We Don’t Need No Information

Wikileaks has me bothered. It’s not just that King Julian‘s minions have wreaked enough havoc with the irresponsible sensationalism they’re so wont to indulge in. It’s that they don’t seem to learn.

I first chanced upon their handiwork when I viewed a clip called “Collateral Murder” that can be best described as a moderately veiled snuff film. The intent was to highlight the “murder” prevalent in the Iraq War but ended up looking like a well-edited presentation. Which is what it was, right the from the quote by George Orwell to the soundbytes, camera zooms and captions. The graphic nature of the video makes the bile rise but upon careful scrutiny, one notices that the entire episode is nothing but a sad truth of wartime. One of mistaken identities, seeing weapons where none exist and succumbing to the pressure of “my life or his”. The soldiers’ banter was also sensationalized as disrespectful, callous and they were made out to be gun-toting, trigger-happy cowboys.

Important context had been carefully left out. The detachment had been attacked previously by RPGs and AK-47 toting insurgents. There had been more than a hundred similar attacks on them in a short span of time. Intelligence indicated that a group of armed insurgents were present in the same area as the detachment. That is why they called for air-support in the form of the Apache gunship. The group that was gunned down included two journalists but the others were insurgents. One of them definitely carried an AK-47. The journalist with the telephoto lens appeared to be carrying an RPG. What were they doing with the insurgents anyway? Why hadn’t Reuters informed the US Army of their presence in a sensitive region?

Ah, but who needs facts that can hinder sensationalism?

In one of the scenes you can hear the soldier in the gunship focus the crosshairs on a crawling man (who turned out to be a Reuters journalist) and say “Come on man, all you gotta do is pick up a weapon”. Does this seem like trigger-happy warmongering to you? It seems to me the soldier was careful about adhering to the rules of engagement in the middle of an explosive and emotional situation. A cool head, if you ask me.

Not Wikileaks. MURDER they wrote!

Anyway, the point being – I didn’t have much respect for what they put out. Without an impartial context, it amounted to high-school gossip.

And now they’ve released transcripts of US Embassy cable communications that can be a diplomatic nightmare for the US, not to mention its allies and countries it is trying to maintain cordial relations with. As the days progress I’m sure there will be a lot more critical analysis of the release but NONE of that analysis will come from Wikileaks. Because they are simply information terrorists operating under the pretense of ensuring information symmetry between governments and the populace.

That information symmetry is dangerous when available to people who do NOT have the competency to deal with it. It’s like poisonous high-school gossip that only the principal can deal with, put all parties at ease through negotiations and prevent various factions in the school from exploiting the situation to their advantage. In short, avoiding mayhem through diplomacy.

I’m not saying we should all stay blind to how the government works, but to me there are two kinds of information – military intelligence and diplomatic conversations – that should stay out of the public eye because of the many elements who can exploit such information to their advantage and the possibility of pushing your citizens into unwanted states of paranoia. Let’s not forget diplomacy is about pushing your policies while making the other person feel they’re doing you a favor by allowing it to happen. Diplomacy necessitates information asymmetry.

If you must, share such information with agencies who can deal with it. Yes, government agencies. Be discreet because lives are at stake. Imagine chancing upon a list of secret agents during the Cold War and releasing it to the public in the name of greater “transparency”. I wouldn’t be sitting here ranting if that had happened, I’d be traveling through space as a bunch of atoms.

As it turns out, King Julian may have just realized the consequences of this stupid leak. Too late.

I was looking for someone else who may have made this point and @complicateur sent me a link to a wonderful New Yorker article about Julian Assange. It highlights the frantic behind-the-scenes activity during the release of “Collateral Murder”. There isn’t a single segment about critical analysis or providing context. Because Wikileaks don’t have the time for it. Or they’re not competent enough.

The article ends with a thought that perfectly sums up my feelings towards Wikileaks, albeit in more dignified terms.

“…..answer a deeper question that WikiLeaks must address: What is it about? The Web site’s strengths—its near-total imperviousness to lawsuits and government harassment—make it an instrument for good in societies where the laws are unjust. But, unlike authoritarian regimes, democratic governments hold secrets largely because citizens agree that they should, in order to protect legitimate policy. In liberal societies, the site’s strengths are its weaknesses. Lawsuits, if they are fair, are a form of deterrence against abuse. Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most—power without accountability—is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution. “
Power without accountability. Don’t put all your information in the hands of these terrorists. Sometimes, we just don’t want to know.
A shortened version of this post was published in Pune Mirror on December 5, 2010.
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18 responses to “We Don’t Need No Information”

  1. Patrix says :

    My views on this matter are known to you but this post did not add much to your arguments. In fact, I believe you made a better case on Twitter. By making ad hominem attacks on Julian Assange (shooting the messenger) and sweeping rhetoric like ‘information terrorists’ (Really?) make me less likely to believe that we can have a reasonable discussion on this topic.

