In late 2006, an unknown Julian Assange posted two seemingly innocuous essays on his blog iq.org. The essays, “State and Terrorist Conspiracies” and “Conspiracy as Governance,” (PDF) appeared online around the same time Wikileaks first launched. The essays, which are nearly identical, advocate disrupting the tools authoritarian regimes use to collude or “conspire” in a manner that harms citizenries. Drastically hindering the ability to conspire, Assange argues, forces regimes to alter behavior by rendering the prior set of behavior untenable. What is one tactic Assange posits as an effective weapon for destroying a conspiracy? The leak.
Fast forward to 2010. Wikileaks uploads millions of classified documents and communications from governments and private companies to the Internet for the viewing pleasure of all. The numerous leaks make public the intimate details of war, diplomacy, governance, and business. Critics charge these actions recklessly endanger lives, but no organization, be it the Pentagon or third-party humanitarian groups, find evidence that any person has been put in harms way because of a release. In fact, the person most at risk of being harmed due to Wikileaks’ activities is Assange himself. The rising profile of his organization has catalyzed the ire of government officials and political talking heads. More than a few have called for Assange to be assassinated or thrown in prison.
Wikileaks appears to be the embodiment of what Assange describes in his 2006 essays. When Wikileaks acts it dominates the news cycle for days and even weeks at a time. But for all the scaremongering cries, enthusiastic endorsements, and tepid analysis, people are just now beginning to examine the logic of Wikileaks, its philosophical assumptions, and its effectiveness in achieving its goals.
For what purpose does Wikileaks exists and what end is it attempting to realize? A simple answer to this question is to free information. A cynic may answer the question with one word: anarchy. If one assumes that Assange’s essays are indeed the grounding for Wikileaks, the goal is to use leaks and technology to dismantle the interacting and interdependent factions of authoritarian conspiracy in hopes of creating strong resistance to authoritarian planning while fermenting the proper incentive for more humane government. But there are massive blind spots in Assange’s reasoning which renders Wikileaks a self-defeating project.
Assange uses of the Oxford English Dictionary definition of conspiracy: “make secret plans jointly to commit a harmful act; working together to bring about a particular result, typically to someone’s detriment.” And while he does not provide a similar working definition for authoritarian, it seems safe to assume the OED can again provide the working definition: “favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom; showing a lack of concern for the wishes or opinions of others; domineering; dictatorial.” Authoritarian regimes, Assange notes, use “conspiratorial interactions among the political elite, not merely for preferment or favor within the regime, but as the primary planning methodology behind maintaining or strengthening authoritarian power.” (I only note these definitions to point out that Assange’s use of conspiracy differs from other conspiracy theorists, like the truthers.)
The claim is that once the inner workings or conspiratorial forces that support the regime is made public, resistance will be “induced” and strengthened and can thus negatively impact unjust authority’s power. Assange articulates, “Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.” Assange seem to think that authoritarian operations have a frustration limit and once reached, the powerful will crumble under the weight of their own ugliness and will be replaced by a more benevolent force that respects personal freedom. This assumption is wildly naïve and ignores a plethora of important factors.
The mythical resistance to authoritarian power is the biggest impediment to this argument. It is simplistic because it ignores an obvious question: Who is the victim of the authority’s oppression? Nothing prevents a regime from being relatively benign to its own citizens while garrisoning the rest of the planet in the name of national security. If the citizenry of an authoritarian regime is not the victim of the regimes oppressions and/or the citizenry views the actions of its government as legitimate, the chances of resistance forming inside that country are slim. Authoritarian regimes that face resistance abroad and support at home tend to confront resistance with stronger, and often less humane, force in hopes of pounding their foes into submission. Authority errs towards violence, both physical and otherwise, when challenged. And therefore, the success of a resistance, where it exists, depends in large part on its methodology of attack and its ability to endure intensified assaults from the authoritarian regime.
