After Wikileaks, how do we empower those in government who support transparency?

Suw and I have watched with some concern as the battle over Wikileaks has played out. For a time, both supporters and critics seemed to lose perspective about what is a very complicated and nuanced story. Hyperbole and complete lack of context in the coverage were sadly all too common. As someone who has covered technology and security issues for some time, the lack of a sense of history about the story is shocking.

History is important. Many of the debates that Wikileaks has brought to the attention of the broader public have been going on for much of the past 15 years. Debates about internet governance, Internet security, resiliency and censorship didn’t start with the recent release of documents and war logs by Wikileaks. To see these difficult issues trivialised and bled of nuance in the shouting match going on between pro- and anti-Wikileaks commenters is deeply troubling because making grey things black and white tends to lead to bad public policy.

Let me add some history from my own work. I covered the story of the release of secret files by former MI6 agent Richard Tomlinson. I worked with my colleague Paul Reynolds and tracked the documents allegedly containing the identities of MI6 agents as they quickly moved across the internet after their initial release.

I’ll quote my former colleague Chris Nuttall from this 1999 piece:

Former MI6 intelligence officer, Richard Tomlinson, who has threatened to publish state secrets on the World Wide Web, says the Internet spells the end for the world’s intelligence services.

His prediction came in an e-mail interview with BBC News Online. “I think the Net will eventually make intelligence agencies defunct as there will be a lot less secrets around the world that they can steal,” he said.

The British government tried to shut down the website where the names were published saying that it was putting the lives of its agents at risk. Even if they had, it was too late. Mirrors of the information were set up almost immediately, much faster in fact than in the Wikileaks case. Indeed, this case raised many of the same issues that Wikileaks has.

The issue of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks being used for political means isn’t all that new. I mean, come on, Twitter was supposedly the target of a politicaly motivated DDoS attack last year. Hacktivism isn’t new. I wrote about waves of site defacements and other attacks stemming from the Israel-Palestine conflict and after the collision of a US spy plane and Chinese fighter in 2001. Is it a danger of the 24-hours news cycle that history is wiped clean in every morning news meeting? Seriously, we will have no chance of tackling the issues our societies face if in the pursuit of the new-ness of news we immediately forget our past. Wikileaks is a pretty logical extension of events over the history of the internet and as a reaction to reflexive secrecy by governments around the world.

The history of US government transparency reformers

Without going over territory that has been well covered, it’s safe to say that Suw and I defend our right to remain conflicted about Wikileaks. (Suw says that she had wanted to write a blog post then, but shied away because of the abuse she saw meted out to anyone who expressed doubts about Wikileaks.) Fortunately, beginning a couple of weeks ago, leveler heads started to prevail and sort through some of the thorny issues and the competing values the case has raised. It is our hope that Wikileaks will lead to a mature discussion about government transparency. Clay Shirky makes a lot of very valid points when he says that competing democratic values are in butting up against each other with this case. As he says, in the short haul, Wikileaks probably operates as a needed corrective to government secrecy. However:

Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to.

I followed the Personal Democracy Forum’s event looking at Wikileaks from afar, and this comment from journalist and internet activist Rebecca McKinnon points to the long haul:

We need to think strategically about how to empower those in government who support transparency.

One of things lost in the ahistorical coverage of Wikileaks has been the recognition of those who have dedicated their lives to increasing transparency and decreasing the secrecy of the US government. The standout exception to this has been National Public Radio’s excellent programme, On the Media, produced by WNYC in New York. They have covered the complexities of Wikileaks with great nuance and intelligence, interviewing people with a range of views on the subject.

For instance, they have interviewed Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a source I often called on when I was based in Washington. He has worked for years (joining FAS in 1989) to declassify information from the US government:

“In 1997, Mr. Aftergood was the plaintiff in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency which led to the declassification and publication of the total intelligence budget ($26.6 billion in 1997) for the first time in fifty years. In 2006, he won a FOIA lawsuit against the National Reconnaissance Office for release of unclassified budget records.”

He laid out his conflicted views about Wikileaks in a blog post and in an interview with On the Media. He said:

I would also say that in the U.S., the political process is still flexible enough that it is possible to put forward an argument for a change in policy and to see that change put into practice. We’ve seen more than a billion pages of historically valuable records declassified since 1995.

He has come in for a lot of criticism for being conflicted and critical of some aspects of Wikileaks work by those who truck no criticism of the organisation.

I also commend this recent interview with Tom Devine and the Government Accountability Project, who has been working for 31 years for legislation to protect corporate and government whistleblowers in the US. He talks about a number of cases where people have put their careers on the line to uncover waste, fraud and abuse. At the end of the interview, he thanks the interviewer for being interested.

To me, this is what Rebecca means when she says we, journalists and citizens in general, should strategically work to empower those in government working for greater transparency and also those organisations in our societies working for greater transparency. These battles for reform aren’t nearly as sexy as the Wikileaks story, but they are crucial in the long haul to our democratic societies.