    The larger issue of how a Private could gain access to allegedly top secret documents regarding war and diplomacy remains undiscussed anywhere. If the governments are as callous about safeguarding their dirty laundry, I rather not trust them to keep us safe.

    • daddysan says :

      I don’t see any rebuttal from you regarding the two types of information I regard as worth protecting from public eyes.

      So just because a government couldn’t protect its information because of a mole makes it worthwhile to create diplomatic incidents? Just as my post isn’t a blanket defense of secrecy or pro-establishment ideals, your stance on blanket “transparency” is also in dire need of some flexibility.

      People who are irresponsible with lives are terrorists in my book. People irresponsible with information that affects lives are information terrorists. I am allowed my hyperbole if I wish to make my point.

      BTW, where are those ad hominem attacks? “King Julian”?

  2. Giribala says :

    Very well written post. It is certainly of professional caliber :-)
    The topic is too complicated. In this age of information such eventualities are unavoidable. Governments are not sacrosanct institutions either.

    • daddysan says :

      Thanks Giribala.

      On sacrosanct institutions, I’ll make the same point I was making to Mihir and Vamsee; everything must not be shared. It’s a different issue if your policymakers are incompetent but military intelligence and diplomatic briefs aren’t domestic or internal matters – they affect other countries too.

  3. complicateur says :

    Firstly, a distinction must be made between what Wikileaks is doing and journalism in general. Wikileaks is not a ‘news’ organization. Information they put out needs to be viewed with the same, if not more, skepticism.
    Secondly the assymetry of information point that @daddy_san makes is important. I mean, how pissed would you be if someone told the car dealer that you are actually desperate for a car and would probably pay more than you offered? Disparity of information is a key in negotiations. Assange is not releasing stuff from the cold war. He is releasing stuff about a war that is currently in progress. A war that is meandering endlessly, mostly because there is already enough difficulty reaching a diplomatic consensus. Personally I think these last set of leaks if anything hurt a faster resolution of the cluster-eff that is currently in progress in the middle east.

  4. vamsee says :

    You are absolutely right! Niira Radia says thank you very much! She did a S&R on this blogpost and rest her case.Barkha dutt’s Journalism in action is USA’s Diplomacy in action.All whistle blowers must.be.shot.dead.

  5. mihir says :

    Since we’re all talking about ethics…. is it ethical for the US to use taxpayers’ money, send troops over to Yemen and unleash a shit storm of bullets? And its not just ‘advising’ the Yemeni intelligence, we’re talking complete air support with tactical operations on the ground. Don’t tell me the US military is afraid that Yemen could become another Waziristan – its not doing too much to pacify the situation in Waziristhan in the first place. I don’t know about you, but i’d certainly like to know that my tax money is being spent on irrational wars instead of govt projects that provide me cheap food, electricity and roads.

    • daddysan says :

      I wasn’t talking about ethics at all. Just that information asymmetry is sometimes a good thing.

      What you’re referring to is flawed foreign policy. In that case, elect new policymakers. But just because you have policymakers sympathetic to your political viewpoint does not mean you automatically become privy to closed-door diplomatic or military dealings.

      I see these as two separate issues.

      • mihir says :

        That’s the point, the public has the right to know about the shenanigans the Foreign Policy honchos are pulling out their arses. In a nutshell, how would anyone elect new policymakers unless they know wtf is going on?

        Granted, Assange’s method of dumping the information like a giant turn flood was a tad unprofessional and dangerous, but what else could he have done? Gone to the media? The stories would never have been published then.

      • daddysan says :

        “Granted, Assange’s method of dumping the information like a giant turn flood was a tad unprofessional and dangerous,”

        That is all I’m saying, sire. I don’t know enough about non-governmental groups who can exert pressure on the government. Maybe there are. Maybe that’s where Assange needs to go vomit instead of the internet.

  6. i_r_squared says :

    Re. http://twitter.com/i_r_squared/status/9011086804131841, you are the only person I know who consistently follows up “will write a blog post” with action :)

    Also, 100% agree with post. It’s about time this chap was arrested again and put away somewhere where he can’t cause harm. Whistleblowing is fine, but I’d rather not know at all than get to know from a loose cannon like Assange.

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