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“WikiLeaks,” Secrets, and Hypocrisy

A recent issue of The New Yorker carried a fascinating article – “No Secrets,” by Raffi Khatchadourian (June 7, 2010), at page 40 – about Julian Paul Assange, the Internet entrepreneur behind the “WikiLeaks” website.  A strange man who lives a reclusively peripatetic lifestyle, Assange maintains WikiLeaks as a global forum in which pretty much anyone is permitted – nay, encouraged – to reveal as many closely guarded secrets as possible.

Thanks to contributions from anonymous leakers, Assange’s website has apparently published the details of operating procedures at Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, the “Climategate” e-mails, the contents of Sarah Palin’s personal Yahoo account, the classified Rules of Engagement used by U.S. troops in Iraq, internal operating manuals of the Church of Scientology, video footage of a controversial attack in Baghdad by U.S. helicopter gunships, and sensitive information about radio-frequency devices then still in use by U.S. forces in Iraq to jam the remote-control detonators on improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  WikiLeaks exists to facilitate the accountability-free revelation, it would appear, of just about anything.

As one might wearily expect, Assange is deeply iconoclastic and professes an all-consuming devotion to the cause of free speech.  Indeed, he seems to view himself in dramatic terms, as a quiet technological crusader against cruel and nonsensical oppression.  He is said, for instance, to relish comparing himself to the scientists and technicians caught in the Stalinist gulag as depicted in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, or to characters in the fiction of Franz Kafka.

WikiLeaks is the middle finger Assange has erected to jab into the eye of The System.  He is taken by his supporters, in fact, as something of the patron saint of free speech – or even a sometime martyr for the cause, for, as one might expect, he seems to have had occasional scuffles with the law – and a paragon of virtue in a world in which sinister cabals try to hide information.  And Assange’s work is hardly short of admirers: WikiLeaks’ homepage features what purports to be an accolade from Time Magazine, describing the site as one that “could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act.”  He and his supporters are presumably enjoying the notoriety given by recent press accounts that Pentagon investigators are trying to determine his whereabouts, apparently in order to forestall WikiLeaks’ publication of a massive folio of classified cable traffic stolen from the U.S. Government.

Yet while WikiLeaks accomplishments may be technically impressive – the Baghdad helicopter video apparently had to be painstakingly decrypted by expert cryptographers part-timing for Assange, and the website goes to famously elaborate lengths to protect the anonymity of its sources – it is hard not to find them philosophically and intellectually incoherent, to the point of hypocrisy.  For despite his moralistic commitment to destroying everyone else’s secrecy, Julian Assange clearly believes fervently in the necessity of keeping secrets: his own.

According to Khatchadourian’s article, Assange is essentially the only member of the WikiLeaks team whose identity is known – and he himself has no permanent address, flitting between supporters’ homes in various countries in order, he suggests, to defeat surveillance and tracking.  The other key members of his group are known only by initials, such as “M,” and its computer engineers are known for their obsessive secrecy.  They communicate by means of powerfully encrypted on-line chat services, and Assange reportedly keeps a special computer full of leaked classified information entirely separate from the Internet, this “air gap” serving to help prevent hostile electronic penetration.  WikiLeaks maintains its content on more than 20 computer servers scattered around the world, using hundreds of domain names and what are described as extremely secure “virtual tunnels” for transmitting messages amidst a noisy flood of fake traffic.  (On the off chance that someone should actually succeed in taking down Assange’s electronic operation, moreover, his supporters maintain a web of “mirror” sites full of his data.)  In reading Khatchadourian’s account, one also detects a distinct whiff of paranoia in Assange and his collaborators; in Assange’s online writings, he is apparently “quick to lash out a perceived enemies,” and the author’s encounters with him and his crew are laced with dark humor about government surveillance of the “I’m only half joking” variety.

But this is an important point.  Even while he dedicates himself to indiscriminately demolishing the secret-keeping of others, much of Assange’s life thus seems to revolve around the perceived need to keep his own secrets from everyone else in the world.

A colleague of mine at Hudson Institute, Gabriel Schoenfeld, has just published an excellent book that is very much on point here.  Necessary Secrets (New York: Norton & Co., 2010) ably defends the propositions that: (a) it is indeed “necessary” to keep some secrets; (b) leaks have frequently in the past imposed tremendous costs upon our society by compromising its ability to protect itself; (c) affording everyone a de facto license to leak undermines democracies not just by making them more vulnerable to domestic and international predation, but by allowing single individuals to defeat the choices made by elected representative governments in keeping some things secret; and (d) policy considerations and well-established traditions of U.S. law do not support an absolutist idea of speech and press in contradistinction to government interests in secrecy, and indeed allow for prosecution not merely of those who leak classified information but of the media outlets that facilitate this.  It does an injustice to Schoenfeld’s well-argued and -researched book to summarize such points in a pithy fashion here, but you get the idea.

