Do You Want to Know a Secret? – December 6, 2010

One of the more fatuous notions that has been rolling around the Internet is the idea that “information wants to be free.”  It is normally taken to be a kind of techno-rebellious, counter-culture for the noughts idea, the gist of it being that the world would be a happy, enlightened place if only those selfish corporate interests and governments would not try to expropriate information for their own grubby profit motive purposes.

It was in something of this vein that the world interpreted the first two Wikileak dumps, of unvarnished emails and communications about first the Iraq and then the Afghanistan conflicts.  They called Julian Assange a “whistleblower” – as if he were some intrepid investigative reporter digging up the dirt to expose a nefarious operation.

In fact, what it was was an unedited dump of emails and the like that named names and exposed many of our friends and allies in very dangerous places – people whose co-operation with us could put at risk not only their own but their families’ lives and livelihood.  Assange airily dismissed their risk of torture and dismemberment with scant concern – it was as if he didn’t think they were real people or that they didn’t feel real pain.

And that didn’t seem to bother too many people, at least not those who inhabit the leftward flank of our political spectrum.  My guess is that, as long as the aim is to discredit a war effort – be it Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, etc – it is OK to these folks to emblazon the most damaging information in as public a place as one can find.  Somehow they manage to differentiate between damaging the war effort and damaging the country’s interests.

But lo, how the mighty art infuriated when the target of the third Wikileaks dump is not military but diplomatic.  It’s truly remarkable how the governments and power structures around the world are galvanized into action by this latest nod to information’s desire to be free.  Attorney General Eric Holder, who didn’t seem to be too bothered by the first two, now is looking for any law he can find to bring Assange to the States and be put on trial; has shut its servers to Wikileaks, as have their counterparts in Canada and Switzerland.  The Swedes, who had let a vague rape charge fester for some months, got galvanized and issued an Interpol arrest warrant, which the Brits are acting upon.   Chase is gradually shutting down their bank accounts.  Even Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, has come out to disassociate himself and all things Wiki.

Now, I’m not unhappy that all this is going on.  Assange is not in fact some merry anarchist, creating digital mischief in the interest of global knowledge.  As expressed in his own writings back in 2006, discussed today by L. Gordon Crovitz in today’s WSJ Assange hates America and wants to do what he can to oppose our interests.  He views the US as a “security conspiracy,” and his objective is to hobble our security apparatus.  Quoted in Time Magazine: he wants American security networks to “lock down internally and to balkanize” in response to uncontrolled leaking, and so “cease to be as efficient as they were.”

This guy is an enemy.

And he was an enemy back in the spring when the first two Wikileaks came out.  People who trusted us were killed, and our soldiers were put at greater risk, and our enemies were emboldened and assisted because of the information they found in the public domain.  I’m glad that the world’s attention has focused on this info-terrorist at last, but I wish their antennae had been a bit more attuned to those areas of the world where our national interest is most acutely challenged and where his pranks raised one more obstacle to an already-fraught situation.

One more point worth mentioning.  The source for all these email dumps is apparently one individual – a private first class!  How one guy, presumably with a security clearance commensurate with his paygrade, came into possession of all those cables beggars the imagination.  The latest dump was over 250,000 State Department documents, of which he doubtless had legitimate access to none.  How is that possible?  If I tried to download that much data from a neighboring department in my company, our info security people would be at my office the next day.  If this government is less concerned about who has and who takes data than that, we have big problems.

Finally, one result of this whole epidemic of leaks is that information gets smothered.  If higher-ups or diplomatic contacts or informants can’t trust that their whispered insights will remain confidential, then they’ll button up.  This was evidently Assange’s objective.  But all those would-be copy-leakers who innocently believe that information wants to be free ought to bear in mind that with bad information, or critical insights not shared, governments will make worse decisions than they already do.

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