Friday, December 10, 2010


I'm going to depart from my normal practice of limiting this blog to Israeli-related matters, in order to take on a broader foreign policy issue. I differ from Steve Walt (and many others, of course) over the Wikileaks issue. I don’t doubt that from time to time the public good is served by the leaking of cables or other secret government documents. In particular, the publication of the Pentagon Papers was surely a good thing, because the country was caught in a mindless war and it was obvious that the government was routinely lying about it.

That said, on balance I can’t see how Wikileaks serves the public interest. If government officials—U.S. and others—come to expect that what they say in confidence may soon be revealed, perhaps very soon, what can be the consequence other than that they will simply talk to each other in private to avoid creating a public record on controversial issues. How can that be good for either rational or reasonably democratic policy making?

Moreover, not only secrecy but outright lying may sometimes be necessary to serve the public interest. Consider a hypothetical but hardly implausible case. Suppose the Obama administration concluded that the war in Afghanistan was lost or at least not worth its various costs, and decided there would be a complete withdrawal of U.S. ground forces within six months. On the other hand, for obvious reasons it did not want to tip off the Taliban that there was a date certain—and soon—for the withdrawal. Therefore, in public the administration would have to deny it had reached this decision—that is, it would have to lie. Would we want Julian Assange to reveal this? What would be good about that? Aside from the consequences on the ground in Afghanistan, it would create a field day for the demagogues and rightwingers in this country.

Anyway, no need for hypotheticals. In 1940 Franklin Roosevelt decided that for both moral and national security reasons, the U.S. could not stand idly by while Britain was in mortal danger from Nazi Germany. However, he was faced with a militantly isolationist Congress and public opinion. So, FDR bypassed Congress, defied public opinion, and took a variety of illegal actions--all the while lying about them--in order to provide military assistance to Britain and to deliberately but secretly propel the U.S. into the war against Hitler. Thank God.

So where does that leave us? Sometimes deliberate violations of government secrecy are necessary and serve the public interest—the Pentagon Papers—and other times they would be damaging not only to national security but to the very cause of more open and democratic control over foreign policy. I don’t feel comfortable about leaving the decision on where the balance lies to Julian Assange, or for that matter to anyone else who has managed to steal or hack into the U.S. government’s computer files.


David said...

Good grief, you are becoming more conservative with each new posting.

The issue with Wikileaks is transparency. We wouldn't need transparency if it weren't for a tradition and culture of lying, mendacity, and manufactured evidence within the military, security, and foreign policy establishment. But since these people cannot be relied upon to tell the truth, to us, the press, and even to Congress or international bodies like the UN, transparency is essential.

You commend FDR for lying to the public and getting us into WWII -- "Thank God," you write. But it would have been preferable at the time to have had a Wikileaks-like outlet for the revelations of what was actually happening in Nazi Germany.

But these are different times. The liars are still out there, but now we have the capacity to reduce the damage and mischief they can cause. And we should not disparage it or give it up.

Jerome Slater said...


I don't think one should decide issues on whether or not they can be described as "conservative" or "liberal." To be sure, both liberals and conservatives often do exactly that, making it easy--far too easy--to know what you think about the latest issue.

I agree--and wrote--that transparency is often desirable, but I hold that the issue is complicated and to some degree dependent on particular circumstances.

You duck my FDR argument. You didn't need Wikileaks in 1940 to know the nature of Nazi Germany and that Britain was in mortal danger. Nonetheless, Congress and public opinion opposed helping Britain, and the laws of the land required strict neutrality. So what should FDR have done?

Yes, we now have the capacity to reduce the damage and mischief liars can cause. Unfortunately, "we" have the same capacity to create mischief and damage by making diplomacy more difficult, and in the bargain making it likely that it will become harder, not easier, to know what governments are really up to--for better, or worse.

Anonymous said...

I believe the constitution and the courts protect Assange from prosecution. No such protection exists for the serviceman who stole and leaked the documents. He can and should be prosecuted for espionage. Freedom of the press means freedom to publish, not to steal.

Paul Lookman said...

