Stephen M. Walt

In defense of Wikileaks

George Orwell once wrote: "In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." I thought of that line as I tried to sort through my reaction to the latest set of releases by Wikileaks, consisting primarily of detailed action reports from Iraq. My question is: Are we better off having an ...

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

George Orwell once wrote: "In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." I thought of that line as I tried to sort through my reaction to the latest set of releases by Wikileaks, consisting primarily of detailed action reports from Iraq. My question is: Are we better off having an organization exploiting the viral potential of the internet in order to make public information that government officials would prefer to keep secret?

On the one hand, it doesn’t thrill me to see individuals inside the national security bureaucracy take the classification process into their own hands and decide to leak large quantities of information. As much as I admire the courage of a whistle-blower like Daniel Ellsberg, government agencies can’t operate without a certain degree of discipline and there’s always the danger that someone will leak material that isn’t just political embarrassing but actually contains information that might put us at greater risk. There’s also the obvious concern that leaked information might expose people who have been helping us in places like Iraq or Afghanistan (although Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has acknowledged that earlier Wikileaks releases did not in fact compromises sensitive information or methods). Still, I think some secrets need to be kept, and that belief makes it hard for me to see Wikileaks’ activities as an unalloyed good.

But several other considerations override these concerns, and lead me to conclude that, on balance, Wikileaks is performing a valuable service. To begin with, official outrage at Wikileaks’ activities is more than a little disingenuous given the frequency that top officials leak classified information when it suits their political purposes. If former Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal can successfully tie a president’s hands by leaking a confidential report calling for more troops, then why shouldn’t others use Wikileaks to share information that they believe the public ought to know? And as long as senior officials try to advance their political agendas by sharing inside information with sympathetic journalists in off-the-record "background" briefings, it is hard for me to feel outrage when their subordinates decide that the information to which they are privy deserves a wider audience.

Furthermore, we live in an age of "universal deceit," when it is hard to trust anything someone in the national security world tells you. From the very moment that the Iraq War was conceived, for example, top U.S. officials deployed a vast array of disinformation and deceit — supposedly based on top-secret intelligence information — to convince the American public that Saddam Hussein posed a mortal threat to U.S. national security. Nor were they the first leaders to lie to the American public. And the lies continued well in to the war, as former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Ellen Knickmayer makes clear here. (H/T to Glenn Greenwald, whose own posts on this topic are well worth reading).

As Eric Alterman and John Mearsheimer have both documented, it is clear from the historical record that all governments lie for a wide variety of reasons. But unless you’re willing to believe that the people in charge are always right and that their lies are therefore justified (and if you think that, you haven’t been paying attention), you ought to be in favor of any mechanism that brought more facts to light.

It is also increasingly clear that the U.S. taxpayer is funding a vast array of clandestine activities of which they are only dimly aware, and whose value they have been asked to take almost entirely on faith. If some of these activities are misguided, then not only will we get stuck with the bill, but we are paying for activities that could be making us less secure.

Furthermore, if we have no idea what our government (or that growing army of private contractors) are really up to, then Americans won’t understand why other countries may not like us very much. If we don’t know about all the bad stuff we’re doing, we’ll think they hate us for "what we are" instead of "what we do." As I’ve noted before, Arab or Muslim hostility to the United States really shouldn’t be a mystery, given the policies that the United States has adopted towards many of these societies over the past several decades. Do you really expect Iraqis to be grateful that the U.S. invaded their country and set off a civil war in which hundreds of thousands died and millions became refugees?

The Founding Fathers thought that separation of powers and an independent press would ensure accountability, and but it’s not as if Congress were performing rigorous oversight over all these activities, engaging in spirited debates over the merits of military intervention, or forcing either this administration or the last one to justify what it is doing overseas. The mainstream media hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory over the past decade either, despite some isolated bright spots that subsequently disappeared down the memory hole. And lord knows that few, if any, of the architects of our recent foreign-policy debacles have been held accountable in any meaningful way.

Realist that I am, I believe that human beings are more likely to misbehave if they think they can shield what they are doing from public view. For that reason, I also believe that democratic societies are more likely to adopt better policies when information is plentiful and when government officials cannot determine which facts are available to the public and which are not. Because its primary function is to make more information available on issues that concern us all, I therefore conclude that what Wikileaks is doing is on balance a good thing.

Given the great power at the United States’ disposal, I want the people running foreign and defense policy to know that what they are doing might be exposed to public scrutiny. I want them to think twice about whether the policies they are pursuing are defensible on either moral or practical grounds. I wish we’d known the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, or that we’d known the truth about Saddam’s WMD (and his non-existent links to al Qaeda) before we invaded. And I’m glad we’re finding out more about the Iraq War now, because that knowledge might help us avoid similar quagmires in the future. And if our elected officials, their appointed representatives, and a politicized and co-opted media won’t tell us what we have a right to know, then I guess I’m glad that Wikileaks will.

Postscript: Contrary to FP colleague Peter Feaver’s view, I don’t think the documents offer that much help to defenders of the so-called "surge." No one denies that violence went down after the surge began, and those who discount the impact of the surge concede that the additional troops and new tactics played some role in that development. The new releases also confirm that changes within Iraqi society were also critical; i.e., violence also declined because Iraqis were war-weary and because prior ethnic cleansing had eliminated the mixed-sectarian neighborhoods where much of the prior violence had occurred.

The new releases also confirm that Iran was meddling in Iraq and backing some of the insurgents. This is not news, of course, and Iran’s behavior was hardly surprising, given its obvious interest in trying to influence the shape of post-Saddam Iraq. Moreover, the U.S. is hardly in a position to accuse anyone of "interfering" in Iraq, given what we started in 2003. But this not-very-stunning "revelation" doesn’t mean the surge was a success, because it didn’t end Iranian influence in Iraq any more than it led to political reconciliation among the various Iraqi factions (who still can’t manage to form a government). Once the United States had dismantled Saddam’s Ba’thist and predominantly Sunni regime, Iraq’s Shi’ites were bound to be more powerful and Iran’s influence was bound to increase. (Too bad the Bush administration didn’t think about that possibility before the war!) The surge didn’t reverse that trend, and so the new revelations don’t demonstrate that it was anything more than a tactical success whose long-term achievements remain very much in doubt.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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