The trove of documents released by Wikileaks has given individuals around the world raw witness to how The State rite large speaks with forked tongue. Yet, as noted earlier, the leaks have been met with scorn from private citizens and government officials. Nationalism is a powerful motivator. And foreign entities that attempt to discredit the actions of a nation will undoubtedly be met with force and contempt—regardless of the moral worthiness or truthfulness of their claims. Even individuals who would seem genuinely sympathetic to transparent government and revelations of corruption lambaste the actions of Assange’s organization. Simply illuminating the truth that authoritarian governments collude and lie to the determent of individuals does not in of itself guarantee resistance in the places where resistance matters most.
Assange makes another important error through omission—he does not anticipate the type of selection pressure leaks might place on the state. It is natural for the state to want to protect what it views as private communications. When previous methods of protection fail and the ugliness of some forms of governance is shown, the state doesn’t become more transparent but rather it becomes more opaque—at least initially. Assuming none of the players making decisions change, the goals of the authoritarian conspiracy would remain in tact. Instead of being forced to alter its goals, like Assange would desire, the regime would simply alter its methods and make it even more difficult for future leaks to happen. Assange contends that this will lead to an internalization and over-reaction that will hinder the states’ ability to understand the environment it attempts to control. But much depends on the type of adjustments the state decides to make. If enough support exists (and judging from the current reaction to Wikileaks activity, it seems foolish to doubt the existence of such support), the state can attempt an outward adjustment that seeks to dissuade resistance through violence and imprisonment. Authoritarian conspiracies can be brazen. America already has a government that publicly asserts the authority kill its citizens without due process. Is it really that hard to conceive of the US or other governments finding ways to continue levels of communication while using “other means” to control the threat of leaks from a foreign organization?
The germination of a resistance is just the first part of how Assange expects to alter the behavior of authoritarian regimes. The second step concerns the methods the resistance will use to “halve” the “total conspiratorial power” of regimes until the regimes are rendered ineffective. This can be done through blinding the authorities by distorting the information they gather or by throttling and separating the links in the conspiracy. Critics of “cablegate” accuse Wikileaks of disrupting the United States ability to engage in diplomacy with countries whose populations are not friendly to America. Some Arab diplomats and leaders contend that “cablegate” will seriously hinder the types of conversations America and Arab states conduct, simply due to the fear that the correspondence might be leaked. The second prong of Assange’s attack on conspiracies, the separating, is near identical to the present actions of Wikileaks.
While the halving tactic is rather smart, it does fall prey to the same set of problems as Assange’s other argument. In reaction to an attempted halving, authority is more likely to peruse the resistance with less discriminate force that erodes civil liberties for all and increases collateral damage. The current configuration may become untenable, but it will likely be replaced by a more pernicious configuration. Assange is falling victim to the logic that damaging the system is enough to alter the behavior. But since the ideas and desires of the authority live on, Assange’s efforts merely result in a reconfiguration of the same evil he wants to destroy. All this is not to say that it is impossible to change regime behavior for the better, just that catalyzing a positive alteration in the behavior of authoritarian conspiracies is far more complicated than Assange lets on in his essays.
It is easy to see why libertarians and paleocons (and even the “hard left”) admire the actions of Wikileaks—the organization’s battle to free information that “targets lying, corrupt, murderous leadership” hits home with the anti-war/small government contingent of the “American Right.” In an interview with Forbes.com, Julian Assange talks about his fondness for American Libertarianism. Sadly, the transparency brought by Wikileaks is but a fleeting moment and the anti-war movement would do well not to settle for the simple gratification wrought by the temporary squirming and panic of the bastards who hold seats of power in Washington and around the world. It is nice to think Wikileaks will awaken the inherent desire for liberty that lays dormant in the minds of many. It is equally nice to think a revolution will come if the right information gets out. That revolution will not be televised … because that revolution will not happen. Too often have people kowtowed to authority in the name of security or partisanship or national exceptionalism. Too often have people simply not cared.
Glenn Greenwald, who has done a magnificent job explaining the moral repugnance of those calling for Assange’s arrest and death, echos the sentiments of Will Wilkison that Wikileaks might be the last best hope for government transparency. I find myself echoing Ross Douthat‘s retort, “If it’s the best we can hope for, then we’re in even more trouble than I thought.”