right?

The Harper government first came to power on the back of a trumped up scandal regarding whistleblower information relating to sponsorship money and practices under the Chretien Liberals. Running on a platform of government accountability and transparency, the Conservatives took power for the first time in more than a decade. Once in power, the implementation of the Conservative “accountability and transparency” platform actually resulted in the opposite; it has been noted that there is less transparency than ever in Canadian governmental practice, with less public access to information and more that is being kept secret. This mirrors what happened in the United States under George W Bush, who led a government that has been labelled the most secretive in decades. With the government becoming more and more stingy with what they will allow the electorate to know about their affairs, you have to wonder how anyone is supposed to make an informed decision as to which politician to elect. If all you see is what they want you to see, your vote loses all value.

Into this gap, Wikileaks would seem to be the greatest balm for a situation troubled by too much political gamesmanship. By releasing information directly to the internet for anyone and everyone to see, you have the ultimate in transparency. Nothing is censored, nothing is abridged, and nothing is held back. Whatever the document was in its original format, the document released by Wikileaks will be. It’s completely up to the public to read between the lines and decide what it all means. It’s the worst nightmare of Harper and Bush, a stream of information straight from their inner halls to the public.

But, as we’ve mentioned, there can be negative implications to having all this dirty laundry aired without footnotes.

I’d like to believe, against all measure of improbability, that somewhere in the middle there would be a solution. I’d like to imagine a world in which Wikileaks and their actions will result in the government thinking twice about the way they conduct and document business, and that Wikileaks would use a greater measure of discretion regarding the information they seek to release to the public. Instead, both sides are poles apart, making the true ethical value of what Wikileaks is doing much more difficult to measure.

Anarchists will cheer what Wikileaks is doing. Government purists will decry the recklessness of their actions. The real answer is somewhere in the middle. In the absence of sound thought and prudent action, we’re left having to decide that Wikileaks is acting in a reckless and dangerous, yet entirely necessary way. The public needs to understand what their government is doing on their behalf, and if the government isn’t willing to be the body to convey that information, womeone else needs to fill the gap. Wikileaks is acting recklessly, but if they didn’t act at all we would still be trapped behind the curtain of secrecy and delusion the government uses to manage our perceptions. You can’t find an agency to provide oversight, because it would necessarily fall on one side or the other; either a government agency biased towards the government and under the rule of the leading party, or part of the unregulated and ambitious fifth estate.

Either way, Wikileaks has again painted the bullseye in bright red paint, inviting threats to their organization and the lives of their people. In a free and democratic society, nobody should feel that their life is threatened for publishing information, but it is what it is. Someone from the extreme pole that opposes that of Wikileaks will no doubt want to see heads literally roll.

The best that we can do is try and pay attention to what is being revealed, take it with a grain of salt, and remember it the next time there’s an election. All the information in the world is only as good as our ability to absorb, understand and act on it. And, there’s no point in crying out for or about government accountability unless we actually hold people accountable. Too often we let them off the hook because it’s just a whole lot easier.

And, ultimately, we’re lazy.

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