The single most important reference point in the debate over the WikiLeaks case is the leaking of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, in 1971, by Daniel Ellsberg. Those who see Ellsberg as a hero tend to see Julian Assange as one. Those critical of Assange tend to denounce what he has done for the same reasons and in the same language that Henry Kissinger used in 1971, when he described his old Harvard University colleague Ellsberg as “the most dangerous man in America.” Ellsberg himself has come out in support of Assange. But the differences between the Ellsberg and Assange cases are more important than the similarities.
Ellsberg was a Harvard educated economist who did his PhD on decision-making under uncertainty and worked at the highest levels of classification for the Rand Corporation and the Pentagon in the 1960s. He worked with a sense of patriotism and vocation. His job, as he saw it, was to help the US government think well and learn efficiently at the highest levels on vital matters of strategy and security. Like many senior US officials, including the Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, he slowly came to the conclusion that the Vietnam War was a seriously misconceived, inefficient and ultimately immoral exercise in futility. In 1967, he was a member of a team of thirty analysts assigned by McNamara to review the whole history of decision-making that had led to the mess in Vietnam. The “Pentagon Papers” were the papers assembled and written by this team. Ellsberg leaked them four years later because he believed that the lessons they laid out had not been learned and that the only way to help the Republic overcome the problem was to take them to the most reputable newspaper in the country and inject them into public debate.
In Papers on the War, in 1972, Ellsberg wrote: “The urgent need to circumvent the lying and the self-deception was, for me, one of the ‘lessons of Vietnam’; a broader one was that there were situations – Vietnam was an example – in which the US government, starting ignorant, did not, would not, learn. There was a whole set of what amounted to institutional ‘anti-learning’ mechanisms working to preserve and guarantee unadaptive and unsuccessful behaviour: the fast turnover in personnel; the lack of institutional memory at any level; the failure to study history, to analyse or even record operational experience or mistakes; the effective pressures for optimistically false reporting at every level, for describing ‘progress’ rather than problems or failure, thus concealing the very need for change or for learning. Well, helping the US government learn – in this case, learn how to learn – was something, perhaps, I could do; that had been my business.”
Compare this with Assange’s outlook, in essays written in 2006 under the titles ‘State and Terrorist Conspiracies’ and ‘Conspiracy as Governance.’ Describing the US government as an authoritarian conspiracy, he declared that his strategy was to disrupt its ability to share information and thus disable the functioning of the “conspiracy”. He wrote, as if this constituted a profound insight into the workings of government: “We can marginalize a conspiracy’s ability to act by decreasing total conspiratorial power until it is no longer able to understand, and hence respond effectively to its environment. . . . An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think efficiently cannot act to preserve itself.” In other words, Assange set out not to help the US government learn, but to prevent it from learning, from ‘thinking’ effectively at all. He wants to cripple it.
The difference between these two points of view or objectives could hardly be greater. But ironically, the leaks show that the US government is not an “authoritarian conspiracy” at all. They show, notably in the case of relations with the Arab states of the Middle East, an American government served by generally candid diplomats, trying to keep its balance and think its ways through a devilishly challenging set of problems, chief among them how to dissuade the theocratic and dangerously anti-Semitic regime in Iran from developing nuclear weapons. They show nuance and scruple, not authoritarian conspiracy. They show honest assessments of world leaders like the corrupt and domineering former KGB thug Putin, or the corrupt and irresponsible Italian leader Berlusconi. Moreover, as Robert Gates, heir to Robert McNamara, has pointed out, the leaks were possible precisely because the US government had been trying to circulate more information to more of its civil servants in order to facilitate learning. That was Ellsberg’s agenda. Assange wants to prevent just such learning.
A good deal in the cables has been interesting, but that would surely be a frivolous criterion for assessing whether they were justified. In making such an assessment, we should weigh up several overriding considerations. First, has there been a clear matter of public interest of an urgent nature that the leaks address, which might outweigh the possible harm they could cause? Second, do the leaks provide us with finished analysis laying out the judgments of senior officials, thus allowing us to assign responsibility for some misdeed or major error? Third, was the intention of those who leaked the material morally responsible, in the sense of a careful and discriminating judgment about the good intended? The answers to each of these questions would appear to be “No”. One imagines it was for these reasons that Larry Sanger, founder of Wikipedia, which is designed to help people learn and to do good, wrote to Julian Assange and his colleagues, saying, “Speaking as Wikipedia’s co-founder, I consider you enemies of the U.S.—not just the government, but the people”. The problem, in short, is not leaks, but responsibility. Efforts to hold government to account and to understand the business of diplomacy need to bear this in mind and to design strategies that enhance responsibility in government, rather than simply trying to sabotage standard operating procedures.