The Right Not to Know – Thoughts on the Wikileaks Controversy

The Right Not to Know – Thoughts on the Wikileaks Controversy December 3, 2010

I must confess that I’ve enjoyed reading some of the revelations that have emerged from the Wikileaks controversy.  There is a certain deliciousness in getting information you are not supposed to have, especially when it includes catty comments about political leaders known around the world.

But the whole episode reeks to high heaven.  There are several things that bother me about Julian Assange and what he did with WikiLeaks:

1.  Julian Assange speaks as though he’s doing the American people a great service by revealing to them the inner workings of their government.  Yet the American people deserve not to know some things.  We often say that in a democracy, the people deserve to know the truth.  But they also deserve a government that is capable of keeping secrets.  They deserve a government that can have honest and forthright – and that means confidential – communication between its diplomats.  There is no reason why the American people need to know that one of its diplomats declared that Dmitri Medvedev is the “Robin” to Vladimir Putin’s “Batman,” or that another called Kim Jong-Il is “flabby.”

Assange acts as though a people should know everything about their government, except for two things.  First, and very conveniently for Wikileaks, the people do not need to know the identities of sources that reveal important information, and whose lives might be endangered by exposure.  Second, and even more conveniently for Assange, the people have no right to know what would happen if Assange ever faced a justice system for the rape allegations against him.  Otherwise, however, Assange seems to be of the opinion that the American people should know just about everything what transpires within their government.

But obviously there is much the revelation of which would make our government less effective.  It helps crime prevention if the police are able to develop their cases in secrecy.  It helps counter-terrorism if terrorist organizations do not know the many methods that are used against them.  If helps our national security if we are able to develop military technologies of which our enemies know little or nothing.  It helps in international affairs — just like it helps in any context where you are trying to make a thousand deals with a thousand different parties — if you do not reveal to everyone the terms of every agreement you form.

Some of the leaks reveal interesting things.  The full consequences of the intelligence dump will not become clear for a long time, until it has been thoroughly searched and picked apart.  But there is no purpose served, other than embarrassing the American government and throwing a wrench in its gears, by revealing confidential cables with unflattering words for foreign leaders.

It does raise an interesting issue, though: what kind of information ought to be publicly available, and what kind ought not?

2.  I said that Julian Assange “speaks as though” he’s helping the American people.  Honestly, however, I don’t think he cares one whit about the American people.  Part of what galls about the whole situation is that Assange clearly feels great disdain for America and acts out of enmity and resentment.  Assange, in glittering condescension, has taken it upon himself to educate those silly, naive Americans about how their government really functions, as though we never imagined that our diplomats assess foreign leaders, sometimes unfavorably; that our government gathers intelligence; or even that our government and military sometimes make mistakes.  But there are venues and mechanisms for bringing the proper information to light, and a foreigner with no expertise or authority in the matter illegally revealing information that was illegally obtained is not one of them.

The other part that galls is that Assange seeks to gain fame and profit – and does gain enormous amounts of each – by exposing American intelligence and confidential information.  As the Time interview reveals, Assange holds himself and the consequences of his actions in extraordinarily high regard.  “It is our responsibility to bring matters to the public,” says Assange.  But who gave him that authority?  Did the American people elect him for the task?

Thoughts?  What has been helpful about the Wikileaks revelations?  What has been damaging?  Ought Assange to be brought to justice?

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  • Allan Sorensen

    You tried.
    But you really need to learn a lot more.

    With all due respect

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’m always open to learning, Allan. I’m always bothered by bloggers who pretend to know everything, who are unwilling to learn, or who are too proud to admit error publicly. So I hope to do differently here. However, although I looked at the site you linked, I did not find anything there particularly new to me. Care to tell me what in particular you thought I should learn?


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  • Flabby One

    The government is treating the American people with contempt by making anything a secret so that they are not held accountable by the American people. It is not the secrets that has embarassed the US but the lack of them and the lack of transparency in their operations. Any real secret probably would not be disclosed on the website as he has said he only wants to prove that the amount of secrecy is the issue. There are times when secrecy is required but seems the whole entire operation has become a secret and the public have zero right to know anything. So should 90% of the US government be a secret or only 10%. This is the question. Also fear is used yet again for the US government to get it’s own way. Pleeease saying Jim Yong Kong whoever is flabby is hardly going to start world war 3 and if it does then point the finger at the cable author. Oh no Aussange is going to be responsible for innocent deaths, really please can the US stop using fear to brainwash people – the world is over it.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Although we’re obviously world’s apart, Flabby One (love the name), thanks for leaving a comment.

    • I am so glad that those who think it is OK to leak out secrets from the American government were not around during the world wars. You’d be speaking German. Have just a little common sense about you please…

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  • I find it hard to believe that such a large percentage of Americans think it OK to sell out their country. You cant call it anything else but treasonous activity toward God and country…unless of course they believe that we were bought without blood…the blood of men and that of God’s Son Jesus.

  • Tell the Iraqi and Afghani people that we’re ‘better than most.’ 100,000+ dead Iraqis because of our war that should have ended up with Bush and Cheney sent to an international war crimes court.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I saw two thoughts expressed in the article and the comments that I think cast light on this issue. Dalrymple says that there are legitimate avenues for news such as this to be revealed. — I ask then, who is revealing any of this in a more responsible manner? I believe that the negligence of the mainstream media makes Wikileaks work much more legitimate than it would otherwise be.

    Second, another commentor notes that the American government has taken to classifying just about everything as “Secret.” This began under Bush and has accelerated under Obama. The government itself has become untrustworthy in its keeping of secrets when classification is used not to keep state secrets, but to avoid liability or accountability, or even mere embarassment.

    Randy G.

  • I don’t have a problem with exposing corruption within the U.S. government and state/local governments. If U.S. government diplomatic correspondence is exposed I would likewise expect to see EU, Indian,Russian, Chinese, Brazilian, German, French, UK, etc., governmental and diplomatic correspondence leaked and exposed. There are obviously MANY non-U.S. do-gooders and one world citizen of the world type. I encourage each and ever one to do what they can to get their hands on and leak their respective government(s) confidential governmental and diplomatic correspondence. I for one would LOVE to know what’s going on behind the scenes at the EU in Brussels, Russia, China and so-on. A brave AMERICAN stood up to the plate and leaked U.S. ‘secrets’…where are the brave Brits, Euros, Russians, Chinese? I want to see something on the same scale as the U.S. leaks.

  • A.S.

    A static picture of flowers used to be the only one I watched on my TV screen for years. I exercised my right not to know. Anyway, there are a lot of people who can sort out, analyze and tell you the most important things when you meet them. If your decision depends on knowledge, then get it. If it does not matter which country pushes your country into a new war, then turn on information filters, put corks into your ears and blinders on yours eyes – be three monkeys in one. Knowledge itself does matter as there are so different kinds of knowledge. How do you call the one who knows price of everything but value of nothing?

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