.

Who would have ever thought that diplomatic cables would be so widely read? Despite what some may have hoped, the cables don’t bring copious shame on the United States (unless you were already convinced of the country’s venality). Indeed to many, the cables released by WikiLeaks sparkle with craftsmanship, optimism, wit, and intelligence. At a time when war dominates international headlines, we often fail to remember the efforts of diplomats and so—for raising awareness, among other things—we should be thankful for the spotlight directed by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks at the often concealed labors of our diplomatic corps.

As wise statesmen like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have argued, a longer view of history might suggest that the release of this information cache will cause little permanent damage. And a wider view yet would ask: what new damage could possibly come from being reminded that leaders say things privately that they wouldn't say publicly, that power often corrupts, war exacts a tremendous toll in lives and treasure, soldiers are faced with terrible decisions, and diplomats may deceive?

Yet, such long views are incomplete, for they do not help us understand how an already democratic and transparent government is likely to respond to continued leaks and to the shift of power that comes from not being in complete control of information and technology. In addressing those questions, we may find that the lasting damage wrought by Mr. Assange will fully outweigh that which was caused by this first, largely sophomoric shot across the bow.

Consider not only the lack of trust that diplomats and leaders will now have when it comes to talking to each other, the loss of valued information sources in the field, or the waning trust that free people appear to place in their governments, but also—and perhaps worse—the overall effect of governments deciding to clamp down on sharing and freeing information.

For all the activist grandstanding and apparent willingness to blackmail that abounds in Camp WikiLeaks, it appears that Mr. Assange may be teaching us something important about ourselves and the dangers of overreaction. The initial response of the U.S. government, particularly towards its own servants, was hasty and poorly conceived. What sense did it make to tell people that they would be fired or have their security clearance taken away for reading what was already public, in the news, and on the Web?

Worse, for the intelligence community, the most immediate and potentially damaging result may be that more information silos are erected; of precisely the sort that allowed the 9/11 terrorists to complete their operation even though there were strong indications that something nefarious was afoot.

Whereas “Need to Know” was the operative phrase for intelligence operations in the twentieth century, the concept had long ago grown obsolete, as the 9/11 Commission adeptly showed. For this still-new century, “Need to Share” must become the defining phrase for the world’s myriad, interconnected security concerns. Many eyes, fewer silos, and the shared cognition that comes from putting our heads together is where the U.S. and the democratic world should focus its finite attention.

Yet, we also need to protect centuries-old freedoms both for individuals and governments to communicate securely, and to preserve the ability to generate and keep secrets in a world of swirling information and unceasing change. Such is the dynamic, and it’s not going away.

Mr. Assange seems to think that these sorts of information assaults will bring down what he dubs the "conspiracy information system" by causing it to go into cognitive dysfunction. Apparently, the thinking goes that such dysfunction could result from government creating more silos, increasing pressure on its servants, or by making it become more obscure to the people it serves. While Mr. Assange’s effort to disgrace the United States and cause cognitive dissonance has thus far fallen far short, it’s doubtful that he and his cohorts will stop anytime soon. So to counter this new concern, let’s imagine a different set of responses that steer democracies away from retrenchment and silos and the dysfunction that Assange has stated he wants to see.

The end that Mr. Assange points to—where government (which he has inadvertently reminded us has a job to do) simply puts out fires made by people who dislike the present terms—is not an acceptable outcome for free people who need government to work both at home and abroad.

We know much of the information the government produces isn’t always that important by itself, but such information could well be more valuable in the hands of the people than those in government may understand. Indeed, this is precisely the time for government to start an open discussion about secrecy. It’s also the time to release even more information to be declassified—to share the wealth and de-fang the infovores—and perhaps most importantly, to reconsider what should be classified in the first place. A more enlightened government—or, to be more generous, a less frightened one—might be able to turn these leaks into an opportunity.

Sean S. Costigan is a strategist, technologist, and educator on information technology and international affairs.

