Once more, with feeling…

4 December 2010


Clockwise: Hillary Clinton condemned WikiLeaks; Nicolas Sarkozy called WikiLeaks a threat to democracy; Robert Baer bemoaned the leaks in the Financial Times; Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, is on the run from Swedish Police and is wanted by Interpol.

One thing we have learned — or should have learned — from the documents recently made available to the public on WikiLeaks, is the poor quality of our intelligence. Of course, even the best leaks were only classified “SECRET” and we didn’t get any Top Secret goodies, but now we know the sort of thing that is called a secret, and it isn’t very shocking or surprising.

Certainly there were some embarrassing statements not intended for public consumption, but nothing that you wouldn’t find in a moderately free-wheeling memoir written some years after the fact. What strikes me most about these cables is that they are nothing more than you might get than the sort of intelligence produced by Strategic Forecasting. I’ve subscribed to Strategic Forecasting for several years now, and I appreciate the intelligence they offer, and sometimes find their analyses illuminating. But this material definitely has its limits. Similarly, the leaked diplomatic cables have their illuminating moments, but also their limits.

Anyone who is a serious delver (or, if you prefer, anyone who is willing to “drill down”) into open source information can find almost as telling material from a variety of sources. These sources are mostly unknown, certainly not famous (you can’t get candid information from the streets of the world’s cities if you are a celebrity), and not connected to the US diplomatic service, or even connected in any way to the US government. But it is not only US agents who are invited to weddings in Dagestan, or doing business across the border between China and North Korea. And some of them write about the experiences as objectively, as sensitively, and with as much or as more understanding as the State Department.

It has often been said that the western style of intelligence gathering (and hear I am counting the Russians as Westerners) involves clandestine efforts to seize information purposefully kept secret by other political entities. This is the “moon shot” of espionage. In contradistinction, China has been known for its patient, thorough, and methodical collection and survey of open source information (as well as relying upon the loyalty of ethnic Chinese, regardless of citizenship). This WikiLeaks tempest, when we reflect on the nature of our confidential intelligence that has been leaked, gives us an appreciation (or should give us an appreciation) of what can be done with open source intelligence gathering.

We should learn to appreciate open source research because it is a good as “secrets.” But we already knew that the quality of our “secrets” was poor at best. I have written elsewhere that the most interesting thing about intelligence in the last half century or so has been its monumental, catastrophic failures. As a consequence of the fact that we cannot count upon our intelligence, we must expect to be blindsided by history. And once we have been blindsided by history, left to negotiate our way through the ensuing chaos, will we not need all the tools of diplomacy at our command, including secrecy?

In the Financial Times opinion piece by Robert Baer that I discussed in Robert Baer on WikiLeaks, the noted spook contends that with the WikiLeaks revelations, “we risk forgetting the worth of diplomatic ‘back channels’ –- a strictly private way of communicating with the president of the United States.” But there is no reason whatsoever that we should run this risk. On the contrary, we ran the risk of forgetting this when about three million people have access to the caliber of “secrets” revealed by WikiLeaks. And Baer obliquely acknowledged this.

Truly secret secrets, and high level negotiations between heads of states, can be kept secret by being confined to two or three people. In the example of the US, this might be the President, the Secretary of State, and a negotiator, etc. And this is, of course, what Kissinger did in his famous shuttle diplomacy in facilitating the end of the Yom Kippur War. Baer no doubt had this in mind when he wrote that the president could, “assemble half a dozen special representatives to ferry messages back and forth to the White House… Any cables generated from this back channel should only be archived in the White House. Better yet, they should not be put down on paper.” Diplomatic cables never even aspired to replacing this kind of high level diplomacy, and it was never expected that they should.

Nothing about shuttle diplomacy has been or will be compromised by WikiLeaks. Nothing that heads of state say to each other in closed rooms has been or will be compromised by WikiLeaks. The only thing that has been compromised by WikiLeaks is the self-importance of those entitled to peruse dubious secrets.

When we examine the rationale for continued secrecy advanced by the critics of WikiLeaks, we find the sotto voce implication is that the people, such as they are, cannot be trusted to to make sound political decisions on the basis of honest and open information. The clear implication is that all governments make certain statements for the consumption of the public, because the public must be told certain things to keep them complacent, but that the real policy making goes on in secret behind closed doors, and these secrets must be kept both for the good of the public and the good of the state.

This brings us to another lesson that should be learned from the furor over the WikiLeaks publication of US diplomatic cables: if the people today cannot be trusted to make sound decisions for themselves, but require their betters to do the work for them, what kind of education would be needed to bring the citizenry up to the level of being able to make wise, reflective, and carefully considered judgments on matters of great difficulty and complexity? I invite the reader to consider this question as a thought experiment, and as soon as we begin to think in these terms we can immediately seen the glaring if not embarrassing inadequacy of our educational system.

For all the talk of education, and all the emphasis on credentials in the advanced industrialized world, most people are frankly not prepared for citizenship. Think of the basic economic knowledge required to understand that protectionism doesn’t help and only makes everyone poorer, even if that impoverishment is subtle and hidden in a statistical tick — it is obvious that even this basic knowledge of lacking, as there is often wide support for protectionism and other populist measures. Indeed, even among our betters who arrogate secrets to themselves, there is largely no understanding of such issues.

Now think beyond the fallacies of economies indulged by the ballot box, and imagine trying to educate a citizenry so that it could make intelligent decisions about complex issues in diplomacy, without being reactive, without saying, “We’ll just nuke ’em,” without deliberating past the point when effective action is possible, without withdrawing troops as soon as a few have been killed in an engagement, and without revealing to our adversaries the intrinsic weaknesses of an open and democratic society. As depressing as this may sound because of the impossibility of it, I would sooner trust myself and my fate to such an open process, and to the attempt to educate the citizenry to a level of adequate diplomatic sophistication, that to entrust anyone’s fate or future to the deliberations of experts or professionals or spooks or State Department hacks. It was the experts and the professionals, after all, who presided over our catastrophic intelligence failures. We do better to trust in our ignorance than in seeming knowledge — precisely the sort of thing that Socrates sought to expose, and got himself killed for doing so.

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