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Deprivatizing Secrecy: a cable on Wikileaks

Does a democratic government have a right to its secrets? According to all officials of note in the West and the East – a curious universal chorus of dictators, democrats, business leaders, diplomats and the large bulk of the international media – the answer is an emphatic absolutely. In fact, even those institutions which applaud (or speculate upon the inherent news interest of) the recent cable dump also proceed to quickly caution us against the dangerous lack of realism inherent in total disclosure. As Richard Stengel, the managing editor of Time, remarks in a recent editorial:

For Julian Assange, when it comes to government and diplomacy, there are no good secrets. To him, all transactions between nations and leaders should be transparent. In my conversation with him on Nov. 30 via Skype, I asked him whether he thought all secrets were harmful and unnecessary. He replied that he believed in the necessity of keeping his own sources secret and took great pains to do so. Now, there is some hypocrisy in defending secrecy in order to attack it, but there is more naiveté and even danger in suggesting that the world is a safer place without any secrets at all.

Ah, accusations of hypocrisy and naiveté: the first and final refuge of capitalist realists! But let us come back to the question of whether Assange really does think all secrets are harmful and unnecessary in a moment. For now, simply note how Assange is figured not only as an idealist but also as a fanatic of honesty – fanaticism, as Alberto Toscano has shown, always being the deadly drive liberal democracy divines in every one of its designated enemies – while the cooler-heads of well-paid institutional news soberely acknowledge the righteousness of the correction this leak provisions against an unsettling bloat in government secrecy only then to cluck over the reckless vandalism of a good deed taken too far. Lest we be confused, however, Stengel assures us that Time is well within its rights to publish the cables. It is not acting hypocritically or naively, of course: only loyally. For while government “opposes the publication of any classified material,” the authors of the U.S. Constitution – that ultimate unaccountable authority – “understood that letting the government rather than the press choose what to publish was a very bad idea in a democracy”. Yet, one might point out that for all this rhetoric of honouring democracy and the Constitution, Time does not seem overly concerned to honour a less lofty duty of the press, a duty the media has junked as thoroughly as frank and fearless journalism: namely, the imperative to protect your source. Thus, having abandoned the government for the Constitution ever so briefly, Stengel hastily signs himself back up as the humble subject of the power of the day when he writes: “It seems inarguable that the release of 251,287 documents via WikiLeaks harms American national security and that Assange meant to do so. Whether he is guilty under the U.S. Espionage Act is unclear, but the right of news organizations to publish those documents has historically been protected by the First Amendment.” In an astonishingly mendacious covering of one’s own arse, the dissemination and coverage of the leaks is therefore not to be taken as criminal even though the initial dissemination and publication of the leaks may well be. With an obscene lack of solidarity, Time – here only too representative of mainstream media organizations worldwide – does not mobilise in an effort to agitate and defend its media source but airily abandons that source to the vengeful machinations of the market-state. No wonder news outlets have recently decided to stop calling Wikileaks a ‘whiste-blower’: through that lens, the implications of this craven desertion are much too obvious and unseemly.

But this returns us to the matter posed above: does a democratic goverment have a right to its secrets? Moreover, can we, indeed, call Assange a whistle-blower if he does in fact believe that all secrets are harmful and unncessary? Does the apparent comprehensiveness of the leak – covering the most routine of internal governmental transactions – undo his claim to be crusading against human rights violations, abuses and misinformation? In a classic piece of obfuscation also run by Time, Fareed Zakaria has argued that the Wikileak cables should be taken not as a scandal but, rather, a relief from worry, a load off our minds! Implicitly framing the leaks against the mass manipulation of intelligence we know went on in the Bush years, Zakaria argues that the cables show a democratic government in good health: a U.S. diplomatic core engaged in very little deception – nothing at all like the Ellsberg Papers, he insists – and quite strong on analysis, populated by “clever minds”, “pursuing privately pretty much the policies it [the state] has articulated publicly.” Never mind the fact that the cables have displayed a gob-smackeningly obvious and twistedly profound hatred of democracy – to use Chomsky’s entirely warranted phrase: spying on the UN leadership, pressuring the Spanish attorney-general to obstruct that nation’s probe into CIA rendition and Guantánamo, taking what can only be called an unofficial tithe from allies, covering up bombing another nation’s territory in complicity with that nation’s government, colluding with Britain to defy a cluster bomb ban on its territory, to name just a few examples. Moreover, it is not only the US that is implicated in this hatred: indeed, what makes this dump so remarkable is that U.S. intelligence, as we might expect, acts as a mass clearing house of information on endemic manipulation of the public trust across the globe – for instance, Berlusconi profiting from secret deals with Putin, the Saudi regime, even as it retains official links to the funding of al-Qaeda, agitating for an invasion of Iran amid an antagonism between power elites that certainly rivals that sclerotic regime for obsessiveness, cynicism and fundamentalism, and the free Afghanistan we are supposedly fighting the good fight for finally revealed for that which we have long known it to be: “a looking-glass land where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm and the honest official is a distinct outlier.” Thus, the seemingly valid point Zakaria makes – that these cables do not display a secret of the homocidal magnitude of American war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – deliberately overlooks the fact that it is not the sheer explosive revelatory nature of these cables that makes them so shocking but the total acceptance everywhere in them of the wisdom of habitual and quotidian corruption, a sort of sardonic running commentary or ‘strong analysis’ on the ‘poetic enlightenment’ that comes from manuevring around the rules at every loophole or in the face of any minor inconvenience they should pose. And it should be remembered that these cables are only material from the lowest levels of classification, accessible to someone as minor as a first class private, unlike the Ellsberg papers.

