The loudest commentary on Wikileaks seems divided between shouts for blood and shouts for joy.
On the one hand you've got the anti-Wikileaks side, ranging from the armchair-aggressive to the scary to the buffoonish. On the other side, you've got full-throated defenses of Wikileaks and Julian Assange. The dialogue is driven by simple, larger-than-life themes. On the one hand, you've got the image of America-hating traitors seeking to weaken and discredit us; on the other hand you've got the image of courageous patriots exposing government wrongdoing. Government secrecy has been accepted uncritically as either necessary to national interests or as a hallmark of tyranny; leaking and publishing leaks has been accepted uncritically as either a heroic blow against tyranny or as a grave risk to national security.
It ain't necessarily so. Throughout the modern era, the deliberate leaking of government secrets has been a familiar tool of the state and of warring factions both in and out of government. It's gullible to think that it will be any different just because someone stuck a "wiki-" prefix in front of it. In other words, if we accept uncritically that leaks really represent something that the government didn't want us to know, or that leakers (or their publishers) have the common good at heart, we're being foolish. Even when the government is calling for the scalps of the leakers and the people who distribute the leaks, and even when fans are declaring that the leaks are helping us determine the truth and resist government tyranny, informed citizens should be asking tough questions. Who benefits from this leak? Who gets hurt? Did the government really want to keep this secret, or did it want this information to come out for its own purposes, in a deniable way? Did some faction within government release this to hurt some other faction? Am I assigning undue trustworthiness to the information because it was leaked instead of openly asserted by the government? Is the information complete, or could there be unleaked information that undermines its credibility or changes its meaning? If the people publishing this leak found out that they had been duped somehow by the leaker, would they tell us, or would they hide it to protect their reputation or the entire concept of publishing leaks? Do I — should I — believe that the people reviewing and selectively publishing the leaked information are doing so honestly, or are they driven by an agenda? Is someone trying to manipulate me with this leak, and to what end?
There are excellent reasons to exercise such skepticism.
I wrote about Troy Ellerman three years ago. Ellerman was not himself a government official, but gained access to government documents — specifically, grand jury transcripts of testimony of various well-known figures in the BALCO steroid investigation — in the course of representing targets of that investigation. Ellerman leaked grand jury transcripts to the San Francisco Chronicle, then turned around and accused the government of the leak, and even filed a motion to dismiss the case against his client on the basis of that alleged government leak. The San Francisco Chronicle dutifully reported upon Ellerman's motion just as if it did not know that it was premised on fraud — just as if they did not know that they were the willing instrument of obstruction of justice executed to advance the interests of Ellerman's clients. Ellerman — the leaker — had an agenda of helping his clients and himself. The San Francisco Chronicle had an agenda of protecting the identity of its informants and leakers so that it can get more information and leaks — even if that agenda required it to publish information it knew to be false or misleading, and even if that meant it had to allow itself to be used.
Ellerman's conduct is unusual only because it represents the defense engaging in selective leaks to influence the outcome of a criminal proceeding. The government does it all the time. Just as Wen Ho Lee. Or Richard Jewell. Or Brandon Mayfield. Anyone who has ever defended a high-profile case — even a case that is only high-profile in a small media market — will tell you that the government leaks information all the time, and that the leaks range from police and prosecutors trying to influence the coverage and taint the jury pool to individual government employees looking for money or a sense of importance. The press reports it without thinking about the government's agenda because the press agenda is to get attention and the money and prestige that goes with it. Nobody in that process cares much about the impact on the justice system.
But agenda-driven leaking — and agenda-driven reporting of leaking — isn't limited to criminal justice issues. They're an old story. Recent examples are numerous. Some assert the Plame Affair was a prime example of Bush administration leaking information to discredit a rival. The Obama administration has almost certainly strategically leaked information about Iran to improve its political and geopolitical fortunes. Our government leaks information to pressure our putative allies, and to intimidate our enemies.
Add to all of this the fact that the media, quite frankly, cannot be trusted to tell fake leaks from real leaks.
My purpose in this post is not to condemn or celebrate Wikileaks or Julian Assange. I have concerns both about the impact of the leaks and about the impact of the calls for assassination and prosecution of Wikileaks and its informants. My purpose is to point out that we shouldn't suspend our critical faculties just because information is presented to us wrapped in words like "leaked." Leaked information is not inherently credible, nor are the people who leak or publish leaks. Leaked information is by its nature incomplete, and may be deliberately and misleadingly incomplete. If we treat leaks as if they are inherently credible and complete, then we allow ourselves to be manipulated as surely as if we took government press releases at face value.