The title of this post is from a line spoken by Dr. Zbigniew Brzeznski in a segment from the PBS Newshour discussing the impact of the WikiLeaks dump of hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic communications. He quoted that line from various crises that hit the Austria-Hungarian empire, basically suggesting that while these communications are embarrassing today, there’s really nothing in them that changes any dynamics on a long term basis.
What do I personally feel about WikiLeaks? Well, let me start by giving my basic feelings on civil liberties—we have them, and they are unalienable. So that means that any free citizen has the right to reveal any private information given to them. There may be consequences to that action—for example, if you break a job contract, you may get fired, or if you reveal a government secret, you may break the laws of the country in which you live. But as a free citizen, everyone has the right to accept these repercussions and “blow the whistle.”
But then the question is, what is the responsibility of the venue in a free society? The New York Times in the USA, and The Guardian in the UK, were given advance information about these documents, and made decisions on what to write about, and what not to write about. When a secret is embarrassing, while the state may want it suppressed, there isn’t a life or death reason to suppress the information. However, what about a circumstance in which the name, and possibly address, of someone who risked their life to give vital information is made public? In that case, revealing this secret does more than simply fulfill the whistle-blower’s conscience (or need for revenge), or even the public’s right to know. In this case, an individual who in good faith took a huge risk and thought it was safe, may now be endangered.
This is my problem with WikiLeaks. Love them or hate them, The New York Times and The Guardian try to make such judgement calls. WikiLeaks does not. So while I support the right of free citizens to disclose information, I am not at all convinced that WikiLeaks as an organization is a responsible venue for releasing said information. And I think the argument that the mainstream media is simply a tool of the state is a bit too conspiracy theory for me. Does anyone really believe that Fox News is about blind support for the Obama Administration? Or that the British tabloids are in the pocket of Cameron? The mainstream Western media may be guilty of being overly cautious or not independent enough, but that’s a far cry from being an organ of the state.
To me, it’s all about balancing civil liberties with government responsibilities. The government is tasked with engaging in diplomacy with other countries, with prosecuting our wars, and with keeping us safe. It has a responsibility to keep us informed and to be transparent. And yet, we all realize that with total transparency, diplomacy will fail, wars will be lost, and we cannot be kept safe. We need to be diligent about our civil liberties so that we don’t quietly, unintentionally allow our government to become a police state, while at the same time allowing for enough confidentiality for our government to operate effectively. I think it’s imperative for whistle blowers to speak up when they feel the government is overstepping it’s mandate, I’m just not sure that WikiLeaks specifically is the most responsible venue for those whistle blowers to use.