WikiLeaks, some thoughts

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Much as I love to have as much information as possible, that being part of the trade I ply, it is important to question the idea and use of document-dump: how much information should come out; should its supply be unadulterated; who should supply it, when, how, and to whom?

Attached to these questions are multiple concerns that deal not just with the wisdom of giving information at various levels on need to know basis but also about who can be trusted with information that can, potentially, thwart negotiations, sour inter-state relations, put lives at risk etcetera.

Let me say upfront that I do not believe in the absolute argument that everyone has the right to know what, for instance, governments are doing. A lot of what governments do is already in the open and mechanisms exist that allow debates at both the formal and informal levels. Governments can also be made to change policy through such debates.

But equally, there are areas where governments function away from public spotlight. Every state has an Official Secrets Act which openly acknowledges the fact that some information will be kept secret and the placing of such information by unauthorised personnel or by anyone without the conditions attached to the dissemination of such information outside of the circle where such dissemination is allowed would be deemed a criminal or even a treasonous act.

This makes sense. Unnecessary and uncontrolled leakage of information is usually likely to cause more harm than good. This is also practised in various other professions, doctor-patient and lawyer-client confidentiality being two such areas.

The argument that everyone has the right to information, presented in the raw, is about as sophisticated in theory and praxis as the desire for universal peace and harmony. Also, the very people who make such an argument regarding the functioning of the state would be loath to apply it to information passed on to children who, it is generally accepted, may not be given full information, for instance, about sexual relations until they reach a certain age or allowed to drink or get pregnant before the accepted legal age based on medical knowledge.

The point is simple. Unbridled action in whatever form is not condoned or endorsed by societies, though what is endorsed, in what form, to what extent and at what point varies from one to another society. And yet, when it comes to statecraft, many people on the liberal side of the equation, with eternal distrust of governments, want nothing less than the full monty. In fact, this is the point where some liberals begin to lean towards anarchism, a point that should not be lost on those liberals who want to remain useful.

Governments may be distrusted. But, equally, because we need them, they may be allowed to work. There may be laws for disclosure, as there are regarding opening up of archival material or, where and when necessary, investigations and inquiries may be conducted at the right forums. Let it be noted that the very idea of in-camera trials and inquiries is underpinned by the acceptance that some affairs may be conducted and discussed away from the public eye. The same principle applies to security classification of documents and security clearance of personnel assigned to do some tasks.

No nuclear-weapon state would like information on its arsenal (number of warheads, delivery vehicles, the amount of fissile material etc), best practices relating to safety and security of its arsenal, personnel reliability programme, targeting procedures and much else put in the public domain. Similarly, while the maintenance budget on the defence side is debated in parliament and by specialised committees, no state would make known its development budget on the defence side.

Of course there are problems with this approach, quite like, though not as much as there are with the full-monty approach. Many states are not open; others, like North Korea, Iran and Myanmar, to name just three, are terribly closed systems. But that is how those states are structured. The requirement for their peoples is to force their states to open up. That said, even the most open states will and do conduct some business away from public eye, though the presence of multiple forums, media freedom and laws and courts ensure, where possible and when required, to hold governments and its functionaries responsible for acts of omission and commission.

Its a constant battle to find the right balance and neither side of the argument in any absolute form can capture the nuances. This point is usually lost on the nothing-less-than-full-monty advocates.

There is yet another issue, a vital one, given the nature and pressures of the world we are living in: the increasing capability of non-state actors to challenge the states. The information does not just reach non-violent liberals who dont like closed governments, but it also reaches those who believe in violence as the primary vehicle to register a point. This makes the issue of what must be disseminated, how, to whom, and at what time even more troublesome.

As a journalist I want information; as a police officer or counter-terrorism expert I would like to withhold as much of it as possible and to release only those bits from it which can help me do my job rather than hindering it. Like the terrorist, who thrives on the media, I would like to manage my information to gain my own asymmetric advantage on the other side. The full monty works to the terrorists advantage; controlled information to mine.

Finally, though there are many other aspects of this debate, I wonder how Prince Klemens von Metternich of Austria would have put together the Concert of Europe after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 if everyone in Europe was afforded the use of WikiLeaks proctoscope at the time. Today we know what the three men, Prince Metternich, Lord Castlereagh and Tsar Alexander I were doing but, boy, could they do the balancing act and ensure a fairly long peace on the Continent under todays circumstances? I dont think so.

And imagine also Otto von Bismarck, who was born the same year as the Congress of Vienna, and did for Prussia what Metternich in the year of Bismarcks birth did for Austria. The mind boggles because none of these men and let me include in this category Lord Palmerston, British foreign secretary and twice prime minister would have been able to do for their states today what they did then.

Incidentally, Palmerston, who began as a Tory and ended as a Liberal, pursued policies that were aggressive, including the famous Don Pacifico incident when he ordered the naval blockade of Greece without informing parliament and then stood up when the proverbial hit the fan and delivered himself of the five-hour-long Civis Romanus sum (I am a Roman citizen) speech, laying the foundations of Pax Britannica. Today, those policies are argued for liberal interventionism in world affairs! How the nuance is lost through absolutism whether of the liberal or the religious kind!

The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times