You might thus think Gabriel Schoenfeld and Julian Assange to be, philosophically speaking, mortal enemies.  This is, however, a more difficult proposition to defend than one might think on the basis of Assange’s “free speech” moralizing.  At the level of pretense, of course, Assange takes a position seemingly as far as one could imagine from Schoenfeld’s careful analysis of “necessary secrets.”  But that’s just what Assange says.

On the level of what he does, things look a bit different.  The operational behavior of WikiLeaks and the day-to-day life of its founder tell a different story than does the ideology he professes.  Assange is obviously a passionate believer in the need to protect secrets in a good cause: his own cause.  WikiLeaks’ operational practices and the technical parameters of its secret-keeping anonymity protections and information dissemination capabilities are themselves to be protected against all disclosure, he seems to feel, because such secrecy is necessary to its continued functioning and thus to ensuring the perpetuation of the good it does in the world.

Yet this, of course, is precisely the rationale underlying all secret-keeping by democratic governments – and, at the deepest level, a type of position one would imagine Schoenfeld thinks entirely legitimate.  It is a key tenet of Schoenfeld’s book that some secrets are indeed “necessary” ones.  In the most basic sense, when one strips away WikiLeaks’ politically-correct “free speech” posturing, Assange and Schoenfeld disagree only about which secrets it is necessary to keep.  And this is precisely where Assange’s professedly absolutist “free speech” moralism unglues itself.

Let’s play a thought game.  Let’s assume you were to steal and collect a large cache of information about Assange’s personal life on the Internet, as well as about WikiLeaks’ operating procedures, anonymous sources, and the means by which he and his crew protect their secrecy and safeguard themselves against assaults by the malevolent enemies they believe themselves to have.  (Suppose, in other words, that you gathered information on him and his work equivalent to that which he has published about others – e.g., Sarah Palin’s personal e-mails, or the means by which U.S. soldiers in Iraq help keep themselves from being killed by insurgents’ IEDs.)  Gather this treasure trove of information, the publication of which would seem likely to cripple WikiLeaks and imperil its operators and contributors ... and then send it all to WikiLeaks for publication.  Any bets on whether Assange would post it?  Of course he wouldn’t.  The compulsive secrecy in which Wikileaks operates demonstrates that Julian Assange clearly does agree with Gabriel Schoenfeld that at least some “necessary secrets” exist.  Assange merely wants to reserve for himself the right to decide which ones they are, and to deny that right to everyone else in the world.

One might perhaps think Assange basically right – e.g., that WikiLeaks, on balance, does more good than harm – or conclude that he is basically wrong.  (For my part, I tend to agree with Schoenfeld that publishing the secrets maintained by democratic governments, at least, is profoundly subversive of democracy.  Feel free to steal and publish all the secrets you like from tyrants, Mr. Assange, but your absolutist “free speech” does civil liberty and democratic self-rule no favors!)  Right or wrong on the merits of leaking, however, it is very hard not to think Assange a hypocrite in his self-righteous devotion to an absolutist vision of free speech that would, in practice, deny everyone the right to keep secrets except Julian Assange.

-- Christopher Ford

Note: As recently reported on and elsewhere, a former hacker recently turned in U.S. Army Specialist Bradley Manning for having provided the Baghdad helicopter video and 260,000 classified U.S. State Department diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks.  The hacker, Adrian Lamo – apparently no Internet saint himself, having been convicted of computer damage for his own penetration of the New York Times’ computer system in 2003 – was apparently horrified at the scale of Manning’s plundering of classified databases when serving as an intelligence analyst in Iraq.  Manning, who had confided in Lamo, is now being held by U.S. authorities in Kuwait pending the results of an investigation.

