Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The upside of the latest Wikileaks

There is a great article on The Economist about the positives of the Wikileaks material which has been floating around the last couple of days. The best part is a quote from Shane Scott, the New York Times national security reporter who has this to say:
American taxpayers, American citizens pay for all these diplomatic operations overseas and you know, it is not a bad thing when Americans actually have a better understanding of those negotiations.

Perhaps if we had had more information on these secret internal deliberations of governments prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we would have had a better understanding of the quality of the evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
The article hinges on the central point that by forcing material which has traditionally been the elite preserve of the civil service into the public domain it might actually promote more legitimate mechanisms of public oversight. They argue that this is essential for a true liberal democracy:
Organisations such as WikiLeaks, which are philosophically opposed to state secrecy and which operate as much as is possible outside the global nation-state system, may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy.
I think this is a wholly fair point. A lot of the bile and vitriol smacks of a civil service which is upset that their apple cart has been disrupted and they feel that this is somehow unfair. Fundamentally it appears that the 'service' part of the civil service has been forgotten. Another part of the article speaks thusly:
I think it's important to distinguish between the government—the temporary, elected authors of national policy—and the state—the permanent bureaucratic and military apparatus superficially but not fully controlled by the reigning government. The careerists scattered about the world in America's intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well. The actually-existing structure and strategy of the American empire remains a near-total mystery to those who foot the bill and whose children fight its wars. And that is the way the elite of America's unelected permanent state, perhaps the most powerful class of people on Earth, like it.
Institutions, including embassies, exist as part of a service provided by the perminant institutions of Government on behalf of citizens and thus should submit to a certain amount of public scrutiny.

Obviously its important that certain institutions can maintain a veil of secrecy, otherwise intelligence agencies couldnt operate for example, however there has to be a line. Even the CIA is a civil service institution, not a private sector company which can operate entirely in secret.

Here's the sort of thing which, if a normal human being said it, would just be embarresing, snobbish crap:

On all four occasions the Ambassador has eaten at one of his houses, the menu has been similar and focused on beshparmak [boiled meat and noodles] and plov. The wait staff appeared to be graduates of a Soviet cafeteria training academy.

The wine, at least, was somewhat upscale with reasonably good French vintage bottles uncorked for the guests. The Astana residence has wooden plaques on the doors that would fit in nicely in a Wyoming hunting lodge but are somewhat out of touch with the upscale 'Euro-remont' that is so popular among the Kazakhstani elite.

Somehow, because a diplomat is saying it however, it becomes a state secret. If you would be embarressed by your opinion of the wine Alexander Mashkevich serves at dinner becoming public, don't write it down and put it on a database that tens of thousands of people have access to.

Normal human beings arent allowed to stamp something with 'secret' and thus protect our nasty little opinions from wider consumption. If I write something on this blog, its been said, and it will remain on the record. Even if I chose to go back and delete it later (which I've only done once), its still there on Google cache for god knows how long, if I say it, I have to live with the consequences.

Theres an argument to be made here that if paid civil servants are ashamed that they've been caught out saying things which are rude, tawdry and downright silly, they should probably not have said them, or at least kept it verbal.

I'm in full agreement with The Economist (weirdly, no journalist name on the article that I can see) on this one. There needs to be a recognition of the fact that part of the public interest and outcry on this is because US taxpayer money is being spent by the bucketload so diplomats can whine about the fact the wine isnt good enough quality.

If theres an argument to be made that this activity is important, then make that argument. You can't go around saying you want to execute the guy who leaked the material, that just makes you look weak and impotent.

Theres a real case here to take a step back, apologise for the dumb stuff, and try to rebuild trust by opening up to the public and making it clearer what embassies do and why their work is an important service to the citizen.

Thats what a civil service is for, and thats what it should be doing, not trying to defend its right to say stupid things via a glorified email system.

Fundamentally, Assange is more trusted than Governments, more trusted than the civil service, because he is giving people what they believe is truth. Its hard to fight that. The tens of thousands of documents paint a picture of an organisation which is bloated with its own self importance. Trying to attach Assange is only going to drive trust in him and his organisation higher, and ruin the credibility of those with vested interests who are doing their level best to destroy him.

Stop acting offended, and take some steps to rebuild trust. That way, when he releases whatever is next on his list, the public might be willing to actually listen to your counter argument, and you might not have to fight so hard.

Never forget crisis comms is about what you do before the crisis, not what you do after.

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