If we were to accept, then, with Zakaria, with Stengel, with all our political talking heads, that such corruption is simply the way the world works, the unavoidable operation of government in a global realm of deceptive, hostile structures and actors, then we would indeed be led to conclude that such a mass release of sensitive information can only be harmful – even as we somewhat contradictorily play off the idea of anything of consequence in the leak and stonewall against any notion that there are any really disreputable dimensions to the cables which would warrant a serious public reckoning. As such, when we argue that a government has a right to its secrets, we should have the courage to acknowledge that what we are also necessarily saying is that we believe that the state has the right to conspire. At this point, we can turn back to Assange. In the interview with Time referenced by Stengel in his op-ed above, Assange does not say that the world is a safer place without any secrets in it at all. Secrecy, he explains, has its place, but it should not be used to cover up abuses. In releasing such a comprehensive archive of documentation, of course, the counterargument advanced by the ‘responsible’ media has been that Assange is simply contradicting himself and, by his actions, reveals his true, certainly misguided, possibly even terroristic intention: that is, not to expose abuses but to sabotage the very channels of government secrecy themselves. Yet, this slight of hand steals away the real point like a thief in the night. For if Wikileaks is, indeed, sabotaging the channels of government secrecy, this is precisely because it is presenting to the public, via this sabotage, what is perhaps the greatest single abuse that the organization has exposed to date: namely, the fact that the channels of government secrecy are thoroughly corrupt as a system. While even Assange acknowledges that governments may need to deliberate in secret, this document dump points to a key question about this secrecy that states worldwide increasingly work to repress: in a word, should secrecy be conceived as a right of government? Or are secrets, rather, a responsibility of the state? Allow me to be clear. By responsibility, I do not mean here the unavoidable burden of having to conceal from the people the truth of an international domain grounded on lies and sneaky interests, the pressing weight of world issues those oh-so-selfless realists we elect are forced by fate and money to bravely bear on our behalf. In other words, I do not refer to the great responsibility our politicians love to tell us comes with great power, these Peter Parkers one and all. Rather, I mean the responsibility for secrecy the state ought to assume, in which secrets would be understood as that operation of governance which government should not just rely on but, rather, in order to be honest, should be required to govern within itself. Far from a legitimate tool of government, in this sense, secrets should actually be seen as extra-governmental powers, insofar as they are matters which are withheld from the deliberation of the democratic public sphere. If they are indeed a structural requirement of governance, it does not follow that they are the natural right of government, but precisely a state of exception in which a government takes definitive leave of responsiveness to democracy and so must be scrupulously open to measures which, in turn, make it all the more responsible for the secrets it keeps to itself. Conceptualized in this way, to act responsibly toward secrecy in government would be to design what Reid Kane has called a counter-institutional politics that establishes independent oversight, like a people’s judiciary, and defends the democratic state from the manipulation of secrecy itself.

Surely one of the most disturbing (but not exactly surprising) aspects of this whole thing has been the way in which the governments of the West have treated these leaks as though they were a violation of privacy. This underlying idea that a state secret is a private right – the very ground zero of the aggreived claim that what Assange has done simply must be ‘illegal’ – is so dangerous it hardly has bounds. All those on the side of democracy in any meaningful sense must assert now and together this dictum: a government secret is not its private property. And it is the general consensus among our elites to the contrary that is, more than anything, the conspiracy that Wikileaks is seeking to turn against itself: this universal convergence that unites dictators and democrats upon the privatization of the commons of state secrecy in a nexus of business-government rights to them as their exclusive property. To put it another way, for a confidential public interest to be truly public and not just secretive, it must be able to function as if any one of the public which it ostensibly represents could be taken into its confidence – even if a general revelation of that secret to everyone everywhere would be damaging to its integrity. This definitive alienation of democratic governmental secrecy from its inherently public nature, even when it is a classified secret – its transformation into the unaccountable privilege of the private market-state – is nothing else then but the enshrinement of the right to conspire, to plot, to profiteer, to dodge knowledgeability, to do dirty deals, always in the name of national security and the best interests of the people for whom such secrecy is privatized. In that sense, Wikileaks has been so comprehensive in its document dumping, I suspect, not because it aims to destroy the ability of government to keep any information secret, or even the possibility of secrecy per se, but rather because it aims to destroy the immunity of the private-property-relation that government (and business) rely upon to assert their unchallengable prerogative over the public and democratic representativeness of a secret’s confidentiality. It has not been good enough, in short, to expose only lies and misinformation. The leaks have had to anull the very structure of privacy – as opposed to public secrecy – that has fed into this right to conspire, that fuels the deliberate blur between the ‘legitimate’ secrets of our democratic governments and the ‘necessity’ of their dirty deals, the very deals that make us want to keep their secrets at arm’s length from ourselves, so that their bad actions can remain their property and not, as it ought to be, ours. If we oppose Wikileaks, therefore, we do so only out of this brand of bad faith, not legitimate concern for our own interests and safety. And in so doing, we are giving away much more than our right to know. We are conferring upon the market-state the right to own as its sole property the sovereign decision over just what exactly it is that we, as the citizens it no longer serves but secures, can be free to understand about our world.

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Filed under: Counter-institutions, Property, Resistance, Secrecy

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