20 December 2011


'WikiLeaks: The Illusion of Transparency' by Alasdair Roberts in International Review of Administrative Sciences, (2012) reaches the unremarkable conclusion about wikileaks transcendentalism. He comments that -
It has been said that the 2010 WikiLeaks disclosures marked "the end of secrecy in the old fashioned, cold-war-era sense." This is not true. Advocates of WikiLeaks have overstated the scale and significance of the leaks. They also overlook many ways in which the simple logic of radical transparency - leak, publish, and wait for the inevitable outrage - can be defeated in practice. WikiLeaks only created the illusion of a new era in transparency. In fact the 2010 leaks revealed the obstacles to achievement of increased transparency, even in the digital age.
Roberts argues that -
The WikiLeaks program is politically naive. It is predicated on the assumption that the social order -- the set of structures that channel and legitimize power -- is both deceptive and brittle. Deceptive, in the sense that most people who observe the social order are unaware of the ways in which power is actually used; and brittle, in the sense that it is at risk of collapse once people are shown the true nature of things. As Assange said in December 2006:
[I]n a world in which leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. ... [M]ass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance (Assange 2006b).
The primary goal, therefore, is revelation of the truth. In the past it has been difficult to do this, mainly (it is assumed) because primitive technologies made it difficult to collect and disseminate damning information. But now these technological barriers to revelation are gone.

None of this is right. There is no such thing, even in the age of the internet, as the instantaneous and complete revelation of the truth. In its undigested form, information has no ransformative power at all. Raw data must be distilled; the attention of a distracted audience must be captured; and that audience must accept the message that is put before it. The process by which this is done is complex and easily swayed by commercial and governmental interests. This was true before the advent of the internet and remains true today. Moreover it is not clear that the social order is either deceptive or brittle. We might even say that WikiLeaks proved the reverse: that what was in fact going on behind the curtain was more or less what most people had suspected and were prepared to tolerate. Perhaps for this reason, revelations were not destabilizing. There does not appear to be any fundamental way in which these disclosures have changed realities about the exercise of American power abroad.

The diplomatic and national security apparatus of the United States government employs millions of people and consumes perhaps a trillion dollars annually. Its internal architecture -- a mass of laws, regulations, treaties, routines and informal understandings -- was built up over three-quarters of a century and is now extraordinarily complex. Little of this happened in secret. Most of the critical decisions about the development of American foreign policy, and about the apparatus necessary to execute that policy, were made openly by democratically elected leaders, and sanctioned by voters in thirty national elections.

None of this is meant to deny the need for stronger accountability, and thus increased transparency, for the diplomatic and national security apparatus. Precisely because of the scale and importance of this sector of American government, it ought to be subjected to close scrutiny. Existing oversight policies are inadequate and ought to be strengthened. The monitoring capacity of journalists and other nongovernmental organizations must be enhanced. And citizens should be encouraged to engage more deeply in debates about the aims and methods of U.S. foreign policy. All of these steps involve hard work. There is no technological quick fix. A major difficulty with the WikiLeaks project is that it may delude us into believing otherwise.