Leaking State Secrets Online

A new Web site, Wikileaks.org, aims to be a Wikipedia for government whistle blowers. It apparently takes as its motto a quote from Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg: “We were young, we were foolish, we were arrogant, but we were right.”

Here’s what the site says about its mission:

WikiLeaks is developing an uncensorable version of WikiPedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. Our primary targets are highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia, central eurasia, the middle east and sub-saharan Africa, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the west who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their own governments and corporations. We aim for maximum political impact; this means our interface is identical to Wikipedia and usable by non-technical people. We have received over 1.1 million documents so far. We plan to numerically eclipse the content the english wikipedia with leaked documents.

Open government is strongly correlated to quality of life. Open government answers injustice rather than causing it (plans which cause injustice are revealed and opposed before implementation). Open government exposes, and so corrects, corruption. Historically, the most resilient form of open government is one where leaking and publication is easy. Public leaking, being an act of ethical defection to the majority, is by its nature a democratising force.

Hence a system enables everyone to leak safely to a ready audience is the most cost effective means of promoting good government — in health and medicine, in food supply, in human rights, in arms controls and democratic institutions.

The world has enough food. It has enough medicine. It has enough scientific research and invention. We know how to prevent malaria — we’ve known for over 50 years. We know how to halt HIV. We know how to put down our guns. It can be peaceful, just and healthy; all it needs is good governance. Politicians are not capable of it. We have to engineer it.

Of course, the obvious question is, how will the site make sure the leaked information it publishes will be limited to revelations of unethical behavior? The idea that openness is an absolute good, especially when it comes to national security, is naïve in the extreme.

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy put it best in Secrecy News:

Wikileaks invited Secrecy News to serve on its advisory board. We explained that we do not favor automated or indiscriminate publication of confidential records.

In the absence of accountable editorial oversight, publication can more easily become an act of aggression or an incitement to violence, not to mention an invasion of privacy or an offense against good taste.

Even when a leak exposes unethical behavior, the damage it does can sometimes outweigh the benefit of exposing the unethical behavior.

A very current case in point: the leaked video of Saddam Hussein’s execution. The video certainly exposed corruption in the Iraqi government’s ranks by showing that the loyalties of certain of its civil servants truly lie with Moqtada al-Sadr rather than with all the people of Iraq. On the other hand, the video is inflaming Sunni-Shiite tensions throughout the Middle East.

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