About
Sean S. Costigan
:
Sean Costigan is a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the George C. Marshall Center, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

What Julian Taught Us

January 14, 2011

Who would have ever thought that diplomatic cables would be so widely read? Despite what some may have hoped, the cables don’t bring copious shame on the United States (unless you were already convinced of the country’s venality). Indeed to many, the cables released by WikiLeaks sparkle with craftsmanship, optimism, wit, and intelligence. At a time when war dominates international headlines, we often fail to remember the efforts of diplomats and so—for raising awareness, among other things—we should be thankful for the spotlight directed by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks at the often concealed labors of our diplomatic corps.

As wise statesmen like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have argued, a longer view of history might suggest that the release of this information cache will cause little permanent damage. And a wider view yet would ask: what new damage could possibly come from being reminded that leaders say things privately that they wouldn't say publicly, that power often corrupts, war exacts a tremendous toll in lives and treasure, soldiers are faced with terrible decisions, and diplomats may deceive?

Yet, such long views are incomplete, for they do not help us understand how an already democratic and transparent government is likely to respond to continued leaks and to the shift of power that comes from not being in complete control of information and technology. In addressing those questions, we may find that the lasting damage wrought by Mr. Assange will fully outweigh that which was caused by this first, largely sophomoric shot across the bow.

Consider not only the lack of trust that diplomats and leaders will now have when it comes to talking to each other, the loss of valued information sources in the field, or the waning trust that free people appear to place in their governments, but also—and perhaps worse—the overall effect of governments deciding to clamp down on sharing and freeing information.

For all the activist grandstanding and apparent willingness to blackmail that abounds in Camp WikiLeaks, it appears that Mr. Assange may be teaching us something important about ourselves and the dangers of overreaction. The initial response of the U.S. government, particularly towards its own servants, was hasty and poorly conceived. What sense did it make to tell people that they would be fired or have their security clearance taken away for reading what was already public, in the news, and on the Web?

Worse, for the intelligence community, the most immediate and potentially damaging result may be that more information silos are erected; of precisely the sort that allowed the 9/11 terrorists to complete their operation even though there were strong indications that something nefarious was afoot.

Whereas “Need to Know” was the operative phrase for intelligence operations in the twentieth century, the concept had long ago grown obsolete, as the 9/11 Commission adeptly showed. For this still-new century, “Need to Share” must become the defining phrase for the world’s myriad, interconnected security concerns. Many eyes, fewer silos, and the shared cognition that comes from putting our heads together is where the U.S. and the democratic world should focus its finite attention.

Yet, we also need to protect centuries-old freedoms both for individuals and governments to communicate securely, and to preserve the ability to generate and keep secrets in a world of swirling information and unceasing change. Such is the dynamic, and it’s not going away.

Mr. Assange seems to think that these sorts of information assaults will bring down what he dubs the "conspiracy information system" by causing it to go into cognitive dysfunction. Apparently, the thinking goes that such dysfunction could result from government creating more silos, increasing pressure on its servants, or by making it become more obscure to the people it serves. While Mr. Assange’s effort to disgrace the United States and cause cognitive dissonance has thus far fallen far short, it’s doubtful that he and his cohorts will stop anytime soon. So to counter this new concern, let’s imagine a different set of responses that steer democracies away from retrenchment and silos and the dysfunction that Assange has stated he wants to see.

The end that Mr. Assange points to—where government (which he has inadvertently reminded us has a job to do) simply puts out fires made by people who dislike the present terms—is not an acceptable outcome for free people who need government to work both at home and abroad.

We know much of the information the government produces isn’t always that important by itself, but such information could well be more valuable in the hands of the people than those in government may understand. Indeed, this is precisely the time for government to start an open discussion about secrecy. It’s also the time to release even more information to be declassified—to share the wealth and de-fang the infovores—and perhaps most importantly, to reconsider what should be classified in the first place. A more enlightened government—or, to be more generous, a less frightened one—might be able to turn these leaks into an opportunity.

Sean S. Costigan is a strategist, technologist, and educator on information technology and international affairs.

About
Sean S. Costigan
:
Sean Costigan is a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the George C. Marshall Center, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.