Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The world's biggest leak

Very few figures in the news lately have been as polarizing as Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.

Assange and the other senior members of WikiLeaks have, as their stated goal, the publication of secret government documents.  Their justification for this is that in their view, covert activities are inherently evil -- that any time a group of people is allowed to work under the cover of secrecy, it will always result in immoral acts.  Assange and his people are working to "remove the shroud of secrecy" from governmental dealings, and toward that end, they have published tens of thousands of pages worth of leaked government documents.  My friend, that is not a leak, that is a gusher.

Assange is not, apparently, limiting his targets to those on American soil; his next goal, by his own words, is to "out Russia."  Assange told reporters for a Moscow newspaper, "We have [compromising materials] about Russia, about your government and businessmen. But not as much as we'd like ... We will publish these materials soon."

Assange's actions bring up a variety of questions.  First of all, is his premise correct -- that a government (or any agency) working in secrecy is bound to commit immoral acts?  This seems to me to be an overgeneralization -- although I will admit that secrecy does lend itself to bringing out the worst in humans (witness the actions of the "40 Group" and its covert operations in Chile to prevent duly elected president Salvador Allende from taking office in 1970 -- the results of which were not public knowledge until many years later).

On the other hand, are there some things that a government should keep secret from its people?  I believe the answer to be yes; if an informant tells the CIA about the location of a bomb hidden in the middle of an American city, it would be idiotic to then make the name of the informant publicly known.  Of course, like many things,  it's a fine line -- it's hard to tell when secrecy to protect legitimate government interests in the safety of its people crosses into secrecy as its own raison d'ĂȘtre.  And since the very people who are engaging in the covert acts are often the ones who are making the decisions about what the people "need to know," it does lead to the possibility of abuses.

Myself, I tend to think that unless there is a pressing and immediate reason to the contrary, openness is better than secrecy.  And while I think that Assange's wholesale outing of top-secret documents is foolhardy at best, and treasonous at worst (Assange himself refuses to set foot on American soil for fear of being arrested and charged with espionage), I think that someone needs to keep tabs on the government other than people in the government.  I'm glad that I live in the United States,  but I'm also not fool enough to think that our government always does the right thing.  "My country, right or wrong" -- but let's man up and admit it when we're wrong, okay?

Lastly, you simply have to admire Assange's guts.  The guy, to put it bluntly, has brass balls.  Some people have criticized him, saying that his actions aren't the selfless crusade against big government that he claims, but are the actions of a petty, narcissistic egotist who simply wants to be the center of the world's attention.  I find this a little hard to believe -- the kind of attention he's getting is definitely not the kind that most of us crave.  In fact, if I were him, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night for fear that some Secret Service operative had his sniper rifle sights trained on my sorry ass.  (And now, of course, he also has the Russians to worry about.  I hope for his sake that he doesn't take on the Israelis -- they'll take him out.  Those Mossad dudes are some mean mofos.)

In any case, keep your eye on Assange and his crew.  Whatever you think of his actions, or his motives, he never fails to provide interesting news.


  1. Measured post. I also admire his guts but I think you should be careful throwing the t word around. First of all, he's not a US citizen, so by definition can't be guilty of treason against the US. Even if he were, a treason charge would require he be actively coordinating with Al Qaeda (not just providing them aid and comfort) - no one has even suggested that. -Jamie

  2. It's a complex cat. mouse, and cheese party to be sure. As you wrote, justifications abound on both sides. Israel has almost gotten the patent on 'open secret' as a tool, as you know. We pursue leakers aggressively, mercilessly, and forever and ever, amen. But only when the beans they spilled needed to be kept in the pot, And in the opposite case, we fund them(!) privately, of course.
    Wikileaks reminds me a bit of elecroshock therapy. Stirs up the pile of cards, for better or worse.