Professor Slater, I respectfully beg to disagree. The information WikiLeaks has published is pretty much “gossip”. It is classified or confidential, but open to 2 million people and by no means secret or top secret, endangering the security of the US or its allies. These documents could never lead to situations that you bring forward as examples.

A real democracy depends on information of the electorate, information that has wrongfully been deprived to the public for decades because of phenomena such as embedded journalism, political spin and the media in the hands of the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi, Fox …, with hardly any research journalism left. We, the people, are entitles to this kind of information, we have been fed too many lies, such as those relating to the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, with no WMD.

Anonymous said...

Yes, FDR took secret measures, but the reason we got into WWII is because of this little incident called "Pearl Harbor". Anyway, your defense of lying is the same as the defense conservatives give for torture--one can always come up with an extreme example where some normally despicable act might seem like the right thing to do, but it is incredibly foolish to base one's views on torture or lying on such extreme cases.

The problem with the world situation in the late 30's and early 40's is that so many ideologues of all stripes were lying--Orwell wrote a great many essays on that, notably including "Notes on Nationalism". So the solution there would be for more truth-telling, not less. More truth about what the Nazis were like and more truth about what Stalin was like. But you place your faith in having a politician in power who will lie, but fortunately, lie in a good cause. It seems like a flimsy reed to lean on.

Anonymous said...

And one other point--as David just pointed out, the problem we have with our government now (and always) is an utter lack of accountability. Politicians of both parties lied and led the country into Iraq, and then went on to commit massive war crimes. And there's been zero accountability. Then along comes wikileaks and the politicians of both parties unite in condemning him. It's clear what the standard is--the government can lie, the government can commit war crimes and the government can get away with it, but let some outsider try to expose their hidden dealings (and btw, some of the latest wikileaks documents are about crimes and their coverup--it's not just "gossip") and that person is a bad man.

Here is some of what has been revealed in the latest batch of documents

1. The US ambassador to Honduras secretly agreed the coup there last year was illegal.
2. The US and the government in Yemen conspired to deny US responsibility for an air strike in Yemen that killed civilians.
3. The US pressured the Spanish and German governments not to investigate US involvement in torture
4. The US and the British were secretly glad that the establishment of a marine preserve in Diego Garcia would keep the original inhabitants from returning. The US and Britain had ethnically cleansed the island to build a military base.
5. Arab dictators secretly beg the US to bomb Iran--their own people might be interested in knowing that.

Juan said...

Prof. Slater,

You provide here an interesting, very thought-provoking critique of Wikileaks. I am still a W supporter, but now, not quite so fervent...

Jerome Slater said...

I did not argue that governmental secrecy and even lying on foreign policy issues was generally a good idea, only "sometimes." For that reason, it is not necessary to cite cases in which lying had bad results--particularly since I cited the Pentagon Papers as a necessary and justified violation of secrecy and a revelation of systematic lying about an indefensible war.

And note my conclusion: I was not prepared to allow anyone who managed to gain access to secret diplomatic cables to make the judgment about whether the public interest would be furthered or harmed if they were made public. Julian Assange strikes me as a crackpot, but my general concerns would apply to whoever was in his position.

Also, my critics have not addressed my other argument: in the last analysis, the consequence of Wikileaks will not be to open government to democratic control but precisely the opposite: since diplomacy must and should go on, US and other diplomats are more and more likely to leave no public trail about what and why they do in foreign policy.

I also find a certain degree of naivite, if I may put it that way, in those who hold that foreign policies would be better if only "We the people" had a greater role. You can scarcely believe the depth of ignorance of the public as a whole on foreign policy issues, as revealed in survey after survey.

Finally, for several reasons I would not make the same argument about domestic policy as I do about foreign policy. Even so, when you consider the state of American politics today, and the increasing power of demagogues, ignoramuses, fools, and fascists-in-waiting--all democratically elected by We, the people--it should give pause to those who would like to see further constraints on the ability of government leaders
to deliberate with each other in private and frankness.

Anonymous said...

"I was not prepared to allow anyone who managed to gain access to secret diplomatic cables to make the judgment about whether the public interest would be furthered or harmed if they were made public."

