New Paradigms Forum
June 16, 2010
by Christopher Ford
A recent issue of The New Yorker carried a fascinating article – "No Secrets," by Raffi Khatchadourian (June 7, 2010), at page 40 – about Julian Paul Assange, the Internet entrepreneur behind the "WikiLeaks" website. A strange man who lives a reclusively peripatetic lifestyle, Assange maintains WikiLeaks as a global forum in which pretty much anyone is permitted – nay, encouraged – to reveal as many closely guarded secrets as possible.
Thanks to contributions from anonymous leakers, Assange's website has apparently published the details of operating procedures at Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, the "Climategate" e-mails, the contents of Sarah Palin's personal Yahoo account, the classified Rules of Engagement used by U.S. troops in Iraq, internal operating manuals of the Church of Scientology, video footage of a controversial attack in Baghdad by U.S. helicopter gunships, and sensitive information about radio-frequency devices then still in use by U.S. forces in Iraq to jam the remote-control detonators on improvised explosive devices (IEDs). WikiLeaks exists to facilitate the accountability-free revelation, it would appear, of just about anything.
As one might wearily expect, Assange is deeply iconoclastic and professes an all-consuming devotion to the cause of free speech. Indeed, he seems to view himself in dramatic terms, as a quiet technological crusader against cruel and nonsensical oppression. He is said, for instance, to relish comparing himself to the scientists and technicians caught in the Stalinist gulag as depicted in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle, or to characters in the fiction of Franz Kafka.
WikiLeaks is the middle finger Assange has erected to jab into the eye of The System. He is taken by his supporters, in fact, as something of the patron saint of free speech – or even a sometime martyr for the cause, for, as one might expect, he seems to have had occasional scuffles with the law – and a paragon of virtue in a world in which sinister cabals try to hide information. And Assange's work is hardly short of admirers: WikiLeaks' homepage features what purports to be an accolade from Time Magazine, describing the site as one that "could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act." He and his supporters are presumably enjoying the notoriety given by recent press accounts that Pentagon investigators are trying to determine his whereabouts, apparently in order to forestall WikiLeaks' publication of a massive folio of classified cable traffic stolen from the U.S. Government.
Yet while WikiLeaks' accomplishments may be technically impressive – the Baghdad helicopter video apparently had to be painstakingly decrypted by expert cryptographers part-timing for Assange, and the website goes to famously elaborate lengths to protect the anonymity of its sources – it is hard not to find them philosophically and intellectually incoherent, to the point of hypocrisy. For despite his moralistic commitment to destroying everyone else's secrecy, Julian Assange clearly believes fervently in the necessity of keeping secrets: his own.
According to Khatchadourian's article, Assange is essentially the only member of the WikiLeaks team whose identity is known – and he himself has no permanent address, flitting between supporters' homes in various countries in order, he suggests, to defeat surveillance and tracking. The other key members of his group are known only by initials, such as "M," and its computer engineers are known for their obsessive secrecy. They communicate by means of powerfully encrypted on-line chat services, and Assange reportedly keeps a special computer full of leaked classified information entirely separate from the Internet, this "air gap" serving to help prevent hostile electronic penetration. WikiLeaks maintains its content on more than 20 computer servers scattered around the world, using hundreds of domain names and what are described as extremely secure "virtual tunnels" for transmitting messages amidst a noisy flood of fake traffic. (On the off chance that someone should actually succeed in taking down Assange's electronic operation, moreover, his supporters maintain a web of "mirror" sites full of his data.) In reading Khatchadourian's account, one also detects a distinct whiff of paranoia in Assange and his collaborators; in Assange's online writings, he is apparently "quick to lash out a perceived enemies," and the author's encounters with him and his crew are laced with dark humor about government surveillance of the "I'm only half joking" variety.
But this is an important point. Even while he dedicates himself to indiscriminately demolishing the secret-keeping of others, much of Assange's life thus seems to revolve around the perceived need to keep his own secrets from everyone else in the world.