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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  1. I am surprised that you assume that just because a system of voting is “democratic”, that system itself will be accountable- this is a rather large jump in logic here. And even if you assume that there is a trail of accountability, ‘sound’ political or strategic decision making at the individual level often results in outcomes that are misguided, wrong or dangerous. One would hope that the democratic system you refer to, will have mechanisms in place to reappraise strategies that are not working or are less than optimal; however, this is not always the case and it is the wider system of checks and balances that allow governments to move forward on the best path. Governments will make mistakes, but should be robust enough to recognise these and improve. I would argue that the right to free speech balances out the decision-making bureaucracy that may not be imbued with perfect knowledge or judgement, or is acting in accordance with laws that should be changed.

    I think that it is safe to say that in a democratic system, the public has a right to know information that reveals that the outcome of their collective decision-making is faulty, or the result is criminal or immoral, particularly outcomes that are not properly addressed by those holding political office. What is the relevance of Assange’s private details to this? There are very few Mordechai Vanunu’s in this world, and very few people who would spend a lifetime in jail; however I and am certain that there is a wealth of damning information that the public has a right to know about, and many abuses of power even in ‘democracies’ that should be brought to light, more importantly perhaps as they are committed in the name of the people.

    A democratic public has the right to question our leaders and should do so armed with the facts. Such information is a public good as we should not be blind and too trusting of our elected leaders and the people they employ. I would suggest that no democracy currently existing is perfect and that this method of information sharing is simply a product of the system we have created to protect ourselves- from ourselves. Should the comfortable ignorance of the generally public not be shaken once in a while? Is it his method that you find offensive or the information he releases?

  2. Dear Natasha:

    I would be the last person to argue that democracies always function well, or fairly, or with the kind of accountability for leaders that one might wish.

    I do, however, tend to prefer democracy’s faults to those of systems that make critical decisions by elite fiat or some power-holder’s personal whim. That, unfortunately, is how Wikileaks approaches secrecy: Assange arrogates to himself the power to decide what should be secret and what should not, and indeed this is the characteristic attitude of all unauthorized leakers. (I sense it in your comment, too: you seem to assume yourself empowered to decide on your own when a democracy has done something “misguided, wrong or dangerous,” and support leaking its secrets where you feel it necessary to “balance” things out or otherwise provide “accountability.”)

    No one, least of all the secretive and semi-paranoiac Julian Assange, seems to think that there truly should be no secrets at all. When it comes to deciding what secrets are indeed — in Schoenfeld’s terms — “necessary” ones, however, I tend to prefer the collective judgment of a democratic political system, even if flawed, to such a Napoleonic paradigm. (Even if Assange did not vet and oversee the extent, nature, and timing of Wikileaks’ publication of information submitted it to it — instead automatically publishing everything as if the site were a kind of monstrous chat room — I would object no less. Making everyone their own disclosure czar for other people’s secrets is no improvement on Assangist caprice.)

    Note, of course, that I have tried to be careful to tie such comments to circumstances in which the society offended against by unauthorized leaking is indeed a democracy. (I follow Schoenfeld in this.) There are methods of accountability in such systems — freedom of political speech most of all, but supplemented by judicial systems to guard against improper assertions of authority or unlawfully-made determinations, whistleblower protection statues, bureaucratic ombudspersons, freedom of information acts, classified information procedures act [for criminal proceedings], and so forth — that do not betray but in fact reinforce democratic values. In stark contrast to Wikileaks’ anarcho-Napoleonic approach to giving everyone a license to leak, such mechanisms are openly debated and deliberately established by a democratically-accountable government in order to strengthen its own accountability to the citizenry while still allowing for the preservation of such secrets that the democracy deems it important to keep.

    A democracy could of course actually choose to set up a sort of official Wikileaks, giving its citizens the right to leak at will. (I’m not sure that would be wise, but as you point out, democracies sometimes do unwise things.) At any rate, if an official leak forum were established by such a system, it would be no offense against democracy for people to use it. But that’s a very, very different thing from someone taking it upon himself, as Assange does, to tear down the very walls of secrecy that a democracy has chosen to maintain. To do that is deeply offensive to democracy.

    While l thus find leaking in a developed democracy offensive to core values that I assume you also support, leaking in a non-democratic society is quite another story. In that context, there is no offense against democratic self-rule, for the official secret-keeper lacks the legitimacy he needs in order to have a compelling moral claim upon the privilege of secret-keeping. In an undemocratic system, in fact, leaks may provide all the accountability there is.

    Accordingly, I’d be perfectly happy with Assange if he assigned himself the role of exclusively spreading the secrets of tyrannies. That would be a noble calling indeed. His vanity and instinct for narcissistic self-promotion, however, apparently do not permit him such nobility. Shame on him.

    – Chris

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