You've done a pretty good job showing how poorly the NYT covers the I/P conflict, so the MSM can't be trusted to make judgements. In general, there's no solution to that problem--the best you can hope for is that the non-governmental watchdogs will do a decent job and as a matter of fact, wikileaks has been trying to be responsible in what it releases and what it doesn't, contrary to most of the criticism (and for that matter, contrary to some of what their supporters believe). Even Scott Shane at the NYT admitted this (while also pointing out Assange's threat to release everything).

As for naivete, it cuts both ways. The public is ignorant, but that doesn't mean the elites can be trusted. To a large degree public ignorance is convenient for the elites. Both conservatives and so-called liberals (of the sort that usually dominant the op ed section of the NYT) go out of their way to spread ignorance on foreign issues--again, I can refer you to your own work on how the NYT covers the I/P conflict and their abysmal record on that issue is hardly unique. The only long-term solution to this would be to find ways to bypass the gatekeepers, to get more information to more people.

Release of the Pentagon Papers was accompanied by exactly the same criticisms now directed at wikileaks. How could the US government be trusted to keep secrets if it couldn't be trusted to keep secrets that put its own behavior in a bad light? If you think about it, that argument applies to all whistleblowing--if the US government is going to have an incentive to control any secrets, it will be the ones that put it in the worst possible light. It's the whistleblowing you consider legit that gives them the greatest incentive to crack down on whistleblowers--as we can see from the Obama Administration, it's also genuine lawless behavior on the part of the government (Bush's torture policies) that seems to trigger their self-protective coverup instincts.

Jerome Slater said...


You've stated the case for Wikileaks-type penetrations of government secrecy very well; I only wanted to point out the other side of the coin, and the likelihood of consequences that are the opposite of what pro-Wikileakers want to see--or claim they want to see.

Whistle-blowing is somewhat different: it means the revelation of illegal or immoral conduct. I don't think that what Wikileaks has revealed fits into that category; perhaps some of the revelations do, but I'm more impressed by the cogent arguments and reasonable conclusions reached, in most cases, by the foreign/defense policy professionals.

There's no escaping the need for careful consideration of specific cases. That said, the burden of proof rests with those who would make some government secrecy impossible. That burden may be met occasionally, as it was in the Pentagon Papers, but not (so far, at least) by Wikileaks.

Anonymous said...

Without any hostile intent, I respectfully point out that Jerome Slater will probably be dead (as so will I) 38 years from now, and this makes today's post particularly empty-headed.

As we see above, old Jeremy Skate "can’t see how Wikileaks serves the public interest," but he sees the release of the Pentagon Papers 38 years ago as "surely a good thing, because the country was caught in a mindless war [in 1972] and it was obvious that the government was routinely lying about it."

We are now engaged in a war(i.e., spending American lives and treasure)that's being waged, to some degree, to persuade al Qaeda not to go back there -- something al Qaeda almost certainly doesn't want to do. That sounds pretty mindless to me.

Nobody assessing the public interest of Wikileaks makes any sense at all, for a couple of evident reasons. First, we don't know more than one per cent of what Wikileaks has to offer at the moment, so any goose claiming to establish values literally doesn't know what he or she is talking about. This is as true for Assange as it is for Slater. We have no reason to believe that Assange has read them all. He doesn't claim he has.

Second, any reference to the Pentagon Papers in 2010 is in part a tribute to the values of hindsight -- and that hindsight was provided in large degree by the Pentagon Papers.

I have considerable reservations about the impact of those Pentagon papers. They didn't stop the Vietnamese war, although most current commenters seem to think they did. They didn't even slow it down.

I think it was right to publish them,l and is has been just as right to publish those wikileaks that have been released to the public domain in the past few weeks. Of course, so close to the event, nobody an come up with seasoned arguments about their value. Why does Jerome pretend he can?

I think Wikileaks should get a Pulitzer prize for journalism, and probably several. It costs only $50 to nominate any journalist for one. Assange is clearly a journalist, and his work shines light in several areas -- meaning that he very likely qualifies for more than one Pulitzer in the next 12 months. i

That said, on balance I .