A colleague of mine at Hudson Institute, Gabriel Schoenfeld, has just published an excellent book that is very much on point here. Necessary Secrets (New York: Norton & Co., 2010) ably defends the propositions that: (a) it is indeed "necessary" to keep some secrets; (b) leaks have frequently in the past imposed tremendous costs upon our society by compromising its ability to protect itself; (c) affording everyone a de facto license to leak undermines democracies not just by making them more vulnerable to domestic and international predation, but by allowing single individuals to defeat the choices made by elected representative governments in keeping some things secret; and (d) policy considerations and well-established traditions of U.S. law do not support an absolutist idea of speech and press in contradistinction to government interests in secrecy, and indeed allow for prosecution not merely of those who leak classified information but of the media outlets that facilitate this. It does an injustice to Schoenfeld's well-argued and -researched book to summarize such points in a pithy fashion here, but you get the idea.
You might thus think Gabriel Schoenfeld and Julian Assange to be, philosophically speaking, mortal enemies. This is, however, a more difficult proposition to defend than one might think on the basis of Assange's "free speech" moralizing. At the level of pretense, of course, Assange takes a position seemingly as far as one could imagine from Schoenfeld's careful analysis of "necessary secrets." But that's just what Assange says.
On the level of what he does, things look a bit different. The operational behavior of WikiLeaks and the day-to-day life of its founder tell a different story than does the ideology he professes. Assange is obviously a passionate believer in the need to protect secrets in a good cause: his own cause. WikiLeaks' operational practices and the technical parameters of its secret-keeping anonymity protections and information dissemination capabilities are themselves to be protected against all disclosure, he seems to feel, because such secrecy is necessary to its continued functioning and thus to ensuring the perpetuation of the good it does in the world.
Yet this, of course, is precisely the rationale underlying all secret-keeping by democratic governments – and, at the deepest level, a type of position one would imagine Schoenfeld thinks entirely legitimate. It is a key tenet of Schoenfeld's book that some secrets are indeed "necessary" ones. In the most basic sense, when one strips away WikiLeaks' politically-correct "free speech" posturing, Assange and Schoenfeld disagree only about which secrets it is necessary to keep. And this is precisely where Assange's professedly absolutist "free speech" moralism unglues itself.
Let's play a thought game. Let's assume you were to steal and collect a large cache of information about Assange's personal life on the Internet, as well as about WikiLeaks' operating procedures, anonymous sources, and the means by which he and his crew protect their secrecy and safeguard themselves against assaults by the malevolent enemies they believe themselves to have. (Suppose, in other words, that you gathered information on him and his work equivalent to that which he has published about others – e.g., Sarah Palin's personal e-mails, or the means by which U.S. soldiers in Iraq help keep themselves from being killed by insurgents' IEDs.) Gather this treasure trove of information, the publication of which would seem likely to cripple WikiLeaks and imperil its operators and contributors ... and then send it all to WikiLeaks for publication. Any bets on whether Assange would post it? Of course he wouldn't. The compulsive secrecy in which Wikileaks operates demonstrates that Julian Assange clearly does agree with Gabriel Schoenfeld that at least some "necessary secrets" exist. Assange merely wants to reserve for himself the right to decide which ones they are, and to deny that right to everyone else in the world.
One might perhaps think Assange basically right – e.g., that WikiLeaks, on balance, does more good than harm – or conclude that he is basically wrong. (For my part, I tend to agree with Schoenfeld that publishing the secrets maintained by democratic governments, at least, is profoundly subversive of democracy. Feel free to steal and publish all the secrets you like from tyrants, Mr. Assange, but your absolutist "free speech" does civil liberty and democratic self-rule no favors!) Right or wrong on the merits of leaking, however, it is very hard not to think Assange a hypocrite in his self-righteous devotion to an absolutist vision of free speech that would, in practice, deny everyone the right to keep secrets except Julian Assange.
Christopher A. Ford was formerly Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Technology and Global Security at Hudson Institute.
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