Monday, November 29, 2010

Wikileaks? Oh Yeah...

I see no reason to change anything I said last week about the much-anticipated and now eked out Wikileaks. Apparently only about 250 of the documents are out so far. With 250,000 on disc, it will take a long time at that rate. Which brings to mind some questions: who decided which ones to release and on what basis? I think I've read that Julian Assange was the decider.

There are some general considerations for interpreting raw data like this. First, is it accurate? Or is it mistaken, misinformation, or disinformation? Did the sender know or was he/she deceived? Or did the sender have a personal agenda?

Overall, I'm impressed by how unsurprising the revelations are. That means that we've been getting pretty much the straight scoop from our government, and the news media hasn't managed to mess it up too badly. I'm in good company here: Timothy Garton Ash and Steven Walt think so too, and I've seen a number of tweets and links along those lines.

Another piece of context is that relatively few of the communications are classified. I've seen some numbers That's remarkable in view of the opinion some of us hold: that far too much is classified. But Steven Aftergood makes the point that some essential facts are being declassified, in particular on nuclear weapons. So, although their construction specs should probably be classified in perpetuo, the information surrounding them may be becoming more transparent than other information within government. But, again, the Wikileaks information seems to be consistent with what we've been told, so it's not at all clear that there's a problem.

It seems to me that the most important message so far is that President Obama has been under a lot of pressure to attack Iran, but keeping that information out of the public eye has probably been a factor in preventing exactly that opening of yet another war.

I don't plan to work through the documents in detail unless a new revelation indicates that one of my hobbyhorses might be in the box. But I'll provide some links to people who are saying smart things or digging interesting stuff out.

Steve Hynd provides links to some of the bigger stories and stuff in general.

Richard Silverstein and Juan Cole look at the material on Israel.

Marc Lynch says he's going to be looking at the effects of the revelations on Arab governments and publics.

Pavel Podvig on joint threat assessments by the US and Russia.

I want to see the documents having to do with Estonia too.

There have been a number of op-eds lately pining for the old days when all we had was print on paper and kids kept off the lawn. Here's the latest I picked up. But it started before Mark Zuckerberg, with fax machines (ask the Chinese and the old Soviet army officers who are yelling at kids to get off their lawns) and then the internet itself. Yes, communications technologies are changing awfully quickly, and the ability of one 22-year-old Pfc to pull a quarter million diplomatic cables is part of that. Yes, we need to think all that out. But privacy and secrecy will never again be quite what they were. There's no going back. Let me get that ball for you, kid.


Fred Zimmerman said...

I'm inclined to think that this isn't really anything qualitatively new--not a change in the inherent transparency of government. It's not really any different from an 18thC "clark" absconding with a diplomatic bag. (And, ironically, the very volume of the theft makes the leak less significant than, say, the Zimmermann telegram ... secrecy by inundation).

Chuck Walls said...

The leaks do underscore some systemic security problems: first, the documents were retrieved by a private first class operating; second, the files originating from a wide number of embassies were accessible to anyone with this Pfc's access level from Iraq. Not good.

It is likely a tense situation for the Arab states, since they--apparently as much or more than Israel--who have been advocating for war against Iran.

The leaks don't tell too many things we didn't already know, but we do find out who the players are--e.g., a German defense minister who rips on other politicians within Germany to US personnel. That could be a career ender, so it is disruptive and potentially destabilizing.

helmut said...

Another thing to keep in mind is that the documents - while classified, but not top secret - do not necessarily represent US policy or even the views of the President, Secretary of State, or congressional leaders. From what I've seen thus far, they basically reveal quick on-the-ground political and economic assessments and, well, factoids. I personally know former and current diplomats who have no qualms about sending blunt assessments back home. It's a good thing they do. But they're not necessarily completely accurate and they don't necessarily represent US policy.

But... this is based on what I've seen so far.